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Political Advice for a President

What do Latino voters want?

An Essay by Ruben Navarrette

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Cards on the table. Porque tu y yo siempre hablamos la verdad. We’ve always been honest with one another. I’ve been handed an assignment about which I’m ambivalent.

You see, I’ve been asked to give ol’ Joe Biden — the 46th President of the United States, and someone who has been in politics for more than 50 years — some political advice. Specifically, I’m supposed to tell him how to stop the bleeding of Latino support and maybe rustle up some of those Latino voters who he won in 2020 but who have since wandered off.

In the immortal words of the late Freddie Prinze, “That’s not my job, man.” I make it a point not to give advice to politicians. That’s a role for a political consultant, not a journalist. I’m here to pounce on politicians when they do something wrong, not to show them how to do things right. Besides, my brand — in fact, literally, the name of my podcast — is “Ruben In The Center.” I got to the middle of the road because I strongly dislike both Democrats and Republicans, and most of the time I can’t tell them part. I don’t work for either party, and I’m not rooting for one side or the other.

At least Biden knows what’s up — that he’s upside down with Latino voters. It’s why in March he paid a visit to the critically important battleground states of Nevada and Arizona. Biden won both states in 2020, but now he’s afraid that he could lose both, in large part because he is losing Latinos. Speaking to groups of Latinos, Biden took direct aim at the presumptive Republican nominee: former President Donald Trump.

“This guy despises Latinos,” Mr. Biden said in an interview with Univision Radio. “I understand Latino values.”

Biden suggested that Trump is outright hostile to Latinos — especially the newly arrived. “He says immigrants are ‘poisoning the blood’ of this country, separated children from parents at the border, caged the kids, planned mass deportations systems,” Biden said of his likely opponent. “We have to stop this guy. We can’t let this happen. We are a nation of immigrants.”

The best way to get Latino support is to ask for it, flat out. And that’s exactly what Biden did during a visit to a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix called El Portal. “I need you badly,” the president told the crowd. “I need the help.”

Before he headed back to Washington, Biden launched his campaign's Latino voter outreach organization dubbed Latinos Con Biden-Harris. There’s even an early campaign ad available in three “languages”: English, Spanish and Spanglish.

That’s bueno. But the truth is, not all that many Latinos were con Biden to begin with. In 2020, he got 61% of the Latino vote. That’s a poor showing for a Democrat. In 2016, Barack Obama got 71%. In 1996, Bill Clinton got 72%. And neither of them had the extra advantage of running against el diablo.

Think of it. Even running against Donald Trump, Biden could only manage to pull down 61%. That’s not a big surprise when you recall that in the 2020 Democratic primary, Biden was the fifth choice of Latino voters behind Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.

On Inauguration Day in January 2021, Biden was already in the hole with Latino voters. He never climbed out. In fact, he dug himself even deeper into that hole by losing a significant amount of the Latino support he did enjoy. A February poll by the New York Times/Siena College found that Biden is getting just 40% of the Latino vote, compared — somewhat inexplicably — to 46% for Trump.

Confession time. As a Latino Never Trumper, I don’t completely “get” where the pro-Trump Latinos are coming from. I get it a little bit, because I grew up in the conservative farm country of California’s Central Valley. But as a journalist who closely follows politics, there is one thing I do understand: the math. Every time that Trump puts his name on a ballot and goes before Latino voters, no matter whom he’s running against, he walks away with more support than he had the previous time.

Even if Biden is right, even if Trump does “despise” Latinos, what should worry Democrats is that apparently, for many Latinos, the feeling is not mutual.

In 2016, Trump got 28% of the Latino vote. In 2020, he got 36% according to exit polls by the New York Times. Trump typically does well with Cubans, Colombians and Venezuelans in South Florida. But he also turned in respectable showings with Mexican Americans — a critical voting bloc in conservative pockets of the Southwest like South Texas, Central Arizona, South New Mexico and Central California.

