Spanish Is Not the Issue

Marcela Sanchez, Washington Post, September 7, 2007

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In terms of a Spanish-language presidential forum, this one is quite tame. An English-only rule prohibits participants from answering in Spanish, even candidates who are fluent in the language, such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, or proficient, such as Sen. Christopher Dodd. And don’t be too worried about the second-ever Spanish-language debate scheduled for a week later with Republican candidates: No one except for Sen. John McCain has “time in his schedule” to attend.

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In other words, while the participants’ answers will be simultaneously translated into Spanish, the issues—not the language—will be the event’s main draw. Broadcasting the debate in Spanish, as Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas told me, “is more symbolic than anything else.” Salinas added that “if they (Hispanics) watch English-only (media) they are never going to have their issues addressed.”

According to a Pew Hispanic Center poll, the majority of Hispanics in the United States watch both English- and Spanish-language channels to get their news. In 2004, three-fourths of all adult Hispanics got their news in English, and two-thirds in Spanish. “Even fluent English speakers rely on Spanish-language media to get news from Latin America and about Hispanic communities in the United States,” the Pew poll reported.

So far, most candidates have been equating Hispanic concerns with immigration. And “that’s a fallacy,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in California. Every survey of Latino voters done in the past couple of years, he said, reflects other priorities such as education, the economy and the war in Iraq.

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The Latino vote will be more important than ever in battleground states such as Florida, New Mexico and Nevada. According to Louis DeSipio, an expert on Latino voting behavior at the University of California at Irvine, Republicans will need at least 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in those states in order to win.

That is possible if Republicans merely retain some of their historic gains from the past presidential election, when Bush pulled in 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. The Democrats have been losing ground among Hispanics in presidential elections since Bill Clinton drew 72 percent in 1996. Al Gore in 2000 got 62 percent and John Kerry pulled in 53 percent in 2004.

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Bush’s “phenomenal operation in 2004,” according to Joe Garcia, director of the New Democrat Network’s Hispanic Strategy Center, was based on a message that, in so many words, invited immigrants “to be a winner” with the Republicans. That was a smart political tactic considering, Garcia said, that “nobody believes more in the American Dream than . . . immigrants.”

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