Latino Stations Win Big in Texas

The Democratic nomination may well hinge on the Latino vote in the March 4 Texas primary. So it's no wonder Spanish-language broadcasters statewide have been drinking in a gush of Texas tea.

For the past three weeks, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been buying up time in the Lone Star State from Amarillo in the Panhandle to Brownsville on the Mexican border, yielding an unexpected and most welcome windfall for station groups that thought primary dollars would dry up with a swift Clinton victory.

“Nobody anticipated Texas—a Republican state—to come into play for the Democratic candidates at all,” says Brian McCullough, a regional VP with Azteca America spot sales. “We thought it'd be over by Super Tuesday.”

But Latinos could account for a third or more of the ballots cast in Texas, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and it's difficult to find an analyst who doesn't think they could tip the primary scales. The drama is worthy of a telenovela: Clinton almost definitely has to carry the state to keep her candidacy alive, while Obama may only need modest Hispanic support to move on to face John McCain.

The airwaves on Univision, Telemundo and Azteca stations have been filled with spots featuring former San Antonio mayor (and Univision board member) Henry Cisneros urging Latinos to participate in pro-Clinton early voting, and Obama reading the mandated candidate-approval message in Spanish: “Yo soy Barack Obama y apruebo esta mensaje.”

As far back as Feb. 11, ads were running in at least 10 Texas markets, including all four in the national top 10 Hispanic DMAs: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and the Brownsville-McAllen border area. But even an Equity Media station in Wichita Falls, ranked 86th, has drawn both candidates.

Univision and Telemundo both have owned-and-operated stations in Houston and San Antonio that are benefiting from political ads, while affiliate groups such as Azteca's Una Vez Mas have collected their share. Spending across Texas could reach $2 million, a real boon for the Spanish outlets.

“You get a lot of bang for your buck in most markets,” says Maria Cardona, a Clinton spokesperson. “Latinos are heavily influenced by it. Univision is one of the most respected entities among Spanish-speaking Latinos in this country, second only to the Catholic Church.”

The timing couldn't be better, with the long-simmering Democratic battle having come to a state with a 36% Hispanic population. The candidates might have passed on Spanish-language TV if Clinton's strong lead among Latinos remained—she beat Obama 2-1 in California, home to the largest Hispanic population in the country. But when Obama won the Hispanic vote decisively in Virginia, he was emboldened to mount the aggressive Texas challenge.

“It's found money at this point,” says Evan Tracey, an analyst at TNS Media Intelligence.

Texas isn't the first state this primary season where candidates fervently targeted Latino voters, a growing minority with increasing clout in many Western states. The leading Democrats began airing their first Spanish spots in Nevada well in advance of the Jan. 19 caucus there.

“It's been our most active political primary season to date,” says Enrique Perez, who heads sales for the Telemundo O&Os.

Ads followed in Super Tuesday states such as Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and New York. Total spending was estimated to be only slightly more than the Texas take alone, according to TNS' Tracey.

Heading toward November, Spanish-language broadcasters are hoping that Texas serves as a harbinger of liberal spending to come. How rich the bounty might be depends on myriad factors: which issues boil up, poll numbers in Latino-heavy states, and who the vice presidential selections are, to name a few.

For instance, if candidates take sharply divergent positions on immigration—unlikely though that may be, with McCain appearing to be a moderate on the issue—it could generate a wave of spending. And if Obama gains the nomination and advocates a softer stance toward Cuba and new leader Raul Castro, while McCain continues the traditional Republican hard line (the issue was the first raised by Univision's Jorge Ramos in a recent Democratic debate), stations in South Florida could benefit. And if McCain were to pick Florida Sen. Mel Martinez as a running mate, or a Democrat opts for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, spending could increase.

Station executives point to a trend of continuing record hauls. In the 2006 off-year election, Univision pulled in $22 million (including radio), a $6 million bump over the 2004 presidential-year haul. Wachovia analyst Bishop Cheen projects the company could “at least double” that figure this year.

“We're doing better than we expected thus far on the local television station and radio front,” says Univision CEO Joe Uva.

As a general rule, candidates spend about 2% of their overall TV budget on Spanish-language TV. Telemundo's Perez says campaigns are becoming more tactical in their Latino targeting. “What's different this year is they're going after the Hispanic vote as a more strategic part of their media campaigns,” he says. “It's not just an afterthought; they're thinking about it at the same time they're thinking about their outreach to all voters.”

In a general election, some candidates may find it more efficient to run national spots on networks such as Univision and Telemundo or cable outlets such as ESPN Deportes or CNN en Espanol. Christopher Crommett, who heads that CNN outlet, now in 4.3 million homes, says the network's rep firm has indicated that candidates may use the channel. “We know that news programming tends to appeal to decision-makers, so we'd offer a natural constituency for them to appeal to,” he says.

And if Obama and Clinton are still duking it out for the nomination by the time the June 7 Puerto Rico caucus comes around, stations on the island may benefit from their own Texas-size welcome.