In 2024, the presidential election has a built-in paradox that revolves around Latino voters: Given that Trump never met a Latino or Latina that he didn’t insult, attack or scapegoat, it’s a safe bet that Latinos would likely suffer disproportionally if Trump wins a second term. Yet, even so, according to all the polls — and what Biden himself seems to believe if you listen to his pleading — Latinos are poised to help re-elect Trump.

Why is this happening? It’s tempting to focus on Trump and say that he’s got this mysterious power to attract Latino voters.

Fine. But let’s not forget the role that Biden and the Democratic Party are playing in the great Latino exodus. For decades, these people — our people — have been neglected, deceived and taken for granted by the Democrats. Political observers started keeping track of the Latino vote back in 1960. Since then, there have been 15 presidential elections. In how many of them do you suppose Latinos have handed over the majority of votes to the Democratic candidate? That’s right. All 15.

Let me blunt (as if I haven’t been up to now). If there is one group on the planet that owes Latinos some respeto, it’s the Democrats. And what have they done to repay the debt?

Well, for one thing, they’ve been assholes on immigration. The three most anti-immigrant presidents in the last 50 years have all been Democrats. Clinton militarized the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego with Operation Gatekeeper and signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made it easier to deport the undocumented and harder for those who are removed to come back. Obama put Central American refugee kids in cages and deported 3 million people, most of them Latino. And Biden — after promising that he would end all of Trump’s evil immigration policies — wound up adopting more than a few of them. These include a plan to build a border wall and restrictions that make it more difficult for refugees to apply for asylum. Biden has also been sued by the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union, which claims his immigration policies are much too harsh. In fact, they’re downright Trumpian.

Aside from all that, it’s possible that part of the reason for Biden’s backslide with Latinos is that this group is well assimilated and susceptible to the same trends that affect the mainstream. Even if you take Latinos out of the equation, who and what Biden is doesn’t change. We’re still talking about an incumbent who in his first term failed to meet expectations on multiple fronts and now finds himself struggling to win a second term.

According to Five Thirty Eight, in March Biden had a disapproval rating of 55.6%. Only 39.1% thought he did a good job as president. What’s hurting him? Take your pick. Inflation. Immigration. Gaza. His age (82). His Vice President, Kamala Harris (52.3% disapproval, 37.1% approval).The moderates think Biden veered too far left. The lefties think he’s lurched to the right. The progressives think he hasn’t delivered — on voting rights, police reform, immigration reform, expanding protections for the LGBTQ community. Finally, of course, the right-wingers are never happy, and most of them are certainly not happy with Biden. In fact, a sizable chunk of MAGA mensos still believe that Biden stole the 2020 election from Trump.

And so, into this desmadre, I march. Because I’ve been asked to give Biden advice about how to find his way back into the good graces of Latino voters, I can’t stop thinking about the Chinese proverb: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Part of the problem with Democrats — hell, with the entire Democratic Party — is that they’re never ready for a lecture on how they can do right by Latinos. Since we’re neither Black nor White, we might as well be invisible to the left. The thickheadedness is especially acute with White liberals, a cohort that I’ve been slugging it out with for the entirety of the 35 years that I’ve been in journalism. These people are smarter than us and better than us in every way. They expect Latinos to serve up plates of arroz con pollo, not opinions. So I fear that no matter how brilliant my advice to Biden, the odds are long that it’ll ever get a hearing from the arrogant yet ignorant snobs in the Democratic Party.

This includes the current occupant of the White House, who grew up in the 1940’s in a Black and White world — and does not appear to have ever broadened his perspective. You can blame geography if you like. Born in Scranton, PA, Biden moved with his family to Delaware when he was 10, graduated from high school in the small town of Claymont, went to law school at Syracuse University in upstate New York, and commuted to work in Washington DC for the 36 years he served in the Senate until he became Vice President in 2008.

