“Why did we come here? Why did we sacrifice everything to start over? Because here, we all have the opportunity to live our dreams and to give our families a better future. Today we decide if we will save the American Dream or if we will allow the pandemic to threaten our destiny,” the ad’s narrator says in Spanish. “And like President Trump, we will win this war against coronavirus and continue fighting for our people.”
Biden announced Thursday that he would sign an executive order on the first day of his presidency establishing a task force to find the parents of what advocates say are 545 minors who are still separated from their families as a result of Trump’s immigration crackdown at the U.S.-Mexico border. Biden’s plan is featured in a new digital ad highlighting what the campaign says were “inhumane” conditions at the border.
The efforts come as some Democratic consultants worry that early turnout among Latinos in some key states is lagging expectations so far.
Polls show that Latinos could be a decisive constituency in battleground states across the country — not only where they are recognized as a burgeoning political force, like in Nevada and Arizona, but also in places like Michigan and North Carolina, where they are a growing part of the electorate. Nationally, an estimated 32 million Latinos are eligible to vote in the 2020 election, according to Pew Research Center, a trend driven by the huge number of young American-born Latinos who have recently reached voting age.
But experts who study Latino communities say that many of these eligible voters remain alienated from the political process or have received little information from the campaigns about how to vote, which could matter especially in low-income households besieged by the pandemic. And they remain misunderstood by political strategists. While Biden overwhelmingly leads among Latino voters, about 3 in 10 say they will vote for President Trump, according to national polls that also reflect surveys done in battleground states.
“So often, political strategists have been like, ‘We don’t get the Latino community. It’s a mystery,’ ” said Edgar Flores, a Democratic assemblyman in Nevada, who hosted a recent cabalgata, or Mexican horseback parade, in Clark County to raise awareness about early voting. The state’s political apparatus is widely viewed as a model for Latino political organizing.
“Give Latinos resources. Put the camera on them,” Flores said, noting the event came together through local feedback and participation. “We need to meet people where they are and we need to energize people by amplifying their voices.”
Such Latino-focused outreach is at once a paradigm of what is possible and a marker of what is missing in many other states which, unlike Nevada, do not have robust networks of Latino activists or organized labor to engage voters on both sides of the aisle.
For many political observers, the question is not merely whether they will vote Democratic or Republican, but whether they will vote at all, which could be decisive, too.
While Democratic officials have celebrated early-voting numbers that show Democrats outnumber Republicans in key states that track such data — North Carolina and Florida among them — the Hispanic vote is one asterisk to their bullish view.
In North Carolina, Hispanics are voting early at lower rates than White or Black voters, but comparable to previous cycles, said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in the state. Jackson said that, like many Black voters, many Hispanic voters prefer voting in person, and he is optimistic that higher numbers will continue to turn out for early in-person voting as well as on Election Day on Tuesday.
In Florida, a Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly shared data showing that the ballot return rate for voters who requested mail ballots is slightly higher among Republican Hispanics than Democrats — 38 percent to 35 percent as of Sunday evening. The raw number of Democratic Hispanics who have voted, however, is higher. And unaffiliated Hispanics have turned out robustly as well.
In Nevada, where 1 in 5 voters is Latino, limited polling and the unusual circumstances caused by the pandemic have made it difficult to assess how competitive the race is, and the state does not break down early vote totals by demographics. Recent polling shows Biden with a single-digit lead in the state, which Hillary Clinton won by 2 percentage points in 2016.
In a call with reporters Thursday, the Biden campaign said its internal polling shows they are “100 percent on track to match or exceed the Obama vote numbers” among Latinos.
Since September, the campaign said it has invested tens of millions of dollars on Latino turnout efforts across battleground states, which it called an “unprecedented” amount. One week out from Election Day, 5 million Latinos had already voted, compared with 2.5 million in 2016, according to the campaign, which expects the bulk of Latinos to show up on Election Day.
Biden campaigned Thursday in Broward County, Fla., where he made explicit appeals to Venezuelan Americans and Cuban Americans, who make up a significant part of the electorate in South Florida.
Biden has had to contend with a torrent of GOP attacks in South Florida seeking to cast him as sympathetic to socialists and communists, despite his long-standing rejection of these political philosophies. The attacks tap into existing worries about leftist regimes in Latin America in countries from which many Florida voters fled or where they have roots. Democrats have said the attacks have taken a toll.
At a rally Thursday in Tampa, Trump said Biden has “betrayed” Latino Americans over his long political career. He did not say how.
“Biden’s agenda will devastate the Hispanic American community,” Trump said.
In Nevada, victory for Democrats runs through the robust turnout effort organized by the Culinary Workers Union. Every election cycle, hundreds of its members take paid political leave from their jobs as housekeepers and restaurant servers to fan out across Las Vegas and Reno to canvass on behalf of political candidates endorsed by the union. Notably, 54 percent of the union’s 60,000 hospitality workers are Latino; an additional 15 percent of members are Asian and another 10 percent are Black. Fifty-five percent of union members are women.
Even so, doubts linger about how those efforts will play out this year. During the peak of the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic, as many as 98 percent of the union’s members were furloughed and put on unemployment. Today, just about 50 percent are back at work. And while Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) signed a bill in August expanding vote-by-mail in the state, the Trump campaign has repeatedly attacked the expanded voting options with tweets and lawsuits.
