Moment of Truth
Why this election matters
By Valerie Menard
Set against the backdrop of a pandemic, this has been a presidential election year like no other. On November 3, Latino voters will face the moment of truth and vote for either Donald Trump or Joe Biden, but neither candidate can claim confidence about who Latinos will favor. Both will need every vote they can get and once again, and Latinos can offer that margin of victory or defeat.
“We need to be sensitive to what is the mood of the people,” advises Gilberto Ocañas, Democratic political consultant and advisor for the Julian Castro presidential campaign. “Do they want someone who lies and doesn’t take responsibility? Does Joe Biden offer an alternative? In this case, people want a return to normalcy, someone who has experience and is not selling snake oil, that’s where the mood is. Biden’s nomination against a super competent group of candidates said ‘we want experience and someone who represents everyone in the party.’ They want somebody for positive change rather than revolution.”
This year, Latino voters will make up the largest ethnic voting block for the first time, with 32 million eligible voters or 13.3 percent of the electorate.
While it’s still early, Biden has a strong lead over Trump among Latino voters. According to poll results released by Latino Decisions in April, Latino registered voters favor Biden by 59 percent, versus 22 percent for Trump. What gives the Biden campaign pause is the level of enthusiasm for him among Latino voters, which has dropped by eight percent since January according to Latino Decisions.
As the primary season kicked off, voting patterns led pundits to ascribe various candidates the “favorite” of the moment. But it wasn’t until the Nevada caucus on February 22 that voters of color began to make a difference and Latinos stole the show with their overwhelming support for Sanders, 53 percent compared with 17 percent for Biden. At that moment, Sanders seemed the candidate most likely to win the nomination.
But along came South Carolina one week later, and everything changed when Biden scored his own landslide victory, buoyed by 61 percent of African American voters. The race flipped and Biden, whose campaign had been nearly declared dead, was the new front runner.
That lead solidified on Super Tuesday when fourteen states weighed in and Biden took nearly all of them in a complete surprise. Latinos voters, however, held true to Sanders. In the states with the largest Latino populations, California, Colorado and Texas, Biden was a distant second to Sanders who took, 49, 42, and 39 percent, respectively, of the Latino vote on Super Tuesday, according to exit poll data compiled by Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Biden, however, scored more Latino voters in states with fewer Latinos like Virginia, North Carolina, and Massachusetts.
Now the presumptive nominee, Biden has received an endorsement from Sanders that may pave the way for Latinos to reconsider Biden. Sanders has also said he will stump for him if campaigns trails reopen. “Biden’s biggest hurdle is his connection to President Obama and his (immigration) policies,” says Ed Espinoza of Progress Texas. “A lot of time has passed, times have changed, I don’t think Biden will have the same policies as Trump and Obama but he will have convincing to do to get people mobilized to support him. Latinos will come home for Biden but not without an effort.”
Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President
Most recently, Julian Castro added his endorsement, the last major Democratic candidate to do so. Castro cited Biden’s support for police reform. Each election cycle, political pundits engage in the age-old question: How do you engage Latino voters? The answer, again and again, is for a campaign to put the same focus, effort, and budget toward appealing to Latino voters as it dedicates to other sectors of the electorate, e.g. suburban white women. That theory was finally tested by the Sanders campaign, which, according to former Sanders campaign senior adviser Chuck Rocha, which spent nearly $9 million on reaching Latinos voters. The other key to success included hiring Latino consultants and staff to build a strategy, and lastly, making Latino outreach part of the hole campaign rather than being set apart, in effect segregating the effort from sources of power and influence in the campaign.
“Brown consultants matter,” asserts Rocha. “There were several reasons for our success, the top three or four were having Latino consultants and staff running every aspect of Latino outreach, which created cultural competency. Starting early and investing a lot of money, helped. We did not have a Latino department like every campaign where Latinos are used as window dressing, away from the power of the real campaign. Our efforts were coordinated through the larger overall campaign, including hiring by those departments. At the end we had 206 Latinos on staff. Latino outreach made history, with more money, more hiring and more spent on Latino consultants than ever in history for the best outcome.”
But the Biden campaign appears to have learned this lesson. Cristobal Alex, the former president of the Latino Victory Fund, signed up as Biden’s senior advisor for Latino outreach in March 2019. When asked why he would leave Latino Victory after five years of building up the organization, Alex shares a memory of seeing his brother bullied one day in school. He stood and watched at the time, but says he swore he would not let it happen again. He sees Trump as a bully and feels that the Vice President, who has stood up to political bullies like the National Rifle Association, will stand up to him like no other.
“I also remember my mother, a migrant farm worker, who always told my brother and me that if we put our hearts to achieve what we want, it can happen in this country,” he says. “This is the first time in my life when I feel that dream is at risk.”
Biden lagged behind his competitors in fundraising during the primaries and Alex admits that limited their efforts regarding Latino outreach. But now fundraising has increased and Latino outreach will become more robust.
Latino staffing has bulked up with names like Julie Chávez Rodriguez, granddaughter of Latino labor leader César Chávez, who will be the highest-ranking Latina on the campaign. Another new hire is Jason Rodriguez who served as the national deputy Latino vote director for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and will serve as deputy to national coalitions director Ashley Allison. The campaign will soon add a Latino to the paid media department. “I’m excited about the Latino talent that will augment a stellar, battle hardened campaign staff,” he says.
