artwork by Chris Morris
By Karoun Demirjian, Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS - Voter suppression isn’t usually marketed as voter empowerment. But in the ad by Latinos for Reform, an independent campaigning group led by career conservative Robert de Posada, the paradox was presented as plain sense: Because the Democrats haven’t delivered on immigration, exercise your right to vote by not doing so.
It’s advice that, if followed in Nevada, would all but assuredly play to the benefit of the GOP, which has seen Hispanics move away from the Republican Party as they grow in the state electorate.
But the fever-pitch backlash to this advertisement suggests the message could bring about just the opposite effect, by energizing a Hispanic voting bloc that may have been lethargic with a new and compelling reason to get out and vote — by and large, for Democrats.
From the 2004 to 2008 elections, Hispanics grew in force from 8 percent of the electorate to 12 to 15 percent, depending on the exit poll — roughly equal to President Barack Obama’s margin of victory. Obama carried 76 percent of the Nevada Hispanic vote in 2008.
Electorate growth rates among Hispanics have slowed since. But what hasn’t is their overwhelming enthusiasm for Democrats.
“Hispanics are much more likely to view congressional Democrats favorably than other groups,” said John Tuman, chairman of UNLV’s political science department who also teaches in the Latin American studies department. According to a recent study by UNLV and the Brookings Mountain West think tank, “it’s only among Hispanics in any Mountain West state that you see Democrats having an overall net favorability ranking,” Tuman said.
The challenge for the party’s candidates, however, has been tapping into that.
Across the country, studies have been documenting an “enthusiasm gap” between Republicans and Democrats that is particularly rife among Hispanic populations, largely because of the frustrations de Posada’s commercial attempts to exploit.
Democrats have not delivered on immigration reform — or even attempted to tackle a bill, as Obama promised lawmakers he would do in the first year of his presidency.
Although immigration may not be the No. 1 issue for Hispanic voters, it is the one that appears to cut across the board for them: If a candidate is wrong on immigration, it’s difficult to excuse, even if everything else is right.
That may be part of the reason ads addressing the immigration issue have not implored Hispanics to vote for Republicans, who more commonly adopt a pro-enforcement stance on immigration.
But in the nadir of a midterm season — turnout during midterms is historically much lower than in presidential election years — many are concerned that even the “don’t vote” message could be detrimental.
“It can have a radiating effect,” said Yvette Williams, chairwoman of the Clark County Democratic Black Caucus. In past elections, blacks have been the targets of similar efforts to suppress the vote, although “never as blatant” as the current message being directed at Hispanics, Williams said.
Univision refused to air the commercial on its television station and pulled the ad from its radio broadcast shortly after it debuted.
“When you see that kind of an ad, you might say, ‘Well they’ve got a point there, I shouldn’t go vote either.’ That kind of a message is just detrimental to our democracy,” she said. “We understand, having gone through this in generation after generation … that it doesn’t serve anyone to not vote. Even if you have an issue with someone, even if they’re not pushing your agenda as they should be, not voting isn’t an option.”
But getting that message out to voters isn’t easy, especially when you have to motivate them to begin with.
Hispanic voters are a chief focus for Democrats in Nevada, but in 2010, they’re working with a far more limited capacity than they were in 2008. Although get-out-the-vote ground organizations established before and during the 2008 election season remain, they aren’t as well-staffed nor is the electorate as attentive to the local races.
“It’s one thing to have a phone bank to reach out to Latino voters, but it’s another to have the volunteers speaking Spanish to do canvassing,” said Jennifer Lopez, state director of Organizing for America — the Democratic National Committee’s on-the-ground campaigning organization. “But our most effective leaders are our local community leaders … the enthusiasm is there. These people are 110 percent committed to the cause.”
And there is the question of finding a compelling message. “The morale is lower,” said Fernando Romero, head of Hispanics in Politics, a nonpartisan organization engaged in voter mobilization efforts in Las Vegas. “And some question, ‘Is our vote worth it?’ But apparently they must think our vote is worth it, because they keep bringing it up.”
On the Republican side, there are few Hispanics drumming up community-focused voter mobilization efforts, and only one candidate for statewide office has denounced the Latinos for Reform ads: Hispanic gubernatorial hopeful Brian Sandoval.
Although the state GOP and its prime candidate, Tea Party-backed Sharron Angle, say they encourage Hispanics, like all Nevadans, to vote and to vote Republican, they have dodged when asked to formally denounce the substance of the ads urging Hispanics to sit the election out.
Angle has aired ads that many find objectionable on racial lines. Her advertisement featuring a picture of menacing-looking Mexicans she labeled as “illegal aliens” has been pulled from the air because of copyright issues, but thrives as a point of contention around her campaign, especially after she commented to Rancho High School students who asked about the advertisement that she wasn’t sure whether the faces featured were Latino or Asian.
Many politicians are worried that the current racial climate, highlighted through such ads, could bring about a permanent setback in the past several years’ efforts to increase civic participation by Hispanics.
“It’s not only about this election, but the signal it sends is disastrous for this democracy,” said Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley, whose Las Vegas-based congressional district has the highest concentration of Hispanics in the state at 34 percent. “I’m hoping the Hispanic community is not fooled by this.”
But in the end, experts say, the advertisement may turn out to be a perverse and unwelcome gift for Hispanics — and Democrats — in 2010.
“There is a sense that people are very upset about this, and it may actually provoke a backlash. It’s an accumulation of things — the (Angle) ads that were being run, the comments Angle made at Rancho High School, and this is just adding to that,” Tuman said. “It may end up motivating people to go vote who may have been sitting on the fence.”