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Latino vote: Still a bargain in election 2012?

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For months, pundits on both the right and left have said Latino voters would determine the presidential election. It looks like they were right. Not only did President Barack Obama manage to win 71 percent of the Latino vote (second only to former President Bill Clinton’s historic 73 percent of the Latino vote in 1994), but in key battleground states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado where Latino voters make up between 15 and 18 percent of eligible voters, Obama secured super majorities of the Latino vote. In Florida, there’s a lively debate over whether the president managed to secure a majority of the traditionally Republican Cuban vote -- a historic victory if so.

Most importantly for Obama, the Latino base grew this year: All the indicators pointed to  record high voter turnout from Latino voters this year.

Overall, 28 Latinos won House seats this election, creating the largest class of Latino U.S. lawmakers in history. In the Senate, Latinos gained a seat with the victory Republican Ted Cruz, the first Hispanic senator to be elected from Texas.

But for such an indisputably important demographic group and an election that saw more than $1 billion in outside spending, it appears that relatively little money was spent to influence the Latino vote  using TV ads --  the most common way many campaigns get their message out and attempt to sway voters.  In a political ad analysis of ads purchased on Spanish-language TV stations located in key swing states, Free Press found that from April to September the Obama campaign and supporting organizations had spent only $7 million — or 9 percent — of their ad dollars on Spanish language ads, while the Romney campaign and its supporters had spent a paltry $3.2 million, or 4 percent of their total ad dollars. These figures are especially disproportionate when placed into the larger context of this election cycle as media analysts project that over $300 billion was spent on political ads.

The United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce made a similar observation. In a study examining ad buys in ten states, the Republican-leaning group found that of the nearly $359 million spent on political advertising, just 4.5 percent was spent on Spanish-language advertising.

It’s possible that there was a last-minute push for ads in Spanish language media outlets but it’s hard to know if that happened because Spanish-language stations were not required to post political ad buys in the Federal Communications Commission's online database. Sunlight did attempt to contact several Spanish-language TV stations in the battleground states of Florida, Virginia and Nevada but none was willing to report whether political advertising activity increased last month compared to the same period in 2008.

In the few publicly available recorded instances of outside spending known to have targeted Latinos, the amounts that went towards influencing the Latino vote simply weren’t on par when compared to money targeting other groups. Emerging from the shadows in the final month of the election, the pro-Romney Hispanic Leadership Fund and Hispanic Leadership Fund Action dumped $838,000 and $495,000, respectively on ad-buys, canvassing and voter telephone calls geared towards Latino voters in Florida. Those numbers pale, however, compared to spending by  Americans for Tax Reform, whose president Grover Norquist sat on the Advisory Board of the Hispanic Leadership Fund. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who with his wife Miriam, pumped more than $50 million into this year’s campaign, gave a relatively piddling $190,000 to the Hispanic Leadership Fund Action.

Voto Latino Action Fund, a non-partisan group focused on Latino issues, spent even less than the Hispanic Leadership Fund groups with only $25,000 spent in the last month of the election cycle. Voto Latino channelled its funds to three contentious House races in California and Texas. The group spent the most on House challenger and newly elected Rep. Raul Ruiz at $16,800.

However, all this is not to say that groups focused on rallying the Latino vote didn’t exercise other less costly tools that won’t be captured in a government database.

Voto Latino focused its efforts on grassroots methods to get the Latino population to the polls. Josh Norek, Director of Celebrity Engagement at Voto Latino and an expert in Latino marketing, said his group found that radio call-ins by celebrities and using technology such as text messaging and Facebook to encourage their target demographic -- young Latinos -- were their best options.

“Buying ads on Spanish-language TV doesn’t get the bang for your buck,” Norek said.

According to Norek, the young Latino population is English speaking and watches the same TV as the non-Latino population. Running ads aimed only at Latinos on those TV stations would be “confusing” at the very least, Norek said.

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) also focused its efforts on registering voters and the According to NCLR, the non-partisan group registered 95,000 people to vote.

Rafael Collazo, Director of Political Campaigns at NCLR, said that door to door canvassing of voters was their group’s most valuable tool. Upwards towards 85 percent of their efforts this last election was directed at GOTV fieldwork.

There were a number of traditional political action committees (PACs) that are pro-Latino and spent money to influence the election. USA-Cuba Democracy PAC, for instance, spent $410,302 on campaign expenditures this election cycle, donating $10,000 apiece to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and to Reps. Brad Sherman,  D-Calif., Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. Wasserman Schultz is also chair of the national Democratic Party,  Cantor is the House majority leader and Rehberg lost his race to unseat Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., this year. USA-Cuba Democracy PAC supported Republicans with 61 percent of their funds and Democrats with the other 39 percent. The group showed that while the Cuban voter base is often more conservative than its fellow Latino counterparts, it is not a strictly conservative voter bloc, particularly as younger Cuban voters become more politically active.

The results of the 2012 elections have clearly shown that the oft-fabled “Latino sleeping giant” is awake and politically active. Making up 10 percent of voters this year, Latino voters are rapidly changing voter demographics and the ways in which campaigns will be won, as empty rhetoric on immigration and political grandstands will not be tolerated in the future. Politicians should know Latinos are not a monolithic voting bloc and that a more nuanced, concentrated effort to understand the Latino voter base will be needed in future elections, especially if the Republican party hopes to make inroads in securing support from Latino voters.

For the race to buy the Latino vote has only just begun.