Tim Kaine Speaks Fluent Spanish, But a Latino Political Strategy Requires Real Engagement

Throughout the 2016 presidential election cycle, Democrats and Republicans have touted their Spanish speaking abilities to potential voters in hopes of swaying their minds in the voting booth. 

On Friday, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton announced that Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine would be her running mate. News reports were quick to note his Spanish language fluency, his time spent in Honduras and how his Latino connection is a major part of his appeal. He also delivered a speech on immigration reform in Spanish on the floor of Congress in 2013. 

Within about six seconds of joining Clinton on stage in Florida, he performed his Spanish skills for the crowd. 

Currently, 68% of Latinos in the United States say they speak English proficiently, according to the Pew Research Center. However, speaking Spanish doesn't make a politician an asset to the Latino community. In a Univision poll, 54% of Latino voters said that a candidate speaking Spanish fluently will not influence their vote.

So, why all the fuss over Kaine's bilingual bona fides? Effective political strategy requires that well-crafted narratives about candidates stick. Depending on which you believe, Clinton is either "Crooked Hillary" or the most qualified presidential candidate in decades. Donald Trump is either an outsider who wants to make America great again or a threat to people of color in this nation. 

As for Kaine, the campaign and the political media has packaged him as an ambassador to Spanish-speaking Latinos. This narrative is one way to distract voters from the fact that Clinton did, after all, choose a white man among a handful of potential VP picks who are of color.

Several Latino politicians were on the shortlist to be Clinton's running mate: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and U.S. Congressman Xavier Becerra. In the end, none of them won out and Latinos were forced to wait even longer to see themselves reflected on the presidential election ticket of a major party for at least another four years. 

Julian Castro, Xavier Becerra and Tom PerezMic

That's not to say that a candidate's Latino heritage ensures that he or she has the community's best interest, as the GOP presidential primaries demonstrated.

In February, Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz got into what amounted to a macho pissing match on the Republican debate stage about who spoke better Spanish. They both wanted to be seen as the more authentic Latino. And Latinos — especially immigrants — used their voices, in at least two languages, to voice how bad a Rubio presidency would be for Latino immigrants.

Protesters outside his campaign announcement in April 2015 touted a Spanish-language banner that said, "El sueño de Rubio es nuestra pesadilla," which translates to "Rubio's dream is our nightmare."   


In many ways, Clinton's VP choice makes sense. Kaine's resume is beyond reproach on paper — he grew up working class and has held positions at the local, state and federal level. Ever the pragmatist, Clinton may hope Kaine can mend fences with white men who really, really dislike her. And, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, this tight election may hinge on the voting practices of a few thousand white men in a few swing states.

Kaine's Spanish-speaking abilities was a faint check mark ticked off on the box labeled "Latino appeal." This tactic is just part of a recycled strategy that's worked for Democrats for at least five decades. 

In 1960, soon-to-be-first-lady Jackie Kennedy appeared in the first political ad geared toward Latino voters. In the ad, Kennedy rebuked Communism and asked Latinos to vote for a president who would guide "our destiny with a firm hand." She also delivered this address entirely in Spanish. 

The ad doesn't dive into the issues pertinent to the 1960s Latino community. It implored those watching who spoke Spanish to join her husband in making sure that America was a better place for all. In the end, the Spanish-speaking strategy proved advantageous: Kennedy won the presidency by a razor-thin margin of 100,000 votes and carried Texas's 24 electoral votes mostly due to Mexican-American support in the state.

Andrew Harnik/AP

More than 50 years later, Latinos comprise 17% of the United States population, making it the nation's largest ethnic minority. And the level of discourse about how to engage the Latino community has not become any more nuanced. Winning the Latino vote now requires acknowledging that no magic bullet exists that will please all Latinos. 

The idea of a monolithic "Latino voting bloc" is itself artificial and tired, since the community is so diverse. Despite what many may think, the number one concern among Latinos is the U.S. economy, not immigration reform. A quarter of US Latinos identify as Afro-Latino and one-half of Latinos eligible to vote are millennials. We resist easy definition and our vote evades easy capture. 

Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Latino engagement requires an honest effort from Democrats. Appealing to Latinos may seem easy when Donald Trump's idea of outreach is tweeting a picture of himself eating a taco bowl. Clinton also already knows the consequences of half-hearted outreach. Don't forget that her campaign tried — and failed — to tell Latino voters how she was just like your abuela.

It's not time for Clinton and Kaine to rest on their laurels when it comes to Latinos. Now that Spanish-speaking Latinos have someone who can speak to them on the ticket, they will also expect someone who listens and takes action on their behalf. 

The Democratic ticket has told us that it has our backs, so our scrutiny of them should be greater or we will be left behind. In an effort to sway Latino voters, Clinton and Kaine will garner our gratitude for a job well done. However, when we're ignored, they will surely catch ample criticism — in more than just one language. 

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