The Evita Factor

Photo: Illustration by Ward Sutton

The ad begins with a frozen image of Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy; on the audio track the former intones, “Soy Barack Obama y yo apruebo este mensaje.” The next shot features Congressman Luis Gutierrez from Chicago, looking straight into the camera, speaking in Spanish, too. “We know what it feels like being used as a scapegoat just because of our background and our last name,” goes the English translation. “And no one understands this better than Barack Obama.”

The commercial, which went on the air this week in California and Arizona, is remarkable on a number of levels. There’s the bluntness of the language. There’s the crudeness of the appeal. There’s the way the ad plays the victim card with all the subtlety of Doyle Brunson slapping down a royal flush—something that Obama has refused to do in any other context. The other day, over a meal in Los Angeles, I asked two seasoned political pros what would happen if an adman proposed running a spot so artless, so thoroughly off-message, on English-language TV. Both responded without hesitation: The idea would be laughed out of the room.

That the Obama operation is running such an ad tells you a great deal—and not merely that it’s trafficking in the sort of identity politics it claims to abhor. It indicates just how much is at stake when it comes to the Hispanic vote on Super-Duper Tuesday, February 5. It reflects how aggressively, if perhaps belatedly, Team Obama is moving to prevent a royal culo-kicking among Latinos. But it also hints at something darker and more troubling for Democrats: that the race-tinged politics being practiced by both sides poses major risks down the road to whichever of them is left standing.

The importance of the Hispanic vote on February 5 can’t be overstated. Of the 22 states holding primaries or caucuses that day, there are seven in which Latinos make up more than 10 percent of the population. In 2006, they accounted for 19 percent of the vote in California, 10 percent in Illinois, 9 percent in New Jersey, and 7 percent in New York—the four biggest prizes in terms of delegates on Tuesday. As Simon Rosenberg, the head of the progressive advocacy group NDN, puts it, “Never before in American history have Hispanics had so much influence in picking a presidential nominee.”

From Hillary Clinton’s point of view, this is terrific news. In Nevada, the one state so far where Hispanics have been a major factor, she whupped Obama among those voters by a margin of 64 to 26. According to an L.A. Times/CNN/Politico poll this week, she holds a two-to-one advantage among Latinos in California. Polls in other heavily Hispanic states show a similar spread.

Why is Hillary so popular among Latinos? According to Obama, the answer boils down, as so much does, to her husband. “She’s inheriting goodwill that came from Bill Clinton,” he asserted in an interview with CBN News. Clinton, after all, was the first president to have two Hispanic Cabinet secretaries serve simultaneously. His immigration policies were tolerant; the economic boom over which he presided produced jobs in the barrio. Even at the height of Monicagate, his approval rating among Hispanics hovered at 70 percent.

For some constituencies, the dynastic implications of Hillary’s candidacy might be a turnoff. But for Hispanics … not so much. “There’s a whole long tradition in Latin America of strong women whose political careers are built on the backs of their husbands, who ran the country first,” one of Clinton’s advisers pointed out to me. “It’s happening again, right now, in Argentina, for example.” The strategist smiled slyly. “I guess you could say that Hillary is benefiting from the Evita effect.”

Whether the Evita effect is fact or fiction—“Something like 6o percent of Hispanics in this country are Mexican-American, and there’s no tradition like that in Mexico,” one prominent Hispanic politician scoffed when I put the theory to him—the Latino vote has long been at the center of the Clinton campaign’s strategy. Her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, is Hispanic; her guru in this area, Sergio Bendixen, is arguably the foremost Hispanic strategist in politics; her Über-savant Mark Penn once predicted to me that Latino Protestants would likely be the soccer moms of 2008. Employing targeted media and an array of high-end Hispanic endorsers—New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—the Clinton squad has worked this demo with enormous energy and focus.

