POLITICS

2016 Candidates Need More Than Spanish To Win The Latino Vote

05/22/2015 07:36 am ET | Updated May 22, 2015

Sharing your message in Spanish might help build Latino support for your presidential bid -- but it's no guarantee.

As the number of eligible Latino voters grows, candidates are paying more attention to the group, and many 2016 contenders have been promoting themselves in Spanish on the campaign trail. Those communications are important for the Spanish-dominant segment of voters, but, overall, candidates' positions on the issues are what Latinos will care about most on Election Day.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been exercising his Spanish since entering the 2016 race in April. Rubio, who is bilingual, appeared on Spanish-language television multiple times just after declaring his run.

The son of Cuban immigrants even threw in a splash of Spanish during his campaign announcement speech.

And those moves can help spread his message. For Spanish-dominant voters, who tend to be first-generation immigrants, and for the Spanish media that caters to them, it's useful for candidates to make their views available in the language.

Reaching people in their native language is a lesson candidates can learn from businesses, said Jack Welde, CEO of Smartling, which helps companies manage translation for digital platforms.

"They want to reach customers, they want to reach voters, they want to reach people," he said, noting the similarities between businesses and candidates. He cited a 2006 survey by Common Sense Advisory that found 72 percent of consumers are more likely to buy a product from a website in their own language.

Rubio's 2016 website includes a link to a Spanish bio of him and his wife, though the portions detailing his stances on issues are available only in English.

Rubio's campaign communications director, Alex Conant, said in an email that "key parts" of the Rubio site are available in Spanish and noted, "We'll be doing more of that."

Of the declared 2016 candidates thus far, only Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Ben Carson have extensive Spanish-language versions of their websites.

But even President Barack Obama's re-election campaign -- which Fernand Amandi, principal at the polling and strategy firm Bendixen & Amandi International, recognized as having some of the best overall Latino outreach in the past -- didn't launch a Spanish-language website until late February 2012. Amandi noted that the Obama campaign spent the year leading up to that doing research on how to approach Latinos, but didn't really launch efforts aimed at those voters until the year of the election. Yet, Obama won with 71 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit polls.

"That almost created a new normal when it comes to targeting the Latino vote," Amandi said.

And for most voters, no matter their primary language, a candidate's position on the issues is the most important factor in whom they support.

"Hispanic voters aren't going to be voting for who speaks the best Spanish, they're going to be voting for ... the candidate who offers the best platform," Amandi said.

Immigration, health care, jobs and climate change are among the top concerns for most Latinos, noted Felipe Benitez of voter education group Mi Familia Vota.

Clinton's campaign launch video included a Latino speaking Spanish and talking about jobs, which Benitez said was "quite a nice surprise" because it addressed a topic beyond immigration.

Benitez said candidates need to connect with the many Latino communities in the U.S., which are segmented based on their countries of origin, generation and location. While first-generation immigrants might be Spanish-dominant and more likely to watch Spanish-language TV, many younger Latinos are active with technology and on social media.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is expected to enter the GOP 2016 race but hasn't officially declared yet, appears to be trying to court various segments of that audience. Bush is fluent in Spanish and his wife was born in Mexico. He has used Spanish in speeches and campaign ads, and he tweets in Spanish occasionally.

When he launched his Right to Rise PAC earlier this year (which has an accompanying Spanish version of its website), Bush announced it in both English and Spanish. At the end of April, he made a swing through Puerto Rico, where he often threw some Spanish into his speeches.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), on the other hand, has generally shied away from speaking Spanish in public appearances. The Hispanic senator and 2016 candidate has been described by an aide as being "conversational, though not fluent in Spanish." During his 2012 Senate run, Cruz argued against debating in Spanish, noting that "most Texans speak English."

His 2016 website doesn't include Spanish-language sections, but he did release a Spanish-language ad when he launched his campaign.

"We will have an aggressive Hispanic outreach effort and have staff that are spearheading it," Cruz campaign spokeswoman Catherine Frazier told McClatchy last month.

"I think the most important thing is to be authentic," Benitez said, noting that candidates' attempts to throw in a few lines of Spanish in debates can be counterproductive if they misspeak. "I'd rather have them talk with us even through a translator or do it in English than trying to dust off their Spanish and use it."

Benitez pointed to Clinton's recent town hall with young undocumented immigrants in Las Vegas as one of the types of interactions candidates should be having with the community.

"She set a very high bar for other candidates to follow," he said. "She not only met with the members of the community that are directly affected, but she obviously made this a priority in her campaign and hopefully in her presidency if she gets elected."

However, Sylvia Manzano, principal at the consulting firm Latino Decisions, isn't surprised by the meager outreach efforts she's seeing thus far, especially given the limited resources campaigns are dealing with when they first launch.

"There aren't that many Latino voters in the Republican primary, so if their focus is the primary, it makes sense for them to put that aside for now," Manzano said.

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