Democrats speak Spanish in risky bid to court Latino voters

When several Democrats gave answers in Spanish during their first debate on Wednesday, they waded into a simmering debate: though bilingual discourse can be welcomed as an honest attempt to reach out to the Latino community, it can also be perceived as pandering by some voters.

The debate was placed front and center after former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) switched to Spanish in the middle of his first answer, leading to a now-viral look from Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), who eventually followed up with his own answer in Spanish.

“Latinos do appreciate the effort, but I always advise my non-Latino client against trying this, because it normally does not go well,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign.

{mosads}Sanders, whose progressive economic message has shown signs of resonating with Hispanics, usually avoids speaking Spanish, a language he does not speak well.

At a 2016 campaign event in Puerto Rico, Sanders read a short Spanish-language statement apologizing for his lack of bilingual skills before delivering his address in English.

The use of Spanish comes as Latino voters are set to play a key role in the Democratic presidential primaries, especially in early voting Nevada, as well as in California and Texas, two Super Tuesday states that together host more than 25 million Hispanics.

Candidates have avidly courted the Latino community. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is set to appear at Thursday’s debate, visited Univisión’s “Despierta América” morning variety show Wednesday, where she cooked a Puerto Rican breakfast and touted her Mexican family, albeit through an interpreter.

Some candidates believe using Spanish can showcase them as inclusive and in tune with the Latino community.

Five minutes into Wednesday’s debate, O’Rourke switched into Spanish while answering a question on economic inclusivity and marginal tax rates.

O’Rourke, who grew up in heavily bilingual El Paso and enjoys reading fiction in Spanish, is the most at ease in conversational Spanish of the candidates, though his command is far from perfect.

“I just knew he had laid a gauntlet down,” Booker told CNN later that night, after he shot O’Rourke a look that went viral.

“I was talking with Castro. Both he and I knew, as people who can speak Spanish, that now we were going to bring it as well,” said Booker, referring to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

Castro also sought to showcase his Spanish during the debate. Though he does not command the language, the 2020 contender has been known to take Spanish lessons.

But using Spanish can be a double-edged sword, especially when the speaker does a poor job at it, according to strategists.

A YouGov poll on Thursday found that 42 percent of U.S. adults believe speaking Spanish during a televised presidential debate is “pandering” rather than “respectful.”

Among Hispanic respondents, 37 percent of respondents said speaking Spanish is respectful, and 27 percent called it pandering.

Whether to use Spanish or not can matter in key Latino-heavy states. Florida, where the debates this week are taking place, has long been ground zero for Hispanic political messaging, with both Democrats and Republicans courting key constituencies like the large Cuban minority.

To others, however, the debate about the merits of dipping into another language is overdone.

Luis Miranda, a Colombian-born former Democratic National Committee (DNC) communications director and Obama White House adviser, said that younger voters driving the surge in Latino electoral participation, are more likely to respond to the core of the message than the language it’s delivered in.

“There was more focus on Spanish-dominant voters in past election cycles,” said Miranda. “Those were the swing voters who moved toward [former President] George W. Bush when he ran for president.”

“The electorate now is a little bit different,” he added. “Cultural competency becomes an understanding that you’re not talking to someone’s grandmother.”

Miranda used the Spanish employed by the three candidates as examples on Wednesday night.

Booker, who made a point to learn Spanish as an adult, spoke in the language during the debate, albeit not as fluently as O’Rourke.

“Arguably [Booker’s] Spanish was the worst of the three, but where he connected the best was when he was talking about the struggles of his own city,” said Miranda.

Likewise, Castro’s brief use of Spanish to underscore his family’s immigrant success story made waves among the Hispanic community, sparking the hashtag “#AdiósTrump” on Twitter.

“On January 20, 2021, we’ll say ‘adiós’ to Donald Trump,” said Castro in his final comments, to applause from the Miami audience.

But Miranda said he believed O’Rourke had fallen short in his outreach to Latino voters.

“Beto’s Spanish was excellent but he didn’t handle the questions with detail on immigration,” he said.

The use of Spanish has now cast attention to the 10 Democrats who will walk on stage for the second debate of the week on Thursday night. 

The contingent will feature at least one polyglot, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who in addition to some Spanish, speaks Norwegian, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, Dari Persian, Norwegian and French. 

But it also features top contenders not known for their language skills, including Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Author Marianne Williamson, who will also appear on the debate stage on Thursday night, also does not speak Spanish. But she said she hoped to learn, albeit in a joking manner. 

“I need to learn Spanish by tomorrow night at 9,” quipped Williamson in a tweet after hearing some of her fellow contenders speaking Spanish.

Tags Bernie Sanders Beto O'Rourke Cory Booker Donald Trump Joe Biden Marianne Williamson Pete Buttigieg

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