But Clinton critics see something else at work in her bid for Hispanic votes, something uglier and more divisive: an effort to play off, and even exacerbate, historic tensions between brown and black voters. The campaign provided ammunition to its accusers when Bendixen was quoted by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker as saying, “The Hispanic voter—and I want to say this very carefully—has not shown a lot of willingness or affinity to support black candidates.” At the Las Vegas debate the following week, Clinton maintained that Bendixen was merely making “a historical statement.” And in a sense, this was true. But Lizza tells me that Bendixen cited a list of campaigns around the country where the dynamic in question held sway—suggesting that the campaign had studied the matter carefully and was counting on it as part of its crucial “Hispanic firewall” strategy for February 5.

I asked Federico Peña—who served both as Bill Clinton’s Transportation and Energy secretary and is now an Obama backer—what he thought of all this. “I think it’s outrageous,” he replied. “It’s what I would expect from a Republican candidate, frankly.” Peña went on to attempt to debunk the theory that Hispanic voters won’t support a black candidate, mentioning David Dinkins (who won 73 percent of the Latino vote in 1989), Mayor Harold Washington in Chicago (80 percent), and Mayor Wellington Webb in Denver (70 percent), among others. “And you can flip it around,” Peña said. “When I ran for mayor of Denver, I got very strong African-American support.”

Peña argued that while Clinton certainly has garnered considerable support among the Hispanic leadership, Obama’s standing at the grassroots level is strong and growing. Peña cited his stance on allowing illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses as particularly important. “When people hear that Hillary not only waffled on the issue but then came out against it, they are shocked,” Peña said. Does he believe that Clinton took that position with an eye toward the general election? “My answer is yes,” he said.

And yet, until recently, Obama had been a kind of missing person in the fight for the Hispanic vote. There was little outreach, a dearth of endorsers, no media effort to speak of. In his soaring speeches about how “there’s no such thing as false hope,” Obama would name-check the civil-rights movement but say nothing of the farm workers; he would evoke Martin Luther King but never César Chávez. For a long time, says Rosenberg, “it was hard to determine if they had a Hispanic strategy at all.”

Considering Obama’s pan-racial appeal and his message of omni-inclusion, this omission is mystifying. One theory is that he was endeavoring mightily not to let himself get pigeonholed as the Benetton candidate. But another is that Hispanic politics fell outside the comfort zone of Obama’s high command. David Axelrod, his chief strategist, is a Chicagoan through and through: For him, ethnic politics are all about black and white. David Plouffe, his campaign manager, is a Dick Gephardt guy (not many Hispanics in St. Louis); Steve Hildebrand, his field architect, earned his stripes with Tom Daschle (even fewer in South Dakota). “At bottom, ironically, it’s a very traditional white-guy campaign,” observes a Democratic strategist. “And this Hispanic thing is still very new to a lot of operatives—they just didn’t know how to do it.”

With February 5 looming, however, they had no choice but to dive in. The endorsement of Ted Kennedy—whose family name and status as the champion of liberal immigration reform are gold among Hispanics—provided the campaign with a powerful weapon to deploy. And so has a late-stage rush of estimable Latino endorsements, such as that of California congressman Xavier Becerra. Still, it’s hard to argue that this last-ditch effort puts BHO on level footing with HRC. Although Obama has taken to arguing that the contest between him and Hillary is between “the future and the past,” when it comes to fashioning a campaign in tune with the nation’s emerging demographic realities, the Clinton campaign has been far more forward-looking—even visionary.

No sensible person examining the electoral map could doubt that Hispanics may hold the key to the outcome in November. If Democrats can carry their core states plus Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, hey, they’re home—even without Ohio or Florida. (Add either one of those and you’re looking at the makings of a durable Democratic majority.) In the aftermath of the searing immigration wars of the past two years, Latinos in those states are ripe to be plucked. But now that the Republicans seem intent on nominating John McCain, that plucking won’t be automatic. And winning will require turning out both Hispanics and African-Americans in big numbers. Let’s hope that Obama finally gets the picture—and that Clinton sticks to playing Evita and doesn’t morph into Lee Atwater.


The Evita Factor