In a push to appeal to Spanish-speaking voters, Democratic vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine released a radio ad in Spanish on Tuesday.
The ad, which features Senator Kaine (D-VA) briefly speaking about his time as a missionary in Honduras, is slated to play in Florida, Nevada, and Ohio – three battleground states where groups of Latino voters could determine whether the state goes to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. The ad comes just as Mrs. Clinton releases a TV ad featuring Spanish narration, although she herself does not speak other than to approve the message.
The ads clearly target the crucial Latino voting block. But amid shifts in Latino identity and language trends, Kaine’s Spanish skills, which were a major talking point at the Democratic National Convention this summer, may not be enough to significantly impact how their ballots are cast.
“Simply having it in having it in Spanish, that’s not going to make [Latinos] more likely to support a candidate,” Marisa Abrajano, a professor of political science at University of California, San Diego, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “That’s just one tiny step.”
In the 60-second ad, Kaine talks about the values he learned while volunteering with Jesuits in Honduras – "faith, family, and hard work" – and how he sees them across America, too.
"Just as Hillary invited me, now I invite you to join our campaign," he says. "Raise your voice, and vote."
Clinton’s ad may have a slightly higher impact, as it shows her interacting with Latino families, and a Spanish-speaking narrator lays out her plans to expand access to college, paid family leave, and childcare.
This election cycle's road to the White House has seen a few Spanish-speaking candidates, most of whom received a mix of backlash and praise for using the language as a way to appeal to voters.
“Any elected official who makes an attempt to connect with a wider audience, it’s important,” Melissa Mark-Viverito, the New York City Council speaker and a prominent Hispanic supporter for Clinton, told The New York Times in July. “I don’t consider that pandering.”
But the perceived value that fluency in Spanish has for a candidate trying to secure the Latino vote may have been overstated.
In a Univision poll last year, only 26 percent of Latino voters said a candidate’s ability to speak Spanish would influence how they cast their ballots, and nearly 70 percent said it would have no bearing on how they voted.
Instead, for many in Latino communities, other factors that have nothing to do with language contribute to the sense of a Latino identity. Today, only 28 percent of Hispanics say Spanish skills are a requirement for someone who calls themselves Latino, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I was looking for a VP choice that showed my son that one day he could be president – not that he needs to work on his Spanish,” Chuck Rocha, a Democratic political consultant who served as an advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders’s (I) presidential campaign, told The Washington Post following the announcement that Kaine would appear on the ballot alongside Clinton. Mr. Rocha expressed more disappointment that Clinton considered, but did not select, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro or Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, regardless of their Spanish speaking abilities.
For some, the suggestion that Hispanic voters will care about Spanish skills just as much as – or more than – policies themselves could seem patronizing.
"It's a political trope that has run its course," Felix Sanchez, a Democratic political strategist and a co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, told The Los Angeles Times last month. "I prefer to have candidates address issues, supply solutions and then see that they get it done, over scripted Spanish pablum."
"The truth is that Kaine is a strategic choice to win Virginia," Mr. Sanchez added, discussing his merits compared to other running mate contenders. "Why not simply say that without making it seem like Latinos were also being thrown a penny because he speaks Spanish?"
Kaine's ad faces another more basic challenge when it comes to connecting with Latino voters: the percentage who speak only Spanish, or do not speak English well, is on the decline. Eighty-nine percent of Latinos born in the United States speak English "very well," or speak only English at home, according to the Pew Research Center.
Instead, Dr. Abrajano said, it's far more important for candidates to lay out policies that are attractive to Latino voters than to use language as a means to relate.
“It’s his first ad, so that’s understandable,” she says. “But going forward, the expectation should be that they need to develop ads that actually communicate to Latino electorate what their policy goals are.”