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Facing criticism of Hispanic ground game, Clinton camp points to early success in Florida

Nationwide, Clinton and Democrats hold a nearly 4-1 advantage in paid staffers over Trump and Republicans.
Univision News Logo
28 Oct 2016 – 12:16 PM EDT
Volunteers make calls at a Hillary Clinton field office in Little Havana, Miami Crédito: Jessica Weiss/Univision

MIAMI – Inside a small, run-down storefront in Little Havana, 16-year-old Hilda Delgado and a dozen other Hillary Clinton campaign volunteers are busy making calls.

Even though she’s not yet old enough to cast a ballot, Delgado has been volunteering after school whenever possible, urging people to vote or recruiting volunteers to go door-to-door. She's even convinced classmates to come along.

“In Little Havana, people are immigrants, many are uneducated,” Delgado told Univision. “It’s important to get the word out about the election.”

In recent weeks, the Clinton campaign has been criticized over what analysts say are lackluster efforts to reach Hispanics in key swing states like Florida. Some say the Democratic candidate initially relied too much on English-language digital and social media outreach, missing an opportunity to take better advantage of Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric to capitalize on Hispanic voters.

Others question if Clinton can come close to President Barack Obama’s successful on-the-ground, face-to-face campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

According to one poll, the share of Latino voters nationwide who say they will definitely vote this year is actually down from 2012.

"I think the Clinton campaign ... should have invested more resources in the registration and engagement of Latino voters," Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told Univision. "Their assumption was that Latinos would vote against something, rather than for something."

But in swing states with large Latinos population, like Florida, Clinton appears to be faring well so far.

Juan Cuba, executive director of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, which is working closely with the Clinton campaign, says Hispanic outreach in South Florida is surpassing Obama’s efforts and early voting results are promising.

“This campaign is in a much better position than Obama’s was at this point. We have more organizers in Miami-Dade right now that in 2012. We have an organized outreach strategy,” he said.

Early voting results look good for Clinton. On Monday, before in-person early voting began, Republicans led Democrats by a 1.7-point margin of absentee ballots. But that’s actually good news for Democrats: Republicans tend to vote far more via absentee. In 2012, that margin was 5.3 points 15 days before Election Day.

“We are breaking our record of keeping pace with Republicans,” Cuba says. “Of course those numbers are statewide, and not just in Miami. But if Hispanic Democrats weren’t enthused, those numbers would be lower.”

As of Friday morning, some 2.9 million Floridians had voted by vote-by-mail absentee ballot or in person. Republicans were narrowly ahead, having cast 1,171,558 million ballots (40.4 percent) and Democrats 1,156,962 (39.9 percent) of the ballots. That's a 0.5 percentage-point lead for the GOP.

Democrats tend to beat Republicans at in-person early voting, so analysts say Democrats are likely to overtake Republicans over the weekend.

Steve Schale, a political strategist in Florida who ran President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, thinks Clinton is on pace to break records among Latino voters.

“She’ll never win the Hispanic votes by the margins we see Colorado and Nevada, but I do believe she will exceed the 61 percent Obama got here in 2012,” he says. “We’re in good shape.”

The Clinton campaign’s Little Havana field office is one of 15 such offices across Miami-Dade, many of which are in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods where volunteers speak to voters mainly in Spanish.

Here, the walls are decorated with signs that read: “Hispanics for Hillary,” and “Juntos se Puede” (Together We Can). The pungent smell of Cuban coffee wafts through the air.

Across Miami-Dade, the Clinton campaign says it employs 80 full-time organizers, who recruit volunteers.

The majority of them are bilingual and half are from Miami. Across the state, the campaign has 82 field offices, which are hubs for some 90,000 volunteers.

Trump’s ground operation pales by comparison, as the candidate has shown little interest in activating an on-the-ground strategy. The Republican National Committee has worked independently of the Trump campaign to ignite a field operation.

But the political analysis website FiveThirtyEight points out Clinton and Democrats hold a nearly 4-1 advantage in paid staffers.

While Democrats employ 5,138 staffers in 15 battleground states, Trump’s campaign, the Republican National Committee and state parties employ 1,409 staffers in 16 states, according to campaign finance reports analyzed by The Hill.

Trump campaign organizer Juan Fiol says volunteers are making calls and knocking on doors in Miami. But he says it’s equally important for them to have volunteers at voting precincts.

“You need to have somebody outside the polls handing out literature,” he says. “In Miami that’s incredibly important. A lot of people are intimidated; they feel the press ridicules them. When they get to the polls and see the support Trump actually has, it’s a game changer.”

Fiol says he “hasn’t seen one single Clinton volunteer” at any of Miami’s early voting precincts.

Schale thinks criticism of the Clinton campaign’s strategies is “overblown.”

“Is the campaign perfect? No. Are they doing absolutely everything possible? No. But are they doing all the things they need to do to win? 100 percent,” Schale says. “There are a million ways to win a campaign. The fastest way to lose is try to do it a million different ways.”

Critics of Clinton’s strategy point to Obama’s innovative on-the-ground outreach, unveiled in 2008 and perfected in 2012, as well as a broader effort to target the Hispanic electorate in 2012, in which he focused on connecting with diverse minority voters through specific issues that affect the Latino community and investing heavily in Spanish-language television ads.

“People have short memories,” Schale says. “In 2012, up until us winning, we heard a lot of the same criticism: ‘the operation wasn’t built, they weren’t talking to the right people, there wasn’t enough excitement.’ But the campaign went out and talked to voters directly, made sure people voted, just like this campaign is doing now. And we won.”

Alfred Fuente, who served as a field organizer for Obama's reelection campaign in Little Havana in 2012, said Clinton got a bit of a late start with on-the-ground organizing compared to Obama.

“In looking at where the Clinton campaign has been at similar points compared to where Obama was in 2012, they didn’t really see to be on par,” he said.

This year alone, nearly 754,000 new voters were added to the rolls in Florida, of which 259,000 were Democrats and 206,000 Republicans, according to a Clinton campaign memo. That has meant a more diverse voting bloc: Florida’s electorate is now 64 percent white, down 3 percent from October 2012, when it was 67 percent white.

But the numbers are in line with overall and Hispanic population growth. Since 2012, the number of Hispanic eligible voters has increased by 4 million, to 27.3 million, accounting for 37 percent of the growth in all eligible voters during that span, according to Pew.

The memo also outlined a robust strategy for the final stretch of the campaign, featuring door knocking, new local outreach “hubs,” a phone-banking strategy and events – including “ caravanas” and block parties – to build excitement among voters.

Fuente concedes Clinton’s efforts are sometimes less obvious when compared to her opponent’s media attention. Though in 2012, Obama spoke directly to Hispanics about specific issues, this year’s campaign has been less about issues and more about noise.

“How do you compete with someone saying ‘I’m not going to cede the election?' You are attacking the most fundamental institution of this country. So how does [Hillary] break through and say ‘This is what I’m going to do with middle class families, this is what I’m going to do for colleges?'”

As the sun sets on the Clinton campaign office in Little Havana, 67-year-old Manuel Blanco, who came to the U.S. from Cuba 12 years ago, makes a fresh batch of Cuban coffee, pouring it into shot-sized plastic cups for all the volunteers in the office working into the night.

Hilda Delgado says she plans to volunteer as much as she can until November 8, making calls and going door-to-door.

"My best friend is undocumented, from Venezuela," she says. “She’s terrified about this election. I can’t take it lightly.”

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