The pandemic has not slowed down the union’s political canvassing efforts, said Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Union. Today, they have more than 400 canvassers working full time, about 100 more than in the 2016 election, when they knocked on more than 350,000 doors and talked to 75,000 voters, Khan said. This year, they also began their canvassing program on Aug. 1, more than a month earlier than previous years.
Elizabeth Renteria, 32, a Latina housekeeper at Caesars Palace, is one of those people going door-to-door to encourage people to vote. Although she does not consider herself a very political person, she raised her hand to participate in the union’s canvassing program, she said, because it felt like an effective way to contribute to the community. She is unable to vote herself in this election because her citizenship exam was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s about my family. It’s personal. My husband, he’s a ‘dreamer,’ and when Trump said that he was going to stop DACA, we went through a lot of stress. The first thought in my head was that my family was going to be broken,” she said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy. “Donald Trump is very racist. He doesn’t like Latinos. He doesn’t like anyone. So I think it’s time for us to stand up and make a change.”
But the kind of Latino-oriented political turnout infrastructure that has brought Renteria into the process scarcely exists elsewhere in the country.
North Carolina and Pennsylvania, which have growing populations of Latino voters, are examples of political battleground states where the Democratic Party continues to overlook Latino voters who would be receptive to their message, said Sonja Diaz, the director of the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative at the University of California at Los Angeles. States like Arizona that have significant turnout programs have them because community organizations, which do not have deep financial resources, often have built them from scratch without much help from the national Democratic Party.
Political campaigns by their nature often focus on reaching “likely voters,” said Diaz, because it is more cost-effective than investing heavily in outreach to first-time voters that do not show up on existing voter files used by campaigns. That drives a feedback loop of political alienation among newly eligible Latino voters, especially from low-income households: Campaigns do not make their case to these would-be first-time voters, and so they do not vote, and so future campaigns do not reach out to them. White voters, on the other hand, often benefit from a political information ecosystem in which vast amounts of resources are spent on persuading them and educating them about whom to vote for and how to vote, Diaz said.
“We’ve seen again and again that voters of color are second-tier in the minds of political strategists who favor persuading likely voters. There is not sound data on these voters, making them more costly in the eyes of political operatives,” she said. “It’s a failure of American electoral politics. And both parties are to blame.”
Turning out Latino voters does take a certain amount of cultural political sophistication. Despite the phrase, “Latino voters” are not a single electorate. Though these voters are bound by a shared ethnic label, their political beliefs often diverge based on factors like where they live, their race, ancestry, gender, income and faith, among other variables.
That is not always well understood by Anglo political observers and strategists.
“For the last four years we’ve been saying that we have to figure out how to get the Obama-Trump White working-class voters, or that we have to get suburban White women back to the table,” said Kristian Ramos, a Democratic political strategist with experience on Hispanic voter outreach. “You know, there are working-class people of color. There are people of color who were Obama-Trump voters. There are Latinas in the suburbs. A lot of them. This is so absurd.”
In the election’s final stretch, questions about the role that “machismo” plays in growing Trump support among male Latino voters have become common in political circles. Broken down by gender, about 35 percent of Latino men and 23 percent of Latinas support Trump, according to a recent national survey by Pew Research Center. But the emphasis on “machismo” implies it is a foreign import, said several Latino-focused pollsters. The gap between the political preferences of Latino men and Latinas, in fact, reflects gender differences among American voters overall.
Fernando Romero, a longtime Chicano organizer in Las Vegas, said that religion plays a big role in the political calculations of Latinos who support Trump — and, in particular, the politics of abortion.
And the Trump campaign has made a concerted effort to reach these religious Latinos with digital advertisements and by sending high-level surrogates to their churches.
Republicans’ efforts have paid off in some places. For instance, a recent New York Times-Siena College survey showed that 57 percent of Latino voters in Texas support Biden compared with 34 percent who support Trump, which is higher support for the president than expected by some political strategists.
With Texas appearing more competitive than in previous elections, the Biden campaign and the Biden Victory Fund allocated $4.5 million to advertising spread over the final five weeks of the election, including Spanish-language radio and TV ads. This year, the state Democratic Party launched efforts geared toward helping young Latinos register and organize their relatives. For the past several months, the state party has focused heavily on the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas near the border with Mexico, a heavily Democratic and Hispanic region where early voting numbers are not as high as expected.
Some wonder whether these new efforts are coming too late. In the past, the difficult work of reaching out to first-time voters in Texas has fallen to nonprofit groups and liberal organizing groups like the Texas Organizing Project and Jolt.
On the other hand, Biden is drawing more support from White voters than Clinton did in 2016, which could mitigate anemic turnout among Hispanics.
“The Biden coalition is definitely whiter this year,” said Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.
In Las Vegas, Flores said engaging Latino communities is not a mystery waiting to be solved, it just takes resources and relationship-building. He said that he would like to see national Democrats invest in sustained outreach in Latino communities like his across the country between election years, to build community centers where people feel comfortable being themselves while learning how to be involved in politics. He stressed, as a Democrat, that he is hopeful Biden will do that in the years to come.
In a recent conversation with community members, Flores recalled, “one of the things they said was, ‘I don’t know how to be political.’ And I said, ‘What you don’t realize is that your mere existence, your mere presence is political. By being present is sending a statement.’ ”
“And they looked at me baffled, because I don’t think anyone had ever told them that them just being them is powerful,” he said.
Ted Mellnik, Anne Gearan, Sean Sullivan and Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.