After American Idol Taylor Hicks and his harmonica but before Clint Eastwood’s older man with unruly hair and an empty chair routine, Republican convention planners used just under four minutes to air the GOP’s late-night Latino infomercial.
Salon.com called it part of a “naked attempt to tell Latinos ‘we don’t hate you.’"
Between images of a billowing American flag, the Statue of Liberty in sunset-hour silhouette, and a camouflage-clad soldier, viewers were shown pictures of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney embracing Hispanic voters. Then, a line up of Latino Republican officials made a rousing but not entirely truthful case for the nominee. Still, it's a case with which Democrats will have to contend next week in Charlotte, according to several political communications experts contacted by The Huffington Post.
“This is propaganda. So there are shades of truth and always, always some lies,” said Federico Subveri, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media and Markets at Texas State University, San Marcos. “The biggest falsehood was a subtle idea running though the whole thing: the notion that Latinos have a commanding voice in their party. But if that were true, you wouldn’t see what you see in their platform. You wouldn’t see the level of Latino bashing and immigrant bashing that we have seen throughout this campaign.”
During the nearly four-minute video, a black and white image of a scarf-clad immigrant standing on what looked like a ship’s hull flashed on the screen. The montage praised the fact that "people from across the world have made the choice to make America their home." But it made no specific mention of what the GOP will do about and for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
The video also spoke about Latinos as if they are a uniform, one-dimensional, virtuous group, said William Nericcio, a cultural critic who is director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences program at San Diego State University. Latinos are a diverse collection of 50 million talented and untalented, driven and not at all ambitious, conventional and countercultural, creative and rigid, convivial and sometimes even fractious people, he said.
“Admittedly, you don’t think of conventions as places where innovation and amazing creativity or nuanced thinking will be on display,” Nericcio said. “But this was embarrassingly Medieval. It was the video equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation. It was Latino 101 followed by a who’s who of Republican Hispanics. It just didn’t feel honest or like something out of this decade.”
Nericcio also noted that the video repeatedly used the word “Hispanics” instead of what he considers the more modern and relevant, “Latino.” Hispanic is a term given prominence by Nixon administration demographers to group together people from disparate parts of the world who, in many cases, share a common language. But Latino is a reference to a region, Latin America, he said.
Mitt Romney is a candidate who is trying to work though some complicated political calculus, said Pedro Roig, a senior researcher at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. The Romney campaign has said it needs to win 38 percent of the Latino vote. But a pre-convention poll in August found that Romney lagging behind President Barack Obama by as many as 40 points with Latino voters. Only 26 percent said that they planned to vote for the former Massachusetts governor, according to the poll.
At the same time, much of the Republican base would balk if the Romney campaign took moderate positions on immigration, education spending or public construction projects. But these issues matter to many Latino and particularly Mexican-American voters, he said. Mexican-Americans make up more than 60 percent of the Latino electorate.
“At this late hour, Mitt Romney and his party have started their very public and persistent appeal to the Hispanic voter,” Roig said. “It could work. There is also the very real risk that it will register as pandering demagoguery.”
The montage really aimed to reach two audiences: Latinos and parts of the Republican base given to nativist, racist or xenophobic thinking, said Subveri, of Texas State University.
For the first, the video was something like a pretty rug thrown over the party’s rabidly anti-immigrant platform, he said. For the other, the video was an educational moment, a sort of wake up call about the country's demographic patterns and the party's prospects.
And for the Latino voter who is not deeply interested in politics, the implied argument of the montage may still resonate.
“This was like a Republican rewrite of history that could leave that voter with the idea that the Republican Party embraces Latino leaders while the Democrats continue to subscribe to the 'you are not ready yet but we’ll take your votes' school," Subveri said. "That’s a powerful narrative that the Democrats had better be ready to combat.”
One example from the video was when New Mexico’s Mexican-American and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez emphasized her status as the nation’s first Latina governor. That’s true. But Latino Democrats have served as governors, ambassadors, and members of Congress before the current crop of accomplished Latino Republicans featured in the video, Subveri said.
Bill Richardson, a Democrat who is also a Mexican-American, served as governor of New Mexico, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, secretary of energy and a member of Congress before Martinez became governor. But Richardson has been out of public office since 2011.
While Clint Eastwood may have ultimately overshadowed the GOP’s Latino video in post-convention coverage Friday, the montage has a second life that makes it a significant piece of political communication.
The video will be shown in at chamber of commerce meetings, Latino business-owner coffee klatches and Republican clubs across the country, Subveri said. Then, campaign or party operatives will likely slice it into 30 and 60 second commercials that will be aired in Florida and Nevada, where Republicans could make big gains by picking up small shares of Latino voters.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how the Democrats respond on TV next week,” Subveri said.