By Will Weissert and Calvin Woodward
AUSTIN — Republicans are bringing something unique to the 2016 presidential campaign: an ability to speak to Americans in both of their main mother tongues, Spanish as well as English.
Democrats can’t match it. Previous GOP candidates couldn’t.
But now, paradoxically, the party that’s on the outs with many Hispanic voters over immigration is the party that has serious presidential candidates who are surefooted in their language.
It remains to be seen how much Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio will use their fluent Spanish in the campaign. Rubio offered a few words of it in his presidential campaign announcement, quoting his Cuban grandfather, a small but notable addition in a speech meant for everyone to hear, not just a Hispanic crowd.
Bush peppered his remarks with Spanish in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, making an obvious cultural connection with many in his audience.
Even a modest amount of Spanish will be more than presidential campaigns have known.
President George W. Bush rarely used his barely high school-level Spanish and, when he did, it was a token nod, not a real conversation. President Barack Obama and 2016 Democratic presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton have gamely tried a few lines now and then.
Bilingualism is a tricky issue in politics and you can be sure that careful calculations are being made on how and when to display it in the Bush and Rubio campaigns.
Bush the former governor and Rubio the senator have spoken Spanish liberally in Florida politics and other settings. But this is a national campaign for the highest office.
Republicans, on the one hand, want to win over Hispanic voters. On the other, they want to avoid upsetting some traditional supporters who — whether because of immigration concerns, nativism or simple cultural tradition — want English only.
A second Hispanic-American in the Republican race, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, has largely lost the language of his Cuban-born father and calls his Spanish “lousy.” (Another contender, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also is not fluent.)
Should Bush or Rubio go on to win the nomination, and should Clinton take the Democratic prize, history is sure to be made in 2016. After having elected the first black president, Americans would now be putting either the first fluent Spanish-speaker, or the first woman, in the presidency.
HOW MUCH DOES LANGUAGE MATTER?
No one thinks speaking Spanish is an easy ticket to Hispanic votes. Especially for Republicans, who saw Obama take 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012.
But it’s a sign of respect, says Bob Quasius, founder of Cafe Con Leche Republicans, which presses for the Republican Party to become more inclusive of Hispanics. “Even if your Spanish isn’t very good, it’s welcome.”
Hispanic turnout has increased in every election for nearly three decades, meaning it may top 10 percent of the electorate in 2016, according to Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research at the Pew Research Center. Even so, among registered Hispanic voters, 83 percent prefer English or are bilingual, Pew has found. Only 17 percent identify Spanish as their dominant language. Spanish is much more heavily preferred among Latinos who are not registered to vote.
“If a candidate can speak Spanish, it could at least get Hispanics interested,” Lopez said. “But it’s not going to be the deciding factor.”
The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio hails from heavily Hispanic West Miami and grew up bilingual. He shifts comfortably between the two languages while running Senate meetings, appearing at news conferences and interacting with people.
Rubio delivered two versions of the 2013 Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union, in English and Spanish. As a Senate candidate, he used both languages with South Florida crowds.
Al Cardenas, former head of the Florida Republican Party, remembers Rubio firing up volunteers in the two languages while working for Bob Dole’s unsuccessful 1996 White House run.
“He was then, and he is now, just as comfortable doing that in one language as the other,” Cardenas said.
It’s too early to know how much Rubio will do that outside of Hispanic-heavy events in the presidential campaign. When he spoke about his grandfather to Iowa social conservatives on the weekend, he did not use Spanish.
Bush speaks Spanish at home with his Mexican-born wife, Columba, and whenever he encounters people who approach him in that language. Like Rubio, he clearly wants to draw more Latinos behind his effort, and he can be expected to address a variety of Hispanic functions, as he was doing Wednesday in Houston.
He earned thunderous applause in Puerto Rico at events where he mixed English with effortless Spanish.
“I love it,” said Maria Elena Cruz, a 59-year-old government worker from Toa Baja. “He speaks Spanish just like us.”
“That makes us feel good,” said Paola Bazzano, 72, a doctor’s assistant. “It’s a way to establish good rapport.”
How far he will go with his bilingualism, though, is not yet apparent.
His speech announcing his candidacy, whenever it comes, will offer a clue as to what he will do when speaking to a national audience. Will he say a few words of Spanish, like Rubio? Make a bolder statement, with even more?
Cruz is the first Hispanic senator from Texas, where many residents are native Spanish speakers. He struggles with the language, however, and nixed a proposal for a debate in Spanish in his 2012 Senate campaign.
“Like many second-generation Hispanic immigrants, he is conversational, though not fluent in Spanish,” Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said. “But that will not hinder his efforts to build a robust Hispanic outreach operation.”