Univision, the country's largest Spanish-language network, has invited the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates to address its considerable TV, radio and online audience on issues affecting the Hispanic community. According to the network, the debates, which would be translated simultaneously into Spanish, would reach 99% of Hispanic households.
A televised debate aimed at the fastest-growing segment of the electorate already strikes us as a no-brainer. The predictable opposition to it fomented by the English-only, anti-immigrant elements of the talk-radio crowd only makes us all the more in favor of it.
According to a Pew Research study released last month, Hispanics accounted for half of the U.S. population growth between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. But while Univision expects Hispanics to play a “pivotal” role in the 2008 election, the Pew study indicates that only a tenth of those new potential voters actually votes.
That gap has widened in recent years, says the study, and every campaign should be interested in narrowing it. The fact that there is such fear and resentment among those who warn that the country is becoming the “United States of Mexico” is even more reason to welcome a long-marginalized community into the electoral tent.
Candidates already recognize the importance of the Hispanic vote (witness the “En Español” buttons on campaign sites). With issues like healthcare and immigration hot-button topics for the entire nation, not just Hispanics, the responses to Univision's invitation should have been immediate and enthusiastic. They weren't.
Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who speaks Spanish, say they are game, but the rest of the candidates have yet to embrace the idea fully.
Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), a Mexican-American who speaks fluent Spanish, was the first to accept, but is now reconsidering because the candidates will be required to speak English. Univision says the requirement is intended to establish a level playing field, but Richardson argues that “candidates who speak Spanish should not be penalized because other candidates do not.”
At press time, the two highest-profile candidates had yet to publicly accept. Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) campaign did not respond to inquiries. And Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) likely won't agree to the format.
According to Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli, the campaign's director of Hispanic communications, Clinton—like most of the Democratic candidates—has agreed to appear only in Democratic National Committee-sponsored debates. Rodriguez-Ciampoli says the campaign is still in discussions about working out an alternative, perhaps a non-debate forum, and that the Hispanic community is very important to Sen. Clinton.
One campaign staffer pointed out that forthcoming debates on NBC/MSNBC and CNN will be simulcast in Spanish (on Telemundo and CNN En Español, respectively). But none is the same as a debate focused solely on Hispanic issues.
We understand candidates can't accept every debate invitation. But the evasive responses thus far speak volumes about their potential as leaders. And given the growing influence of Hispanics—and Univision's unique ability to reach them—this is the wrong forum for candidates of either party to take a pass on.