|The following first appeared in Capitol Weekly|
California political campaigns are taking notice of the state's exploding Latino population. On the air and on the ground, Democratic and Republican campaigns alike are targeting the state's fastest growing demographic, and trying to communicate with the Latino electorate in what for many is their native tongue--Spanish.
As a result, Univision, by far the most watched Spanish-language television network (and in much of the state the most watched network, period) has begun flexing its political muscle. It is emerging as a gatekeeper to the state's most coveted political demographic.
Political advertising on Spanish-language TV has tripled in the last three years, according to estimates from the TNSMI-Campaign Media Analysis Group, an organization that tracks campaign ads. Statewide, campaigns spent $2.2 million for spots on Spanish-language TV in 2003. That number more than doubled to nearly $5.3 million in 2004, and reached a record high of $7.3 million this year.
The lion's share of those dollars went to Univision, the Spanish-language giant that, combined with sister-network Telefutura, controls as much of 90 percent of Hispanic market in parts of California.
"This isn't your uncle Jaime's Mexican TV anymore," said Wayne Johnson, a Republican political consultant who believes that Latinos are a swayable segment of the electorate for the GOP. "If this were the 1980s, we would call [Univision viewers] the Reagan constituency. Today, that audience speaks Spanish."
And, Johnson says, the best way for Republicans (and Democrats) to reach that audience is advertising on Univision, which in Los Angeles has more prime time adult viewers (18-49) than ABC, CBS and NBC combined, according to Nielsen Media Research's July ratings.
But some skeptics question the efficacy of Spanish-language political advertising. They say Univision's audience, whose "backbone" as one observer put it, is first generation immigrants, is flush with viewers but short on voters.
"I think it is terrific if you want to sell stereos; it is another thing entirely if you want to win votes," said André Pineda, a Democratic pollster, who has done Latino outreach. Pineda notes that only 18 percent of U.S. Hispanics voted in the 2004 election, meaning that, at best, only one-fifth of Univision's viewers are voters.
Still, the advertising numbers don't lie: More campaigns are spending more money on Univision than ever before.
Univision sources say that 2005 was their single largest year ever of California political advertising--and that 1998 is the only year to even come close. That year, Democrats had a contested gubernatorial primary (Al Checchi spent some $40 million, including buys on Spanish-language television), a full slate of constitutional officers up for election, and a controversial ballot measure, Proposition 227, which eliminated bilingual education and directly impacted California's Latino community.
For the special election, industry sources say the governor spent around $2.6 million on Spanish-language television, with the Democrats and unions aligned against him spending another $2 million The pharmaceutical companies' spending on Spanish-language spots was in a similar range.
Such spending, as far as Univision and its chief Spanish-language competitor Telemundo are concerned, has been a long time coming.
"We started breaking through," said Manuel Abud, general manager of Telemundo in Los Angeles. "More and more strategists and politicians are realizing that my audience is also citizens and also voters."
In 1994, Latinos compromised a mere 8 percent of the California electorate. But by 2004 Latinos made up nearly double that--14 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times exit polls. The U.S. Census now estimates that California is home to more than 12 million Latinos--just shy of 35 percent of the population.
The numbers are even more startling in Los Angeles, where Latinos now are 47 percent of the population, and made up 22 percent of voters in this year's mayoral race.
But therein lies the rub for campaigns: More and more Latinos are voting, but advertising on Spanish-language television reaches more and more nonvoters--and ad prices are set per viewer, not per voter.
Parke Skelton, who was the lead consultant for Antonio Villaraigosa's mayoral campaigns in 2001 and 2005, says that in 2001, Spanish-language advertising was "a luxury we couldn't afford."
"Univision is not cheap," says Skelton. "Rates on it are as high or higher than on English language media, which is why it is not always a great buy because at least half of the viewership are not able to vote."
The Villaraigosa campaign, which overwhelmingly won the Latino vote this year, spent only 10 percent of its media budget on Spanish-language television, even though Latinos were Villaraigosa's base and comprised more than 20 percent of the electorate.
"It is an allocation game," says Skelton.
And Univision is an increasingly active player in that game. For the special election, the company commissioned an independent poll of Latino voters (and Univision viewers) that it circulated to both the Schwarzenegger and labor campaigns to drum up political advertising dollars.
As the most popular prime time network in July among all adults (18-49)--regardless of language--in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Fresno, Monterey, Bakersfield and Palm Springs (and #2 in San Francisco and Santa Barbara), Univision makes a powerful case that advertising on the network is the most efficient means to communicate with the Latino electorate.
And studies have shown that advertising in Spanish is a more effective means of communicating with Latinos.
In 2000, Roslow Research Group, a Latino marketing firm, published a study that showed that among all Hispanics, "English ads are 36 percent less-effective than Spanish ads in terms of communication." The study tested whether respondents could remember an advertisement's main message, a crucial measurement for political advertising.
The pitch certainly worked for Gov. Schwarzenegger, who invested approximately $2.6 million in advertisements on Univision this year, despite the governor's own approval among Latinos plummeting to 18 percent, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. Democratic cynics say the ads were a "kiss" to Jerry Perenchio, CEO of Univision, one of the governor's top donors.
But Schwarzenegger is not the only 2006 statewide candidate to invest in Spanish-language ads. State Controller Steve Westly, a Democratic gubernatorial aspirant, spent around $250,000 on Spanish-language advertising for the special election--most of it on Univision, according to campaign manager Jude Barry.
"You are sending a signal to the community that you value the community and you value the participation of voters in the community," said Barry.
Univision's growing political clout results not only from the phenomenal growth of the Latino population, but their growing political engagement and the view, on both sides of the aisle, that Hispanics political preferences are not settled.
And with 80 percent of the Spanish-language television market share nationally, there is no easier outlet than Univision to reach Latinos. Still, the premium campaigns must pay to reach Univision's audience (which was two and a half times larger than the next biggest station among adults in prime time this summer in Los Angeles) has been prohibitive.
Richard Temple, a consultant who helped orchestrate the anti-Schwarzenegger media buying campaign, says, "When you are advertising on any show with a higher percent of voters, you get bang for your buck."
But Univision, Temple says, has yet to prove that its viewers "are actually going to go to the polls and vote."
Political ad-trackers are looking to next year's ballot measures and down-ticket statewide races as a harbinger of whether less well-heeled campaigns than the unions', the governor's and the drug companies' will still pony up for Spanish-language spots.
Regardless, there is near consensus that with the Latino population surging and political-engagement on the rise, Spanish-language advertising is here to stay.
"Spanish-language television is not getting its fair share of the political advertising," says Telemundo's Abud. "When that is happening the only way to go is North--for both us and Univision."
Or as Carlos Rodriguez, a Republican pollster whose firm, Latino Opinions, has done work for Univision, says:
"The sleeping giant is waking up."