Democratic presidential candidates are squandering a critical early opportunity to mobilize Latino voters ahead of 2020, potentially easing Donald Trump’s path to reelection, according to leading Latino political operatives in battleground states.
Interviews with more than a dozen strategists and organizers revealed rising alarm at the lack of attention being paid to Latinos in swing states where they could decide the outcome of both the Democratic primary and the general election. Trump is counting on a slice of Latinos to back him, announcing aggressive outreach plans to keep states like Florida in his column.
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But if Democrats fail to counter those efforts with their own — by energizing younger Latinos and reaching members of the community who feel estranged by the president — those voters may simply sit out the election, the operatives told POLITICO.
Nevada, for example, is wide open for the taking. But despite the state’s envied third spot on the Democratic primary calendar, operatives on the ground say White House hopefuls are all but ignoring the voting bloc that could put them over the top.
“We’ve seen the typical fly-ins to come and take pictures with popular Dreamers and go to eat tacos or whatever,” said Leo Murrieta, Nevada director for Make the Road Action, which focuses on organizing immigrant and minority communities politically. “But the reality is that very few of the campaigns have had substantive conversations with any Latinx communities around issues like health care, education, criminal justice reform, and worker justice.”
The lack of outreach to Latinos — in contrast to the TLC being shown to key voting blocs in other early states like South Carolina— is striking given the number of Democrats looking for ways to break out in a crowded primary. POLITICO spoke to Latino operatives in Nevada, Florida, Texas, and Arizona, as well as ones at national organizations that work on mobilizing Latinos and other minorities.
It isn’t enough to hold rallies, organizers said: To turn out Latinos, candidates have to take their time with local leaders, put permanent boots on the ground, and make their events accessible to Spanish speakers. So far, none of the candidates have stood out except Julián Castro, who’s mired at around 1 percent in national polls.
Latinos are poised to be the largest non-white eligible voting bloc in 2020. They could be difference makers not only in Nevada but much larger swing states like Florida and even Pennsylvania, which is home to a growing Puerto Rican population.
Latino turnout jumped from 27 percent in the 2014 midterms to 40 percent in 2018 — increasing more than any other ethnic group, according to U.S. Census data. The Latino population is younger compared to other ethnic groups, and strategists often discount younger voters as unreliable. But organizers argue that Democrats who think that way are making a mistake: Voters between 18 and 53 cast more votes in 2018 than Baby Boomers and older generations, Pew Research figures show.
“If you’re going to approach communities of color the way the Democratic Party has approached communities of color in so many election cycles, then you’re going to lose,” said Natalia Salgado, senior political strategist with the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive activist group. “Everyone talks about the sort of elusive Rust Belt voter, but what about the elusive Latino voter?”
The battle to mobilize the constituency is complicated. Activists frequently need to remind candidates that Latinos aren’t a monolith: there are undocumenteds and first-generation citizens, but also Latino families who’ve been in the U.S. as long as their white counterparts. Those differences compound based on whether the Latino communities are of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or Venezuelan descent.
Trump officials say their internal data shows the president has “dramatically increased his support among Latino voters compared to 2016,” especially in states like Nevada and New Mexico. Trump received 29 percent of the Latino vote in 2016. He narrowly lost Nevada but eked out a win in Florida, where roughly 1 in 6 voters in the state are Latino.
Most Democratic organizers agree on two things: Candidates need a robust immigration plan that counters Trump’s hard-line policies and nationalist rhetoric. And Democratic hopefuls, they say, need to aggressively communicate how their policies on issues such as education and health care tangibly help the Latino community. Relatedly, the operatives say candidates have to demonstrate an understanding of the different groups of Latinos, including those of African descent.
A number of 2020 candidates recently turned more of their attention to Latino voters during swings through California. A handful last week addressed the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles Action Fund, including Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Castro. And Beto O’Rourke delivered part of his speech at the state’s Democratic Party convention in Spanish.
But Latino organizers, who wield significant influence in states like Nevada and California, are waiting for more.
Latinos are set to make up around 28 percent of the voting electorate in Nevada and were pivotal in delivering the state for Democrats in 2016 and 2018. But when Nevada’s governor signed a bill establishing an office for new Americans, a big win for immigration activists, none of the White House hopefuls highlighted the move. Locals took notice.
Multiple strategists warned that Democrats are running out of time to set up an aggressive field operation in Nevada. By comparison, Hillary Clinton had a Nevada campaign office up and running by March 2015.
“I don’t understand what’s happening, but the Democrats are not getting Nevada right,” Murrieta said.
Fewer than half of the Democratic hopefuls have met with Astrid Silva, a political mainstay in Nevada who co-founded the organization Dream Big Nevada, which sets up meetings between candidates and undocumented communities.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Silva said. “Not a lot of people understand what a caucus is.”
Advisers to several candidates insist they’re listening and that there’s still plenty of time.
Castro was the first Democratic hopeful to issue an immigration plan and has visited Nevada the most, but his inability to eclipse low-single-digits has troubled activists. Elizabeth Warren has placed nearly 30 staffers in Nevada and is working to hire Latino interns and to set up caucus trainings in Latino communities. Cory Booker is doing Latino outreach through social media as well as digital and TV, notably appearing on the Univision show Despierta America the day he announced.
Harris, whose campaign declined to say how many people she has in Nevada, has prioritized hiring Spanish-speaking organizing staff in the state and rolled out a paid fellowship program. She caught the attention of activists for providing headphones with real-time Spanish translation available at an early Nevada town hall. Pete Buttigieg has no staffers on the ground, but his constituency director is Latino, and the campaign plans to hire a person dedicated to Latino outreach.
Front-runner Joe Biden has just four people in Nevada and has visited the state once. His campaign website, however, does provide a full Spanish translation. Some of the Latino operatives said they’re eager to see whether he tailors his speeches more to the experiences of black and Latino populations, in addition to white working-class voters.
“What I have seen from Joe Biden is that he is running a campaign reminiscent of 1992 or 1993, the courting of the suburban white voter,” Salgado said.
Isabel Aldunate, a Biden campaign spokeswoman, said: “Vice President Biden committed from day one that Latinos will have a voice at the highest level of this campaign.”
Sanders’ campaign wouldn’t disclose how many organizers it has in Nevada, but an adviser said its field staff would grow exponentially in the coming weeks. His pending immigration plan is being co-written by three undocumented immigrants and the campaign is collaborating with activist organizations on it. Ten percent of Sanders’ staff at its national headquarters are Dreamers or immigrants, according to the campaign.
“It’s the backbone of this campaign to reach out to Latinos and immigrants and disenfranchised communities of all color,” said Chuck Rocha, a top adviser to Sanders.
But the lack of an immigration plan from all but three Democrats — Castro, O’Rourke and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — is a troubling indicator, the Latino operatives said. Trump has made clear he intends to run on an anti-immigration platform again, and Democrats have yet to show they’ll have an effective response.
“[Republicans are] boldly proposing to send us backwards [on immigration], and the Democrats thus far, with the exception … of Castro, are turning in what I would consider a C-minus homework assignment,” said Marisa Franco, co-founder of the Latino grass-roots group Mijente.
Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority, a liberal grass-roots organizing group, said Democrats could lose the swing state again if they fail to counter the administration’s “socialism” tag.
“Venezuela and Cuban sanctions are as much about winning Florida as they are about anything else,” Mercado said of the administration’s actions against the two countries.
“Right now is not the time for caution,” said Salgado. “If [Latinos] do not feel themselves reflected in either the policies or the rhetoric from any of these candidates, they could turn around and vote for Trump.”