According to Alex, the campaign’s Latino strategy will focus on Biden’s message of restoring unity: “Donald Trump has been a nightmare ever since he came down the escalator and as president, he has exceeded our worst expectations. People know Joe Biden, they feel they can trust him. He wants to bring the country together to restore America and Latinos will be central. On his first day in office he will push immigration reform and the centerpiece of that will be family unification, build on Obamacare to achieve universal health care, and give Latinos the tools to build a pathway to the middle-class. Unlike Trump, Biden in the White House will be a best friend to Latinos.”
The new president and CEO of the Latino Victory Fund is Nathalie Rayes, a government policy expert who, only eight weeks prior to this interview, had been a Latino Victory board member. “We were the first to support the VP,” she says, adding that she felt this election was so consequential she could no longer sit on the sidelines.
“We need to make sure Latinos come out to vote, so we’re building a digital strategy focused on different social media platforms, pushing for a bilingual culturally-competent campaign, and promoting vote-by-mail education to ensure Latino voters know where to find ballots and how to complete them. It is time to re-engage our community to show we have a pivotal part to play. There are two paramount equalizers in this country, education and being actively involved in the democratic process. Our goal is to make sure everyone comes out in November,” says Rayes.
Given the president’s litany of abuses toward the Latino community, from a campaign that launched with calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, to abandoning Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, to separating thousands of children from their parents at the border with no plans to reunite them, it’s surprising that the race is close at all. Biden, however, is not without his own baggage, specifically the ramped up immigration efforts by the Obama administration that Espinoza alluded to, of which he was a part, including a record number of deportations that got President Obama the inauspicious title of “deporter in-chief.”
The investment by Sanders into Latino outreach was only part of his formula for success. The second and crucial key was his message appealing to working class Latinos and empathy in a candidate can move masses. Espinoza suggests that Biden should remember that Latinos care about the same issues as most Americans, like education, healthcare, employment and immigration. “With any group, you gotta be able to communicate that you understand where people are coming from and not just policy your way around things,” he says. “Do you know my problems? What I deal with everyday? Understand the human side of it. Bernie was good at that and that’s the effort we need.”
According to Ocañas, most Latino non-voters are found among the working class. “Biden needs to over communicate to them,” he says. “You can’t just assume Latinos will vote for you, it takes a 110-percent effort going after undecided or persuadable voters. If you don’t’ really care and take us for granted, the turnout will be low and will lose.”
In addition to Castro and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (who will co-chair Biden’s campaign climate task force) endorsements from Latino leaders and organizations so far include United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, Voto Latino, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus campaign arm, and the Latino Victory Fund.
“As he changes positions he needs to make sure he’s moveable and trying to align with younger voters by talking about college debt and affordability to be more in line with Bernie Sanders,” adds Rocha.
Even Biden’s choice of running mate could make a difference. According to Stephanie Valencia, co-founder of EquisLabs, which interviewed 30,000 Latinos in eleven battleground states, the biggest concern about Latino voters is ambivalence, especially among Latinas. While Latinas more strongly support Democratic candidates, they show up less often to vote than white or black women.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Valencia writes: “Of our many findings, two stand out: Increased turnout among Latinas and ambivalent voters are the keys to winning in November … Latina turnout rates are 14 percent to 20 percent lower than non-Hispanic black or white women. One reason is the excitement gap. While Latinas feel motivated to vote, they report lower levels of excitement about doing so, and in some cases, the disparity is vast.”
Biden has committed to choosing a women as his running mate, and among those contenders are two Latinas, Nevada senator Catherine Cortez Masto and New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. Some feel that if Biden were to choose a Latina, he could mobilize Latinos to vote. “The choice of VP gets you free media coverage and it reflects an investment in a certain community,” says Rocha. “If he chooses a Latina, he would get accolades and it would mean something to the Latino community.”
For his part, Rocha will not be available for hire because he has opted to escalate his Latino outreach efforts by forming the first super PAC to target them, NuestroPAC. Like he did with the Sanders campaign, Rocha will focus on states with smaller Latino populations, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, as well as Florida and Nevada.
“Over 200,000 Puerto Ricans moved to Pennsylvania after Hurricane Maria,” he explains. “No Democrat is talking to them, I will spend a lot of time talking to them, if I get funded.”
Rocha hopes progressive donors will prioritize mobilizing Latino voters as they have supported efforts to reach other voting groups, like soccer moms and white blue collar workers. “I want to make sure there’s a vehicle to support Latino voters and efforts to get Latinos to vote,” he says.
Recent polls show Biden solidifying a double-digit lead lead, reflecting the perception that Trump has botched the response to the pandemic as well as the protests following the death of George Floyd. On June 3, a Monmouth University poll showed Biden has the support of 52% of registered voters, while Trump has 41%. In March, Biden only led by three points, 48% to 45%.
But Ocañas cautions that polls may not be as reliable as they used to be and subtler indicators may carry more weight. “In the old days we would take polls seriously, but with the 24-hour news cycle, things change all the time,” he says. “When people start thinking a certain way it reflects a trend. People may opt to vote against Trump rather than for Biden but more people are coming together, and we need someone who can bring people together.”