LOS ANGELES — As the protracted race for the White House and Congress unfolds 18 months before the 2016 elections, candidates intent on garnering the all-important Latino vote may want to keep this in mind: Speaking and advertising in Spanish may fall on deaf ears.
A record 33.2 million Hispanics in the U.S. — more than two-thirds of Latinos age 5 or older — speak English proficiently, according to new research by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.
And the share who speak Spanish at home has dropped from 78 percent to 73 percent since 2000. In 1980, 28 percent of U.S.-born Latinos spoke Spanish at home and said they did not speak English proficiently. By 2013, only 11 percent did.
Among those born in the U.S., 40 percent don’t speak Spanish at home.
“One of the biggest findings is that there’s a growing share and growing number of Hispanics who are U.S.-born and growing up in households where only English is spoken,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at Pew. “Immigration has slowed down for about 10 years, and we’re coming to see U.S.-born Latinos playing a bigger and bigger role in shaping public opinion.”
In 2013, Latinos born in the U.S. made up 65 percent of Hispanic Americans. They are much younger, with a median age of 19, compared with 40 for Hispanic immigrants.
As a result, Hispanic population growth since 2000 has been driven primarily by births in the U.S. rather than immigration.
It is a changing landscape for politicians who have traditionally reached out to Latino voters by speaking Spanish, advertising on Spanish-language media and highlighting their Latino connections, however tenuous.
“They need to understand that there isn’t a single Latino profile,” said Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Los Angeles. “Any candidate needs to understand that when you’re talking to Latino voters, there’s diversity in terms of immigration, generation and language.”
A larger share of U.S.-born Hispanics live in homes where only English is spoken: 40 percent, or 12 million in 2013, up from 32 percent in 1980. About a quarter of Hispanic adults are English-dominant, a third are Spanish-dominant, and the rest are bilingual, Lopez said.
“With 66,000 turning 18 every month, Latino millennials can be an incredibly influential voting bloc next year if they simply register to vote and turn out in November,” said Ashley Spillane, the president of Rock the Vote, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that is targeting young Americans to register to vote. “In many ways, Latino millennials are like their peers. They want to make a difference in their communities, are more engaged on digital platforms.”
Two-thirds of young Latinos are active online.
“The outreach is not about language,” said Felipe Benitez, the communications and development director for Mi Familia Vota, another voter advocacy group. “It’s not about Spanish or English. It’s about addressing the issues that really matter to our community and listening to our community.”
Marvin Centeno Recinos was not old enough to vote in the last presidential election. He is 20 now and is politically active as the head of La Unión Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios (Salvadorean Student Union) at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he is majoring in Latin American and Latino studies.
He was born in the U.S., lived in El Salvador as a child, returned to the U.S. at 15 and said he speaks English at home.
He called candidates’ appeals to Latino voters “manipulative.” He said, “They promise people one thing, but being in college, you’re able to deconstruct ideas behind their advertisements.”
The issues matter more than the language they’re communicated in, he said.
“It’s not enough to speak Spanish,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, the president and chief executive of Voto Latino. “The issues drive them more than the candidates — education, jobs. And for women, it includes reproductive choice.”
The average Latino voter is 27 years old, she said, and women that age are more educated and aspire to more than having children.
Social media are filled with comments from young Latinos who make it clear that language is less important than actions.
“I don’t care if you’re married to a Latina” — like Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — Benitez said, summing up postings on social media. “I don’t care if this guy speaks Spanish or has a Latino last name” — such as Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. “I care about our community. Are you going to deport my parents, yes or no?”
There are 600,000 sons and daughters of potential beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). The executive action by President Barack Obama has been blocked by the courts and is likely to end up before the Supreme Court.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Benitez said. “You have candidates who are Latinos in heritage who are not addressing the issues. Immigration is important. Jobs, education and even climate change.”
All the changes in the Latino electorate complicate political outreach efforts because candidates have to appeal to non-English speakers as well as the swelling ranks of young Latinos who may not speak Spanish.
There’s another challenge: About 75 percent of the Latino electorate was born in the U.S., but it’s the 25 percent who are older, naturalized citizens who are more likely to vote. So candidates can’t ignore the smaller segment even though the other is growing at a faster rate, Vargas said.
“Those Latino voters getting information from Spanish media are only going away when they pass away,” he said. “The Spanish-language strategy versus the English-language strategy is something we’re struggling with ourselves. We do not have English-media companies that specialize in talking with Latinos.”
The share of Latinos who get their news in English is rising, Lopez said.
“The way I would use Spanish-language media is as an avenue to leverage voters, to have conversations about voting with the younger set who are English-dominant,” Kumar said. “Most watching Spanish-language media are not voters, but their children and grandchildren are.”
It’s not clear if the candidates’ media strategies will change in 2016 as evidence mounts that the Latino vote is becoming increasingly diverse. So far, the focus has been on the early caucus and primary states Iowa and New Hampshire, which have small Latino populations compared with more populous states such as New York, Texas, Florida and California — big players in national election outcomes.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took a big step toward appealing to Latino voters by recently naming Amanda Renteria as her national political director. Renteria was the first Latina chief of staff for a congressional lawmaker — Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
But Clinton’s stop at a Chipotle restaurant for a burrito bowl on the way to Iowa to kick off her presidential run has garnered some derision, not only for the amount of coverage it received but also for what some said was an attempt to reach to Latinos and liberal foodies who favor the chain’s more sustainably sourced offerings.
Bush told ABC that he goes to Chipotle too but that "we normally cook our own food, my own Mexican food, at home. It’s pretty good."
Will any of this galvanize Latino voters?
“Anybody who understands a national presidential campaign understands that the Latino vote is up for grabs,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., told The Wall Street Journal. “And so if you’re going to disrespect us by thinking you can come in in the last two weeks and throw us a guacamole and tortilla chip party and say, ‘Hola, amigo,’ and somehow we’re going to vote for you, it doesn’t happen that way these days.”
No, it doesn’t, especially since more Hispanics are becoming more assimilated into American culture and may not even speak Spanish.
“It may be becoming harder to have a single effort to reach Hispanic voters,” Lopez said. “Yes, Spanish is important, but many may not be eligible to vote. The growing part of the community is the U.S.-born, English-speaking. They’re more dispersed around the country but also more dispersed in where they get their information. They get it from the Internet. They get it from radio. It may be harder for candidates to reach them.”