Should political campaigns reach Hispanics in English or Spanish?

Medill News ServiceMay 23, 2012 

— Spanish or English – Espanol o Ingles?

To reach young Hispanic voters, most politicians and organizations have taken a bilingual approach, to varying degrees.

But most young Hispanics lead English-dominant lives, raising the question of whether the Spanish-language campaign communication still is necessary.

“What both Romney and Obama need to start doing to the Latino community – they need to start talking to them in English,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, the executive director of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan voter-registration organization. “The best way to get their votes is to talk to them in an acculturated tone.”

Voto Latino’s website, Facebook page and Twitter feed are all in English.

But President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as the national Republican and Democratic parties, use varying degrees of Spanish communication.

The Obama campaign launched Latinos for Obama, a predominately English site, but the main website also can be viewed in Spanish. The campaign sends tweets and news releases in both languages.

Campaign officials say they recognize that many young Hispanics speak English, but that doesn’t mean that Spanish isn’t still an important way to reach Hispanic voters.

“Spanish-language news consumption among Hispanic families is huge,” said Gabriela Domenzain, the director of Hispanic media for the Obama campaign. “If it’s not the young Hispanic who is watching, it’s maybe grandparents or the parents.”

Alex Velasco, a 26-year-old digital media director at a Chicago firm, agreed. His parents were born in Mexico, and although Velasco speaks English, he said he appreciated candidates who spoke to his parents in their language.

“I think that it’s really genuine,” he said. “But it can’t just be a direct translation. (Politicians) need to talk to them.”

The Romney campaign doesn’t have a Spanish-language website, but it’s released Spanish-language ads. Campaign officials say they plan to build out their Spanish-language use further as the campaign transitions from primaries to the general election. However, they say the Spanish-language ads get a lower response than those in English do.

“A majority of the time we see that when the advertising is delivered in Spanish, then when (our viewers) consume more content, they go to the English version,” Romney campaign staffer Zac Moffatt said.

By using Spanish, candidates might be able to work around some level of distrust and skepticism that’s common in young Hispanic voters, according to Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. However, it’s just as likely that they’ll see it as a ploy to grab votes, he said.

“If you could give the same message in English or in Spanish, would it make a difference?” Levine said. “I don’t think we know, but we do know that this population speaks English.”

Goodrich reports for the Washington bureau of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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