ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—When Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton made their debut as the Democratic presidential ticket, he proudly declared, “Hillary and I are soul mates in this struggle.”
It was a message he delivered to the Miami crowd in Spanish.
In the days after Kaine’s selection as Clinton’s running mate, much was made of his time working with Roman Catholic missionaries in Latin America as a young law student. Fluent in Spanish, the former mayor of Richmond and governor of Virginia moved easily between languages when he spoke at that first campaign event.
But while some Latinos say there’s a practical value to Kaine’s skills, they add the days are gone when that alone is enough to win over Hispanic voters.
“Words are fleeting and actions are what matter,” said Daniel Lopez, a 50-year-old security guard at a Mexican market in Santa Ana, California, who said he’s voting for Clinton because of her strong work ethic—not what languages she or her vice presidential pick may speak.
Latinos make up about 17 percent of the nation’s population, and roughly half—27.3 million—are eligible to vote in 2016. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly 70 percent of Latinos say they speak only English at home or indicate they speak English “very well.”
It was no accident that Kaine was introduced at an event in Miami, home to one of the nation’s largest Hispanic communities. While he joined Clinton for a joint interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Kaine’s first solo television interview was with “Noticias Telemundo.”
Marc Campos, a veteran campaign consultant in Houston, said Kaine’s appearances on Telemundo and its primary competitor, Univision, will help the campaign reach older Spanish-speaking Latinos who are more likely to vote.
In cities such as Houston, local Spanish-language stations pull in ratings near their top English-language competitors. Campos said on such stations, Kaine could also reach relatively new U.S. citizens—or people living in the country illegally, who cannot vote but may be willing to volunteer.
University of California, Berkeley political science professor Lisa García Bedolla said the ability to speak Spanish is usually symbolic. But in the case of Kaine, who learned the language while working with missionaries in Honduras, she said it calls attention to his ability to connect on key issues that matter to Latinos. Kaine’s Spanish suggests a cultural competency that is not usually found among presidential candidates, she said.
“He kept talking about fe, familia y trabajo (faith, family and work). He was very respectful and humble about what he learned,” she said.
Kaine, who delivered the first speech on the Senate floor entirely in Spanish in 2013, is expected to help Clinton promote plans to push for a comprehensive overhaul to the nation’s immigration laws and connect with families who are living in fear of deportation.
Beyond Florida, his language skills could be an asset for Clinton in the battleground states of Colorado, Nevada and Virginia.
In picking Kaine, Clinton bypassed two Latinos on her short list: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro and Labor Secretary Tom Perez. That drew sharp criticism from some Latino academics and activists.
“The superficial usage of Spanish by a white politician to appeal to the Latino vote, in addition to the Clinton campaign’s decision not to pick a Latino like Julián Castro for vice president, does reveal a long history of the Democratic Party taking the Latino community for granted,” said Jimmy C. Patino Jr., a University of Minnesota Chicano Studies professor.
Dennis Montoya, a Democratic activist in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, said: “I think that if the candidate speaks Spanish, it’s better than if they don’t speak Spanish. But overall I’m left with a feeling of being patronized when we have business as usual being conducted at the national level.”