Campaigning to the New American Electorate

Campaigning to the New American Electorate by Marisa A.

Campaigning to the New American Electorate by Marisa A. Abrajano Stanford University Press, 2010   Based on the assumption that one’s identity and political behavior are strongly related, American politicians have long targeted immigrant and ethnic communities based on their shared ethnic or racial identities. But to what extent do these ethnically specific political campaign messages affect voters’ actual decisions and behavior? Marisa A. Abrajano, an associate professor of political science at the University of California San Diego addresses this question in Campaigning to the New American Electorate, one of the first books to systemically examine and compare campaign efforts targeting Latinos with those directed at the rest of the electorate.   Part of the rationale for targeting ethnic and racial minorities with ethnically and culturally specific messages is that ethnic identity is thought to be a salient factor in political decisions. Abrajano contends that another major reason for this sort of messaging pertains to variations in how actively different groups follow and participate in political campaigns and politics generally. These two factors serve as the basis for her theory of information-based advertising and, she argues, help to explain the qualitative differences in the content of Spanish- and English-language television ads aired in the 2000 and 2004 election cycles. In sum, she finds that Spanish-language ads produced for presidential, congressional and gubernatorial races in these cycles had a greater tendency to avoid issues of policy entirely or treat policy issues simplistically, while English-language ads focused to a greater extent on informative policy messages.   Abrajano’s research shows that Latinos’ political behavior was indeed affected by campaign television ads. She also finds, however, that the degree to which a Latino is assimilated into American society conditions which types of political ads affect both their voting decisions and their likelihood of voting in the first place. Among Latinos who are still in the process of becoming politically and socially assimilated, only political spots that appeal to their ethnic identity play an important role in determining which presidential candidate they support. On the other hand, politically assimilated Latinos are persuaded more by informative policy ads. Likewise, exposure to political ads increased the likelihood that a Latino would vote, though the magnitude of this effect varied depending on an individual’s level of political assimilation.   Abrajano also demonstrates other ways in which Latinos’ level of assimilation and comfort with English affected their response to campaign ads. While one of the purposes of political advertising is to help increase voters’ knowledge of political issues, Spanish-dominant Latinos (those who only or mostly speak Spanish) did not learn very much from campaign ads. On the other hand, English-dominant Latinos did learn from political ads, but only from those containing substantive policy messages. Both during and after the campaign, Spanish-dominant Latinos also knew less about candidates’ issue positions, ideological orientations and personal backgrounds when compared with other ethnic and racial groups. A more detailed examination of responses to factual political questions also revealed a greater tendency among less politically assimilated Latinos to provide non-responses. As members of this group are already disadvantaged in their knowledge and familiarity with politics, they would stand to gain the most from the educational benefits that come from exposure to political ads. But since Spanish language policy ads favored style over substance, it should come as no surprise that these ads provided no assistance to political learning.   Overall, Abrajano’s book is top-notch social science that contributes to a deeper understanding of the campaign strategies that are most effective in reaching this coveted swing group and should be a valuable resource for campaign practitioners and strategists.  Mark Ruggiero is a freelance writer based in New York.

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