On paper at least, President Donald Trump would seem to be the ideal candidate to unite the country’s growing Latino electorate behind the Democratic Party’s candidate, Joe Biden.
Trump has spent the last four years slashing immigration, building a border wall and denigrating Mexicans as rapists and murderers.
Yet, his polling numbers among Latino voters are actually up. Go figure.
As the Biden campaign gears up for the final stretch of the campaign, some Hispanic community activists worry not enough is being done to engage Latino voters. They fear a repeat of 2016 when critics accuse Hilary Clinton, and the Democratic Party leadership, of taking the Latino vote too much for granted.
“There’s definitely an enthusiasm gap that is made even larger because of the lack of investment and attention to get the Latino electorate to come out and vote in November,” said Sonja Diaz, director the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative at the University of California.
“There needs to be purposeful and significant dollars spent to engage Latino voters to come out to vote during a global pandemic in jurisdictions across the country that are trying to suppress the Latino vote … specifically in key battleground state like Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida,” she added.
32 million eligible Latinos
The Biden campaign says in response, just watch as it starts gearing up. “The mobilization and outreach apparatus has not fully kicked in yet,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of polling firm Latino Decisions, which was hired by the Biden campaign last week. “The campaign is hiring a lot of people. More and more Latino staffers are coming on board across all the states and once they get to work those numbers should increase,” he added.
A record 32 million Latinos are projected to be eligible to vote in November’s general election, an increase of five million since 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. For the first time Latino eligible voters will represent the largest minority, accounting for 13.3% of the electorate, compared to 11.9% in 2016.
About 62% of Latino registered voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 34% affiliate with or lean to the Republican Party.
Pollsters and campaign strategists warn that the Democratic Party has frequently underestimated the Latino vote, while also counting on its support. Despite Trump’s appalling record on many issues that Latinos care about, their vote still needs to be earned in 2020.
"You can’t just be anti-Trump"
“This is a sector of the electorate that may not necessarily love Trump, but many of them are disenchanted with-politics, and some have a culture of a pox on both their houses,” said Fernand Amandi, a pollster and strategist in Miami who worked for the Obama campaign.
“So, you can’t just be anti-Trump. You have to make a case why your candidate – in this case Joe Biden - is going to be able to help them solve the problems they are worried about, like keeping their job, or getting a job, paying their rent, getting health insurance,” he added.
To be fair, both the Trump and Biden campaigns are hampered by the coronavirus pandemic which has effectively derailed the traditional strategy of planning a ground game, with public rallies and door-to-door canvassing of voters. Covid-19, as well as the Black Lives Matter protests, have dominated news headlines, pushing the November election aside.
During the primaries, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders also drew strong Latino support away from Biden, something that the Democratic Party hopes to redirect in Biden’s favor in the coming weeks. Biden and Sanders in May announced a ‘unity task force’ to work together during the campaign.
"The challenges for the Latino community right now are unprecedented, with record level unemployment and deep healthcare disparities, presenting the Biden campaign an opportunity to show empathy by using his personal story of overcoming personal tragedy,” said Kristian Ramos, former communications director for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and founder of Autonomy Strategies, a media consulting company.
“The message they can deliver is that he feels the Latino community's pain and that he can help them get through these difficult times,” he added, referring to Biden’s loss of his first wife and infant daughter in a 1972 car accident and a son to cancer in 2015.
Another plus for Biden is his image as a family man. “In this community family is the most important thing. Biden can speak to all of these things from the heart,” said Ramos.
TV and digital strategy
Both campaigns have responded by spending on a wave of Spanish-language TV and digital ads in Florida and Arizona. Taking a leaf out of the Obama campaign which is credited with running a successful Latino engagement strategy, the Biden campaign tailored the ads to each market, with a Mexican-accented narrator in Arizona, a Cuban in Miami and a Puerto Rican in Orlando.
While recognizing covid-19 has made traditional campaigning difficult, “ads alone are not going to do it,” Diaz warns. “What we need is mobilization. There’s still a lot of digital messaging that can occur,” she added.
The Latino civic organizations, Mi Familia Vota, has already moved all its field operations to digital, targeting Latinos with voter information on registering to vote by mail as well as guides to the issues.
The Democratic Party has “way more room for improvement,” the director of Mi Familia Vota, Héctor Sánchez, told Univision. So, Sanchez said the group is being more proactive this year. Sanchez held a town hall in Las Vegas with Biden in January where he extracted several commitments from the candidate, including an immigration bill within the first 100 days of his presidency, and economic plan for Puerto Rico and the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history.
Mi Familia Vota is also breaking from its non-partisan voter education initiatives to launch an aggressive ‘#Basta Trump’ campaign to make him a one term president. “Donald Trump is the biggest threat to the Latino community, so our top priority has to be beating Donald Trump,” said Sánchez.
Barreto worked on the 2016 campaign, and while he believes some of the criticism of Clinton is unfair, he notes things are noticeably different in 2020. “The Democratic party as a whole is getting better at outreach. It’s doing it earlier,” he said.
For one thing, the party elected its first Latino leader in 2017, National Democratic Chairman Tom Perez. Almost immediately after the 2016 election, Latino Decisions was hired by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to help prepare for the 2018 mid-term elections. “They asked us to help them understand the mood of the Latino electorate,” said Barreto.
After the Democrats won back control of the House of Representatives in 2018, the DCCC turned to Latino Decisions again to do more polling, focus groups and message testing to prepare for 2020.
“They are doing a lot of research,” said Albert Morales, political director for Latino Decisions in Washington DC. “They are not going to be caught off guard,” he added.