The ad begins with a stark, black-and-white still, the president standing at a congressional podium, mouth open, hand up, mid-speech. It is the image of a politician making a promise.
“Don’t be fooled by President Obama’s words,” a voice says in Spanish. “He’s not committed to immigrants. He only wants our votes. With the election on the line, he offers a temporary solution that still cheats them of legal status.”
The image on the screen: a handcuffed woman being frisked by law enforcement officers.
Just days before President Barack Obama’s deferred action directive -– a policy shift that could grant deportation relief to as many as 1.4 million young undocumented immigrants across the county -– is slated to begin, a group that describes itself as a conservative Latino political organization unleashed an attack-ad campaign that brands Obama, “Deporter-in-Chief.”
But, analysts said, the campaign also offers a window into the most cynical and dark corners of modern politics.
The ads, which began airing this week on Las Vegas-area, Spanish-language television and radio stations, are part of a conservative effort to trim away Obama’s resounding lead with Latino voters. Leaders of American Principles in Action, the organization behind the ads, said it is also an effort to challenge the simplistic Democrats-good-Republicans-bad narrative that has taken hold with too many Latino voters.
The Obama administration has deported a record 1.2 million undocumented immigrants. The administration’s stated policy has, since at least mid-2010, focused on deporting those who have committed crimes or pose a risk to public safety. But independent studies of the nation’s immigration caseload have found that the overwhelming majority of those deported never were convicted of a crime or were arrested for a minor offense.
“What we are saying to voters is that both parties have played politics with immigration,” said Alfonso Aguilar, who oversaw the Bush Administration’s Citizenship Office and is a part of American Principles in Action's leadership team. “What we are saying is that Latinos also have to play the game and let it be known that our votes can not be taken for granted.”
The American Principles campaign amounts to what political strategists consider a small investment. The organization paid $38,000 for two weeks of ad time in the Las Vegas area, a relatively low-cost media market in a swing state where Latino voters are largely concentrated in a single area.
Over the next few months, if funding allows, the organization may launch similar campaigns in swing states with large and concentrated Latino electorates in Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado and Florida, Aguilar said.
In Nevada, the "Deporter-in-Chief" ads are coordinated with effortsto talk with Latinos visiting Las Vegas-area grocery stores, churches and community gatherings to encourage them “to vote their values.”
Those values, Aguilar said, include limited government, the importance of a free-market economy and support for “traditional families and marriages.” American Principles can help voters who may not be aware of Obama’s deportation track record see beyond the temporary value of the deferred action directive and think about issues on which they share Republican ideals, he said.
“We’re not practicing what I call piñata politics,” said Aguilar. “That’s where you bring in the politician. You bring the mariachi. And, what you have is the flavor and none of the substance. What we are trying to do is connect voters to their values and then say, 'It’s OK, go vote that'.”
But that's where the campaign may run into trouble, said Efren Perez, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who studies the politics of immigration and group dynamics.
He said the ad feels like it was produced by affluent, conservative political analysts who are somewhat divorced from the nation’s largely Democratic, low- to moderate-income Latino population.
While there are some Latinos, who are Republicans and get enthusiastic about concepts such as limited government, the overwhelming majority of Latinos are Democrats with a range of experiences, social and political concerns that predispose them to be Democrats, said Perez.
They also understand the Republican Party to be increasingly hostile to immigrants and consider Romney an advocate of so-called, “self-deportation,” Perez said.
An ad that asks voters to dismiss what will happen Aug. 15 is hardly credible coming from a conservative organization, he said.
“The average Latino voter, the average voter for that matter, is not a political philosopher,” said Perez. “There just aren’t that many people who are actually going to say and believe that an actual policy change like this isn’t a big deal. It is a very, very big thing.”
In order to have an impact and cut through ideas about Republicans and immigration, the ads would need to run in more than one media market closer to the election, he said.
In July, the Washington-based nonprofit Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, released a report that described American Principles as a group providing Astroturf-like cover for a “network of conservatives with a track record of creating sophisticated grassroots campaigns.” That network includes “few” Latinos, according to the report.
Aguilar declined to describe American Principles' major funding sources. The organization is not legally required to disclose its donors.
Beyond questions about its financial ties and origins, American Principles can point to few specific or concrete policy proposals backed by Romney that are enticing alternatives to the Obama administration’s approach, said William Eubank, a University of Nevada political scientist.
In the face of the deferred action directive, an ad that says clearly to Latino voters that Obama's policies on immigration are bad is likely to have one effect: It will convince some voters that there is no point in participating at all.
“It’s dark and people don’t like it, but sometimes if you can’t win, stoking dissatisfaction can be just as effective,” said Eubank. “There is a reason why attack ads are still with us. It’s simple. They work.”
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