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Long viewed as the sleeping giant of the U.S. electorate, Latino voters have become the focus of even more intense interest in this presidential campaign.

But despite the rhetoric from both campaigns on the importance of the Latino vote, U.S. Spanish-language media has not received a windfall in political ad dollars compared with the general market media. “Both campaigns’ Hispanic ad spend has not followed the rhetoric,” Telemundo’s senior VP of sales Enrique Perez says.

In July, the Obama-Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee unveiled a joint $20 million commitment to reach out to Latino voters. It’s an unprecedented amount that funds the campaign’s voter outreach drives as well as paid advertising in TV, radio and print, according to Obama-Biden campaign spokesperson Federico A. de Jesus, who declines to specify how much of the budget is allotted to paid advertising.

At 45 million people, Latinos are the fastest-growing and largest minority group in the U.S., accounting for 16% of the total U.S. population but still just 9% of voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But Latino concentration and growth in key battleground states — Nevada, Colorado, Florida and Mexico — have both campaigns acutely aware of the importance of such voters in a tight race. Both campaigns have focused their ad dollars and voter mobilization drives in these battleground states.

“We are spending more on Hispanic outreach than (did) both presidential campaigns in 2004 combined,” de Jesus says of the Obama-Biden campaign, which he says has outspent its counterpart three to one.

Counters Hessy Fernandez, director of Hispanic Communications for the McCain-Palin Campaign: “Obama has not forged any strong ties with the Latino community, unlike John McCain; that’s why his campaign has to spend so much.” Fernandez declines to reveal the campaign’s Latino outreach budget.Richard Mazloom, media director of Multicultural Media Services, says prospective ad buyers who fail to recognize the importance of Hispanic media are missing the connection with a large segment of voters — and consumers.

“I think it is time for Hispanic media to work together,” Mazloom says. If buyers do not understand that Hispanic media can be as accountable as mainstream media, and as accurately planned and bought, they are missing out.”

Spanish language webs Univision, Telemundo and Azteca America, as well as other Hispanic media, are enlisting on-air talent from their news and fiction arms for PSA campaigns and voter registration drives.

“It’s our legacy to inform and empower U.S. Hispanics,” says Telemundo prexy Don Browne, who points out that the NBC-U-owned web was borne out of a network newscast. For the first time in its history, Telemundo launched a multiplatform voter registration campaign, in partnership with its youth-targeted bilingual web mun2,  the nonprofit Rock the Vote and Democracia USA, among others.

Market leader Univision, which hosted presidential forums for the first time in Spanish-language TV history last year, launched a three-part multiplatform campaign that started with a U.S. citizenship initiative that brought in 1.4 million applications, surpassing its own expectations. Second phase was a voter registration drive, which included the distribution of one million registration forms in seven key states through the newspapers of initiative partner, Hispanic publishing powerhouse ImpreMedia.

The third phase will be a get-out-the-vote drive.

“We’ve received a tremendous amount of interest from both parties at federal, state and local levels,” says Cesar Conde, Univision executive VP and chief strategy officer.

Both campaigns and the Hispanic media still have their work cut out for them. Out of 17 million eligible Latino voters, only 9.2 million are expected to cast their ballots, albeit an increase of nearly two million from the 2004 presidential elections.

A nationwide survey of Latinos by the Pew Hispanic Center in January found that some 57% of Hispanic registered voters call themselves Democrats or say they lean to the Democratic Party, while just 23% align with the Republican Party.

“As the electoral map takes shape, it’s increasingly clear the Latino vote may be decisive,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the NALEO Educational Fund, which partnered with Univision.  “Underestimating the Latino vote could be disastrous for either party.”