MIAMI — I am dreading the 2020 presidential race, which I think will be the most brutal Americans have ever witnessed. Irrespective of who the Democratic nominee is, President Trump will use all the power and dirty tricks at his disposal to remain in power for another four years.
As was the case in 2016, if Democrats want to have any chance of defeating Mr. Trump they will need the strong support of Latino voters. This time, however, they will have to work extra hard to get it.
The truth is that no candidate will be able to win the White House without Latino votes. Not even Mr. Trump, who got 29 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2016. A higher Latino turnout in states like Florida and Arizona could have produced a completely different outcome that year. Mr. Trump would never have won the presidency without Florida’s 29 electoral votes and Arizona’s 11.
The number of eligible voters of Hispanic background who did not cast a ballot in 2016 was heartbreakingly high. Over half of the 27 million eligible Hispanic voters stayed home. Why? Although many of them didn’t want to vote for Mr. Trump, in part because he had made racist remarks about Mexican immigrants, they weren’t at all enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton.
This year, for the first time in history, Hispanics will be the largest minority group of potential voters in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in 2020, compared with 30 million African-Americans.
If Hispanics shake off their apathy and turn out in record-high numbers in crucial states, a Democrat may well defeat President Trump. But for this to happen, the Democrats must be honest with the Latino community: They must vow not to fall into the same traps they have in the past.
The fact that Julián Castro — the only Latino to run for the Democratic nomination — dropped out of the race should not be used as an excuse to stop discussing the issues most relevant to the Hispanic population: education, good jobs and health insurance. For Hispanics, it all comes down to economic opportunity, the fight against discrimination and the right to be treated as American citizens.
There is, however, another subject that remains painful for Latinos.
The Latino people hold a grudge against Democrats in general — and former President Barack Obama in particular — for two reasons: More than three million undocumented immigrants were deported during the Obama administration and Mr. Obama didn’t get through Congress an immigration reform bill that would have allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to remain legally in the United States.
“I can guarantee that we will have, in the first year, an immigration bill that I strongly support,” Mr. Obama, still running for president, told me during an interview in May 2008. “The first year?” I insisted. “The first year,” he replied.
President Obama didn’t keep his promise, even though Democrats controlled Congress for most of 2009.
Janet Murguía, president of UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), called Mr. Obama the “deporter in chief,” a moniker that always made him uncomfortable. The reality, however, is that the millions of deportations that took place under his watch broke Hispanic families apart.
Despite the Obama administration’s failures with regard to the Hispanic community, many 2020 Democratic nominees, as well as the party itself, find it difficult to criticize the former president.
During the Sept. 12 presidential debate in Houston, I asked former Vice President Joe Biden if he and Mr. Obama made a mistake in deporting so many undocumented immigrants. “The president did the best thing that was able to be done,” he answered.
“How about you?” I responded. “I’m the vice president of the United States,” Mr. Biden replied, failing to acknowledge that the administration had made any mistakes.
Mr. Biden highlighted the fact that Mr. Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has benefited over 800,000 undocumented young people known as Dreamers. The former vice president also thought it was outrageous to compare the Obama and Trump presidencies.
Still, the deportation issue isn’t going away.
During a Nov. 21 campaign event in Greenwood, S.C., Carlos Rojas of the Cosecha Movement asked Mr. Biden to say that he’d “stop all deportations from Day 1” by signing an executive order. Mr. Biden refused to do that. “I will not stop all deportations if you commit a crime that’s a felony,” he told Mr. Rojas.
Other Democratic candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, have taken a different stance. When I asked Senator Sanders in November, at a forum in Long Beach, Calif., if Mr. Obama had made a mistake in deporting three million undocumented immigrants, he answered without hesitation. “Yes,” he said.
Mr. Sanders vowed to submit an immigration reform bill during his first 100 days in office. “This is a promise I make, and I usually don’t make promises,” he told me.
The differing positions among Democratic candidates on important topics like deportations and the separation of immigrant families is causing fear among Hispanic voters and driving them away from the party. If Democrats really want to win Hispanic votes in the Nov. 3 election, they must stop making excuses and promise to avoid President Obama’s mistakes. If they fail to do this, they risk alienating Latino voters and losing the election.
That is the burden of the past.
Latino voters will decide the 2020 election. It’s as simple as that. If Democrats want to sway them their way, saying a few words in Spanish or posting a picture of themselves on Instagram eating tacos won’t do the trick. Democrats have to explain how they plan to make Hispanics a real part of that social experiment called America. The Hispanic population is much more than an electoral fad. As the iconic Hispanic labor leader César Chávez said, “We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”