Latinos’ clout has Democrats fretting over Biden’s outreach

Does all he have to do is call?

Actor Eva Longoria speaks at a Hispanic heritage event with Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden at Osceola Heritage Park on Sept. 15 in Kissimmee, Fla. Biden's outreach to Latinos has Democrats asking whether he's doing enough to win a group that could be decisive in November.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Actor Eva Longoria speaks at a Hispanic heritage event with Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden at Osceola Heritage Park on Sept. 15 in Kissimmee, Fla. Biden's outreach to Latinos has Democrats asking whether he's doing enough to win a group that could be decisive in November. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Posted September 23, 2020 at 5:00am

Some Democrats are fretting over polls suggesting that Joe Biden’s presidential campaign isn’t reaching Latino voters, missing an opportunity to connect over the response to the coronavirus pandemic that the group identifies as its biggest campaign issue. Or just to connect. Others are telling the worriers to relax. 

As the Nov. 3 election approaches, the Democrats’ glass-half-full, glass-half-empty hand-wringing underscores the importance of a group with historically low turnout but big enough numbers to swing the election in Florida, Arizona and Nevada. Donald Trump carried the first two states in 2016, and Hillary Clinton won the third.

Latinos make up at least 1 out of 5 of those states’ eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center. Biden would win if he flipped Florida and Arizona and every other state voted as it did in 2016.

But the former vice president has been lagging his predecessors, according to weekly tracking polls by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, and Latino Decisions. Biden is leading Trump nationally 64 to 24 percent among Latinos in those polls. That’s a commanding lead, but his percentage is smaller than Clinton’s 66 percent in 2016 and Obama’s 71 percent in 2012.

The same tracking polls found that half of Latino households nationwide haven’t been contacted by either campaign and that 80 percent are “almost certain” they will vote — which would shatter the average Latino turnout over the past few decades.

“I’m worried about them getting the basic information on how to vote, when to vote and whether Joe Biden is good,” said Chuck Rocha, who founded Nuestro PAC to focus on reaching Latino Democrats in 2020. 

Latinos are expected to be the largest minority in this year’s election, with 13 percent of eligible voters. They tend to back Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The issues are relatively stable, with COVID-19 taking up the majority of Latinos’ attention, and we expect this, obviously, to continue,” said Stephen Nuno-Perez, communications director for Latino Decision. He said NALEO tracking polls that began last month show Biden ahead of Trump on favorability: positive 35 to negative 38.

Other recent surveys have found that Latinos have higher reported rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths and are suffering greater financial hardships inflicted by the disease. 

But for Rocha, worrying about the policy message to take to Latino voters is less important than just talking to them a lot more. Biden’s campaign is favoring advertising and other remote outreach over in-person events because of the pandemic. Rocha thinks the campaign needs to shift resources from targeting undecided white voters. 

Just call

“People get too, too, too caught up in policy,” Rocha said. “That communication [with Latinos] is not happening because there is no investment in that communication.” 

Rocha led Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Latino outreach during the Democratic presidential primary. The Vermont senator did well among the group, but surveys found Biden trounced him in one of the states in play this fall: Florida. 

The state may be Biden’s biggest Latino headache — and opportunity. A Kaiser Family Foundation and Cook Political Report poll released Sept. 17 showed the Florida race in a statistical tie, with Biden slightly ahead of Trump, 43 to 42 percent, well within the 3-point margin of error. 

Clinton lost Florida despite beating Trump by 27 points among Latinos in 2016. Polls show Biden and Trump evenly split among the state’s Latinos. Biden’s path to the White House doesn’t depend on Florida, but a Democratic victory there would go far to eliminate any chance of Trump winning reelection.

Rocha attributes Biden’s relative underperformance among Latinos to their unfamiliarity with him. They don’t know much about him besides his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president, Rocha said, a point echoed recently by pollsters at Equis Research. 

But Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, a member of Biden’s Latino Leadership Committee, is among the more relaxed Democrats. He says the campaign is on the right track. Hispanic and Latino communities have been hard to poll in the past, and despite concerns about their enthusiasm, turnout spiked in 2018 to help Democrat Kyrsten Sinema prevail in the Senate race over her Republican opponent, Martha McSally, he said. 

“They did come out and vote. Everyone kind of forgot that. As a matter of fact, more Latinos voted in 2018 in Arizona than they did in 2016,” Gallego said. “And now it kind of feels like we’re going through the same drama, when in reality, I just don’t see it as a problem.”

Sinema became the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate seat in more than two decades. Soon thereafter, McSally was appointed by the state’s Republican governor to the other Senate seat, left vacant after John McCain’s death. But she now polls far behind her Democratic challenger, Mark Kelly. 

Gallego also countered critics who said the campaign wasn’t spending enough on Latino outreach. 

“The investment is there,” he said. “If there was no investment happening, then I’d say we should be worried.”

NALEO’s poll finding that 80 percent of Latinos plan to vote would be a sharp change from the past. Census Bureau data shows only 48 percent of Hispanic and Latino voters cast ballots in 2016, far less than the 61 percent national turnout and the lowest of any group tracked by the agency.

Democrats are also playing down worries in Nevada. According to Equis, Biden leads Trump 62 to 26 percent among Latinos. But the Democrats’ margin for error is small. Clinton won the state by just 2.5 percentage points in 2016.

“I’m sure we’ll continue to hear more about what Latino voters  and other voters will or won’t do, but we are confident that if we do the work, we will see people turn out,” said Shelby Wiltz, the coordinated campaign director for Nevada Democrats. 

The state Democratic Party’s outreach has gone fully remote. But Wiltz said the virtual organizing has lowered the bar to participation for volunteers who otherwise might not have shown up at in-person phone banks or door-knocking drives.

“We actually have seen an increase of involvement, I think,” she said. 

Democrats opting for social distancing is a major difference with Republicans, said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican House member from Florida. He contrasted Democrats’ approach with extensive on-the-ground efforts by Republican campaigns, particularly the Trump campaign’s focus on knocking on millions of voters’ doors nationwide.

“In a lot of communities, I think particularly Latino communities, when everyone’s getting bombarded with television ads and emails and texts, the difference-maker could be someone showing up,” Curbelo said. 

Texas-sized optimism

In Texas, where Latinos make up 30 percent of eligible voters, Biden isn’t expected to pose a serious threat to Trump’s chances. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since 1976. 

That hasn’t hampered the optimism of the state’s Democratic Party spokesman, Abhi Rahman. He says more than 2 million newly registered voters, many of them in Hispanic and Latino communities in the Houston and Dallas suburbs and South Texas, can make the party competitive. Rahman says the Democrats can flip several competitive House seats, the state Legislature and even Senate and presidential races.

The party has launched a bilingual advertising campaign across media platforms meant to tap voters who have not cast ballots in past elections. He thinks Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and the Mexican border will galvanize Latino voters because of their proximity.

“Everything that we do is all about meeting people where they are, you know. People don’t want people ever knocking door-to-door right now just because it’s not safe,” Rahman said.

Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.