FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“WHITMAN TESTS MEMORIES OF LATINO VOTERS”
Back in 1978, Tom Quinn, campaign manager of Jerry Brown’s two previous runs for governor, observed that “It doesn’t matter what you say or do before January 1 of an election year, because the voters will never remember.”
In those days long before the Internet and the seemingly ubiquitous YouTube videos it so often features, candidates often got away with saying something to an audience in one place and quite the opposite to another group elsewhere.
It’s been awhile since anyone seriously tried testing these things, but Brown’s big-spending Republican rival Meg Whitman frequently seems to be attempting to prove they’re both still possible.
That’s the best way to understand the conflicting messages she’s purveyed since the June primary election via millions of dollars worth of television and radio advertising aimed primarily at Hispanic voters, including many, many commercials aired on the Spanish-language Univision television network during its highly-rated World Cup soccer broadcasts.
There is no doubt about the conflicting messages. In one of her Spanish-language ads, Whitman says “The Latino kids attending public schools in California today will be tomorrow’s doctors, engineers, businessmen and teachers. I want them to have the opportunity to go as far in life as their God-given talent will take them.”
Unless, notes Democratic Party communications director Tenoch Flores, “their hard work and talent take them to a California institution of higher learning.” If they make it there and their parents are illegal immigrants (regardless of the kids’ own status), Whitman’s policy statements say they shouldn’t be allowed to stay long. In the spring primary, she said such “Latino kids” should be banned or removed from community colleges and the Cal State and University of California systems. Will Latinos remember those declarations?
Well aware of polls that show immigration reform and amnesty are the leading political causes today for Hispanic voters regardless of their own immigration or citizenship status, Whitman, has tried to portray herself to Spanish speakers as on their side. Never mind her primary-season ads that proclaimed “No amnesty” when former rival Steve Poizner called her soft on illegals.
Whitman ads claiming she opposes Arizona’s recent landmark anti-illegal immigrant law and also opposed California’s Proposition 187, the court-thwarted 1994 attempt to remove all public services except emergency trauma medical care from illegals, appeared to be working during the summer.
A midsummer Field Poll showed Whitman just 11 points behind Brown among likely Latino voters, trailing only 50-39 percent. It’s a truism of California politics that any Democrat must win by at least a 2-1 margin among Hispanics in order to get elected, and Brown was far short of that.
But he had yet to begin advertising seriously. Once he does, there’s at least the possibility he might jog some Latino memories. Not only with a few quick re-runs of Whitman’s tough-on-illegals springtime commercials, but also with the fact that her campaign chairman is former Gov. Pete Wilson, known as the “father of 187,” the man whose 1994 reelection campaign featured TV spots with illegals crossing the Mexican border which intoned repeatedly, “They keep coming.”
Wilson quickly became anathema among Latinos and ex-President George W. Bush, a Republican who took pride in his appeal to Hispanic voters, spent years assiduously avoiding Wilson for that reason.
When his own commercials begin running, Brown will surely show tape of himself marching in the 1960s and ’70s with Latino legend Cesar Chavez and remind Hispanic voters he spurred creation of the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which enabled scores of union votes among farm workers. Cesar Chavez may be little more than the name of an occasional street to many young Latinos, but if Brown’s spots are good enough, he can make the association work for him.
Brown will also have to point out that Whitman not only didn’t live in California during the Proposition 187 campaign, but had nothing to say at the time about a law she now claims she always opposed.
Still, the question remains whether Brown can overcome the seemingly unlimited tide of advertising Whitman has placed on all Spanish-language electronic media, from TV and radio to the Internet.
Counting on some sort of collective Latino memory won’t be enough, warns longtime Democratic campaign manager Kam Kuwata. “Brown will need to make a major effort to go after those voters,” he said. “Whitman’s ads have hurt him.”
The bottom line: If Quinn’s long-ago theory about short voter memories is correct, maybe Brown won’t be able to win back enough Latinos even after he begins his own ad campaign in September. That could mean a Whitman win.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net