If you connect those four dots — Scranton, Claymont, Syracuse and Washington — on a map, the resulting polygon would represent the area of the country where Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has spent the entirety of his 82 years on the planet. Do you know what there aren’t many of in that polygon? Latinos. Not today, and certainly not 60 or 70 years ago. That’s a big part of the reason why — unlike former president George W. Bush, who grew up around Mexican oil rig workers in Midland and picked up their language and culture — Biden’s understanding of Latinos, and especially Mexican Americans, has always been a few tacos short of a combination plate.

That blindspot showed up during his time in the Senate. In the 36 years he spent in the upper chamber, Biden didn’t do much that was specifically meant to benefit Latinos. But, if we’re being honest, he did do at least three things that harmed us.

In 1994, Biden authored — with a helping hand from mostly White police unions — the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. For many years, Biden bragged about what he called “the Biden Bill” but what criminal justice reformers consider racist legislation that spurred mass incarceration of Latinos.

In 1996, Biden voted for the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a notorious enforcement bill that made it easier to deport the undocumented — a category that typically includes many Latinos — and harder for those who are removed from the United States to find their way back.

In 2005, Biden voted for the Secure Fence Act — which authorized and partially funded the construction of 700 miles of additional fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Signed into law by George W. Bush, the legislation laid the foundation for the “big, beautiful wall” that Trump later promised to build on the border.

And then, from 2009 to 2017, Biden served as vice president, and thus second-in-command, to Obama who immigration advocates dubbed “the deporter-in-chief.” Clearly, Biden needs a lot of help with Latino voters. And he doesn’t have a lot of time to turn things around.

Back to the paradox. Biden is in tough spot with Latinos, and Latinos are in a tough spot because of Biden. If Biden loses, and Trump wins, Latinos are headed for dark days. Cards back on the table. I think I feel my ambivalence subsiding. I’ve had my say. You can call me a “double hater” who is disgusted with what are likely to be our choices this Fall. And I know I’m not alone. Plenty of Latinos are with me. But the threat of a second Trump presidency is just too great to not do everything we can to prevent it. That includes giving Biden some helpful advice about how to get back what he’s lost in terms of Latino support. And if he, and his Ivy League handlers, are too arrogant to listen, that’s on them. Here goes nothing.

Mr. President, what Latinos value most is the one thing we never seem to get from politicians in either party: respect. Here are three ways you can show some:

First, don’t bullshit us. That line from the brochure about how America is a nation of immigrants. That’s true. But read the fine print. It’s also a place that has never liked immigrants. Part of the reason could be fear-mongering politicians who treat immigrants like piñatas when expedient. You have no business talking about immigration. Your record is atrocious. You know it, and we know it. The less often you bring it up, the better.

Second, be sincere, authentic, and empathetic. Those things have always been your strong suit. You’re a better person than your opponent, as evidenced by the fact that you’ve treated your vice president better than he treated his #2. Stop listening to your consultants and focus groups. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Just trust your instincts and be yourself. This will let you connect with Latinos on a human level, not a political one.

Third, don’t be like Trump. You may be making a pitch for Latino votes now, but your policies are still intended to pander to suburban Whites. That’s not the proper battleground. If you give up as much as 40% of the Latino vote, you’ll lose this election. You need to focus on getting back the voters you once had, instead of always chasing the ones you’re never going to get. And why should Latinos vote for Trump-lite, when they have the real thing?

Mr. President, you don’t know us. Even after a half century in politics, you’ve never been the least bit curious about us. You would think that an ethnic group that slowly grew to become America’s largest minority would capture your attention. But that never happened. We can’t change that now. But what we can do is help you slay the dragon so that you get another four years to make our acquaintance, and maybe do a better job of taking care of a constituency that has always taken care of you and your party.

You owe us that, and it’s time to pay up.

Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, writer of the Navarrette Nation newsletter at Substack, author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano, video contributor to Straight Arrow News, host of the podcast, “Ruben In The Center” and a popular speaker on the lecture circuit. Visit

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