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McCain, Obama's Battle Strategies for Critical Hispanic Vote Emerge

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Sen. Obama leads in the polls, but Sen. McCain may need only 35 percent of the Hispanic vote to gain the White House. Both sides say that winning the Hispanic vote is critical.

Anyone out to learn how diverse Hispanic communities might vote in the 2008 presidential election must look well beyond the stereotype that U.S. Hispanics are singly concerned about immigration and language-related issues. The truth is, most are more concerned about the economy, education, health care, and the war in Iraq. Which candidate is able to fully grasp this reality, and can construct a platform that most aligns with the majority of U.S. Hispanic concerns in these areas, is likely to gain ground. It is clear that both major candidates for the White House recognize that their own prospects could ride on reaching America's largest minority.

Hispanic voters could, indeed, be critical in determining how electoral votes are cast in states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico and thus determine the next U.S. president, said Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.

With that in mind, Hispanic business executives around the country work today to influence opinions on their own and raise money for Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain to appeal to Hispanic voters on a grander scale.

"Values Trump Issues"

Sen. Obama has committed more than twice the combined sum spent for Hispanic outreach by President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry during the 2004 campaign.

"The Hispanic vote is critical. That's why both candidates are working fervently to win a good margin from our community," said Albuquerque resident Edward L. Romero, who served as U.S. ambassador to Spain from 1998-2001. Previously, he was founder and owner of Advanced Sciences Inc., and one of this nation's most successful Hispanic businessmen.

Appeals to U.S. Hispanics increasingly are crafted with precision. "Values trump issues," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. "Basically, you have to make your case on the core issues with a values-based message. Voters want to know that a candidate has their same internal compass."

Early advertising by Sen. McCain aims directly at traditional Hispanic values. John McCain "shares our conservative values and faith in God," a surrogate for Sen. McCain intones in Spanish for a radio ad recently referred to by The New York Times. He "knows that family is the most important thing we have and that we value hard work," Frank Gamboa says in the ad. Mr. Gamboa was Sen. McCain's roommate at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The ad is certain to score for Sen. McCain as a "values-based message" but there is evidence that the Republican nominee will need much more with a Hispanic electorate that is increasingly well-informed and opinionated on the issues driving the presidential campaign. Many U.S. Hispanics who vote do not subscribe to Spanish-language media.

Obama Leads In Polls

On the issues, Sen. Obama has a substantial lead among Hispanics over Sen. McCain. Education, the cost of living, jobs, and health care ranked as the most important issues among Hispanics in a June-July survey by the Pew Hispanic Center. Crime, the war in Iraq, and immigration followed in importance as presidential campaign issues. The Pew survey showed Hispanics favoring Sen. Obama over Sen. McCain by a three-to-one ratio on education, jobs, health care, the cost of living, and immigration and about two-to-one on Iraq and crime. Overall, the Pew survey showed Sen. Obama leading Sen. McCain 66 percent to 23 percent among Hispanics. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll of Hispanics showed Sen. Obama ahead 62 percent to 23 percent.

It "represents a sharp reversal in his fortunes from the primaries, when Obama lost the Latino vote to Hillary Rodham Clinton by a nearly two-to-one ratio," wrote Mr. Lopez and Susan Minushkin of the Pew Hispanic Center. Mr. Gonzalez of Southwest Voters said much of the swing to Obama since the primaries reflects a Hispanic preference for the Democratic Party.

Not all are moved by such polling results. "I think the polls are premature," said Jacob Monty, managing partner with the Houston law firm Monty Partners, which is recognized as one of the country's fastest-growing Hispanic businesses. "The polls might reflect some traditional bias against Republicans, and there's definitely bias against Republicans, but McCain is different enough that once you start messaging, it's going to be very different," said Mr. Monty, a self-described "stealth Latino without a Hispanic last name."

He said the amount of advertising by Sen. McCain aimed at Hispanics will increase soon, alluding to work already produced by San Antonio advertising executive Leonel Sosa. "I've previewed some of those ads, and they are very, very compelling," Mr. Monty said.

McCain's Values Closer To Hispanics'?

Information on how much Sen. McCain might spend on Hispanic outreach was not available for this report. But Sen. Obama has committed $20 million, said Frank J. Sanchez, who from Tampa serves as national chairman of Hispanic finance for the Obama campaign and is a partner with Florida-based CM Partners. By comparison, President Bush and Democrat John Kerry spent a combined $8.7 million on Hispanic outreach in 2004, according to the Johns Hopkins Hispanic Voter Project.

Like Mr. Monty, Texas MD Alfonso Pino is confident effective messaging can secure necessary gains for Sen. McCain. "The conservative philosophy is so in line with the Hispanic way of thinking," said Dr. Pino, who is CEO of the Dallas health care clinic Rapimed. "Sen. McCain has to show the Hispanic voter how his set of core values are far closer to the traditional, long-held core values of Hispanic voters. I think the Hispanic voters would be horrified if they knew what Sen. Obama actually stands for."

Mr. Gonzalez of Southwest Voters disputes that assertion about Hispanic positions, saying white voters tend to be Republican and that "a wealth of data shows Hispanic opinion is quite different from white opinion." Even where there is similarity in how Hispanics and whites rank issues, there often are major differences in how Hispanic voters and white voters want issues addressed, he said. "White voters (often) view government as the enemy. They look for individual solutions, private-sector solutions, whereas Latinos are for a bigger government role."

Obama Lacks Experience, McCain Seen As "McBush"

Sen. McCain, no doubt, can still appeal to a substantial bloc of Hispanics, Mr. Gonzalez suggested, adding that the Republican does not have to come out on top with Hispanics. "Sen. McCain simply has to lose well among Hispanics. If he gets 35 or 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, he wins the bigger race. It's game over."

Unlikely allies could well boost Sen. McCain's efforts. "I'm seeing a lot of support, even from 'yellow-dog Democrats' who are not comfortable with Obama," said Mr. Monty. Ben Mendez, a Houston engineer and chairman of the National Hispanic Professional Organization, took three weeks off work to campaign for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries, but he supports Sen. McCain today. "Looking at it like a businessman, if I had the largest corporation in the country, I'd want it to be run by someone with experience, and I just don't think Obama has that experience," Mr. Mendez said.

Moctesuma Esparza, CEO of Maya Entertainment in Los Angeles, is not concerned about Sen. Obama's relative lack of experience. "He can lift the United States again to the level of prestige that Americans enjoyed in the past. He can promote prosperity and generate respect and cooperation.

"In Sen. McCain, I certainly see someone who has a good understanding of the Latino community and has been generally supportive of the Latino community. But policies that he is looking to move forward and the ones of the current administration are indistinguishable."

Former Ambassador Romero, who like Esparza is raising funds for Sen. Obama, thinks the record of the current administration dooms Sen. McCain's chances with Hispanics. "There's nothing McCain can do. He's absolutely crippled by the Bush legacy."

True or not, it is on the minds of strategists at both presidential camps.

David Roybal is a journalist, author and consultant in New Mexico.

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