A Political Politics: GOP Efforts to Foster Identification from Latinos, 1984-2000

Article excerpt

The GOP is not short of money. They haven't been short in the last two campaigns. Their long-term strategy is winning over Latinos.

--Sergio Bendixen (2001)

The Democratic Party has long been home to members of minority groups in the United States. During the late 1800s and much of the 1900s, for instance, the Democrats targeted Italian Americans, Irish Americans, African Americans and other ethnics (notably Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans) via political patronage and public group-level appeals. While the extent of these efforts may have differed by region, been driven by pragmatic over moral goals, and been inconsistent at times (Schudson, 1998), by the end of the 20th century Democrats were regarded as the party that represented a coalition of minority voters (Sanders, 1988; Trilling, 1976) and that received loyal support from African American, Jewish, and many Latino voters (Rae, 1992).

At the dawn of the 21st century, however, the Democrats are not the only major party interested in ethnic groups. As Sergio Bendixen's comment indicates, the GOP is also intent on winning the allegiances of one set of such voters: Latinos. Because of their numbers, their relative youth and their location in 10 key electoral states, Latino voters are often hailed as a "sleeping giant" in politics, a force that--if awakened--may have tremendous impact in future elections. Pollster Ed Goeas, for instance, warns Republicans about the dangers of losing the Latino vote, predicting that if this fastest-growing ethnic group becomes as monolithic as African Americans have in their support of Democrats, the Republicans will eventually face an electoral nightmare (Goeas, 2000). Professor Michael Alvarez echoes this sentiment when he compares Latinos to Irish immigrants in 19th century New York, recalling that Democratic attention to these newcomers on the American scene inspired their enduring and passionate loyalties (Alvarez, 2000).

Although both the Democratic and Republican parties have developed communication strategies designed to capture Latinos' votes since 1980 (Santillan & Subervi-Velez, 1991; Subervi-Velez, 1992; Subervi-Velez, Herrera, & Begay, 1987), the GOP has done so with greater intensity. The Republican Party spent roughly 15% of its total 1988 campaign budget ($6 million) on Latino-oriented print, radio, and television advertisements (Subervi-Velez, 1992). In 2000, they spent nearly $10 million on Latino-oriented television spots for the Presidential campaign. As one anonymous Republican strategist remarked, "Let the Democrats register all the Hispanics they want. The battle for the hearts and minds of the Hispanic voters will be fought in the media" (GOP's Hispanic Victory Initiative, p. 51, cited in Subervi-Velez, 1992).

Republican interest in Latinos is notable, for unlike Democrats (who have a history of being publicly open to diverse and ethnic coalitions, even if at times the history has been impure; see Rae, 1992; Schudson, 1998), the GOP has respected hierarchy, homogeneity, appeals to individuals over subgroups, and loyalty to the party (Freeman, 1986). It is here that the GOP faces a tension in attempting to foster attachment from U.S. Latinos: how does a party whose organizational identity opposes viewing individuals as group members, and particularly as ethnic group members, appeal to an ethnic group?

Considering this tension, in this study, we ask: How have the Republicans invited Latinos to their party in their public messages? In taking a first step at answering our research question, we (a) draw from Burke's theory of identification to analyze a set of English and Spanish language television ads produced by the Republican Party over twenty years for Presidential candidates,l and (b) present data from elite interviews with Republican Latino strategists to better understand how a political organization that privileges loyalty from current stakeholders, as well as individualism, has tried to foster identification from an ethnic group. …