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The Spanish Language in the 2016 US Presidential Race Posted by on Sep 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

The United States is not an English-speaking country, and its linguistic diversity is already affecting the coming 2016 presidential elections. The argument is often made that the US federal constitution doesn’t recognize an official state language, which, while true, has few practical implications. What does matter is that 74 million Americans speak a language other than English at home — that’s about the combined population of California, Texas, and Massachusets.

Of those 74 million, more than half speak Spanish: approximately 45 million Americans speak Spanish as a first language. If you include multilinguals, that number exceeds 52 million, making the US the second-largest Spanish speaking population in the world. With these numbers, it’s easy to see why the Spanish language is finally making its voice heard in the 2016 election cycle.

Recently the race for the Republican primary nomination, which will decide which candidate will represent the Republicans in the 2016 national election, has featured some discussion of issues around the Spanish language. Donald Trump vocally criticized Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish at campaign events in Florida, claiming that “he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”

Jeb Bush speaks fluent Spanish and has not been shy about it on the campaign trail. Bush taught English as a Second Language in Léon, Mexico, where he met his wife, Columba. According to Bush, he and his family regularly speak Spanish at home, “particularmente cuándo mi primera dama está enojada conmigo“. See for yourself what he has to say in this Spanish interview with Univision:

The other prominent hispanohablante on the Republican side is Marco Rubio, a native Spanish speaker born to Cuban immigrants. Interestingly, his use of Spanish on the campaign trail seems to be taken more matter-of-factly and not as often criticized as Bush’s. This may have to do with the fact that Rubio most often engages other Cuban-American voters, a longtime part of the Republican base that is starting to move to the left. As far back as 2010, Rubio has been carefully making allowances for this key voter demographic in his public addresses, like this bilingual speech in Miami:

With the growing number of hispanic voters and their significance in the electoral process, many in the Republican party have tried in their own ways to reach out to them. Candidates like Ted CruzGeorge Pataki, and Rand Paul have all claimed to speak Spanish or ‘Spanglish’ at some point, but most are yet to back it up in public.

Typically in American politics, the left-leaning Democrats are seen as being more in touch with Hispanic voters, but that may not be so in the 2016 race. Hillary Clinton has made deliberate moves to engage the Hispanic-American community in Spanish, but she admits to not actually speaking Spanish. She’s embarassed herself at least once with attempts to speak Spanish at campaign events.

Still, overall, Clinton appears to be polling best with Hispanic voters, even in Jeb Bush’s political home state of Florida. It’s hard to say exactly what is responsible these favorability ratings, but expressed views on immigration policy is certainly a big factor, as well as the fact that most Hispanic voters simply don’t know who the other Republican candidates are.

Immigration is one of the most divisive issues in the 2016 election cycle, and most would agree that it affects Hispanic-Americans more than anyone else. Most sources figure somewhere around 40% for the amount of the Hispanic vote needed to win the presidential election. That said, it’s easy to see why speaking Spanish will be crucial in 2016, and some of these candidates ought to think about dusting off their high school Spanish textbooks.

Does language or multilingualism influence how you feel about politicians and world leaders? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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About the Author: Jakob Gibbons

I write about language and travel on my blog . I often share my experiences with learning languages on the road, and teaching and learning new speech sounds is my specialty.


Comments:

  1. David:

    It’s amazing how politicized language has become. It just proves the power of language and the value of being able to communicate with people from other countries and cultures. Spanish is becoming more and more critical to life in the US whether Americans like it or not.

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @David It’s true David, it just goes to show how important language is and how strongly people feel about it. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out in 2016! I like to think we’re shifting towards a moment when people are no longer upset by hearing other languages in the street or seeing them on their ATMs, but we’ll see…