Polls show President Obama holds a clear advantage among Hispanic voters this year, but a new Spanish-language television ad, running in Nevada and sponsored by a conservative group, aims to peel away those supporters by arguing that his administration set records for deporting illegal immigrants.
It's a message that could backfire if it were in English — deporting illegal immigrants is a popular stance in many conservative communities. But English-speaking voters likely will never see the ad, which is running on two major Spanish-language networks in Las Vegas.
The Hispanic ad market is one of the least-studied but among the most important in politics.
"Our goal was to come up with an ad that would really engage Latino voters and make them think," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Values, which is affiliated with Nevada Hispanics, the group running the ads.
Mr. Aguilar said Mr. Obama has not lived up to campaign promises to sign legislation granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. The ad says the president is not interested in Hispanic issues and "only wants our vote."
Indeed, Mr. Obama has set records for deportations, removing about 400,000 immigrants each year for the past three years. That figure has drawn fierce fire from immigrant rights activists.
But advocates said they hoped Hispanics won't buy the ads' message, saying there's no comparison when the choice is between Mr. Obama and likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
"When a Republican-leaning group runs an ad on immigration that tries to pretend a Republican administration would somehow be different, it just doesn't pass the laugh test," said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice Education Fund. "If I were them, I wouldn't keep spending money on this type of advertisement."
Mr. Obama continues to do well among Hispanic voters, with a 63 percent approval rating in the Gallup tracking poll — nearly 20 points above his national average.
Neither the Obama campaign nor the Romney campaign responded to requests for comment on the campaign's state of play on Spanish-language airwaves.
Tailoring messages to an audience is common. It's often a matter of geography — talking corn in Iowa, for example. Other times it's issues-based, such as when Mr. Obama called for common ground on abortion at Notre Dame University's graduation ceremony in 2009, or when Mr. Romney spoke to Hispanic leaders in Florida this year and focused on expanding legal immigration.
But language adds another wrinkle because it can send a message to one community without necessarily reaching the broader voting public.
The Spanish-language ads also fall outside of some disclosure requirements, such as the new rule that requires the major networks in the country's top 50 markets to post all ad contracts online. Those rules don't apply to Spanish-language networks, even though in cities with large Hispanic audiences such as Los Angeles and Miami, the English-language networks regularly trail their Spanish-speaking counterparts in ratings.
Like the conservative deportation ad, Mr. Obama's allies are taking advantage of the language barrier by running an ad last month in Spanish that tried to contrast Mr. Romney's refusal to release more the past two years of his tax returns to his support for state laws requiring immigrants to demonstrate that they are in the country legally.
"He wants us to show him our papers. But he doesn't show us his," the ad says in Spanish. "How can we trust Mitt Romney?"
That ad is sponsored by the Service Employees International Union's Committee on Political Education and by Priorities USA, a super PAC run by a former Obama staffer.
The campaigns themselves are staying more positive in their Spanish-language pitches.
Mr. Obama is running commercials featuring Cristina Saralegui, whom some papers have labeled the "Latino Oprah," in which the talk show host says Hispanic voters should reward the president for signing the health care legislation and for his work to revive the economy.
"It makes me laugh when some say that President Obama has done nothing," she says in Spanish in the ad.
Mr. Romney has run ads featuring his son Craig telling voters in Spanish that the candidate's father, George Romney, was born in Mexico. Craig Romney also said his father would work toward a long-term solution to the nation's immigration system.
Mr. Aguilar said Republicans do have problems reaching Hispanic voters, but that the Romney ad is a solid effort.
"That is an ad that can have impact because, again, it says to Latinos, [the president] failed you and is not willing to work with Republicans. My dad hasn't had a chance. He's willing to," Mr. Aguilar said.
Ms. Tramonte, though, said the spot tries to hide Mr. Romney's stances from the primary campaign, such as his support for Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration.
"President Obama has a pretty good response to those ads, which is, he's the only one who's taken action to try to do something on immigration in the last four years," Ms. Tramonte said.
Nevada, where Mr. Aguilar's group is running its ads, is a hot spot for immigration politics, and the debate is playing out in the state's Senate race, too, where Ms. Tramonte accused Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, of tailoring his immigration message for Spanish and English audiences on his Web page.
The Republican incumbent's English page includes an "immigration" section that says Mr. Heller wants to enforce existing immigration laws and boost the Border Patrol, and that he opposes "amnesty."
But his Spanish-language page, which is part of the main website, doesn't talk about enforcement and instead focuses on fixing the difficulty of navigating the legal immigration system.
Mr. Heller's spokeswoman, Chandler Smith, said the senator doesn't try to hide his stances.
"Dean Heller has been open and honest with the Hispanic community about his position on a wide range of issues, including immigration reform. He is not afraid of this discussion," the spokeswoman said. She said Democrats are turning to immigration as an issue to try to recapture Hispanic voters who are backing Mr. Heller over his Democratic challenger, Rep. Shelley Berkley.
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