In a presidential year expected to produce record turnout among Hispanic voters, there are few signs that Hillary Clinton is performing any better among Latinos than past Democratic presidential candidates — even with immigrant-bashing Donald Trump as her GOP opponent.
In Nevada and Florida, the two battleground states with the highest Latino populations, the Democratic nominee remains locked in a close race with Trump. Clinton is polling about the same as Democrats in previous contests among Latinos nationally, apparently gaining no ground from Trump’s historic unpopularity.
The close polls in Nevada and Florida have prompted Clinton’s allies to begin spending money targeting Hispanic voters in those states. The campaign itself will also begin airing Spanish-language ads in battleground states after Monday.
But some Democratic strategists fear that Clinton has already missed a unique opportunity and warn that counting on Hispanic voters to turn out just because they hate Trump is not a reliable strategy. Unlike President Obama four years ago, Clinton has run virtually no Spanish-language television ads in the general election, with the exception of a spot that aired during a one-day soccer event.
“I’m worried literally to death now that because Donald Trump is so visceral that they’ll think that Latinos will turn out because of that alone,” said Chuck Rocha, president of Solidarity Strategies, a Latino political-consulting firm that worked with Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary season. “Hate alone won’t motivate somebody to vote. . . . They need something to vote for.”
The GOP nominee has staked much of his campaign on cracking down on illegal immigration, portraying Mexican immigrants, in particular, as “rapists” and criminals who take American jobs. Trump has promised to build a massive wall along the U.S.-
Mexico border and deport millions of undocumented immigrants, while also suggesting that birthright citizenship should be abolished. As a result, just 18 percent of registered Hispanic voters have a favorable view of Trump in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
But there is also evidence that Clinton’s standing with Hispanic voters may be weakening. According to the same poll, Clinton’s favorability among Hispanics fell in August from 71 percent to 55 percent, a drop outside the sample’s 10-point margin of error.
A new Latino Decisions poll released Friday found that 70 percent of registered Latino voters said they would definitely vote for Clinton or were leaning toward doing so, a drop from 76 percent who said the same in April. The survey, conducted for the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, also found that support for Trump rose from 11 percent in April to 19 percent in August.
“When you have less than 20 percent in your polling with Hispanics, how much worse could it get?” said Florida-based Republican strategist Al Cardenas, referring to Trump. “It’s not so much that Donald Trump is doing better with Latino voters, but she’s doing worse. That’s tightened up the race in Florida and Nevada.”
Clinton campaign officials defend their Latino voter strategy, including the decision not to begin airing general-election ads on Spanish-language television until later this month. The campaign has been aiming digital advertising at Latino voters since early July, and it did heavy Spanish-language advertising during the Democratic primaries.
“If they start doing it now, I think they’re on time,” said Federico de Jesús, a Democratic strategist who was the Hispanic media director for Obama in 2008. “Obviously, we would have liked them to do it earlier.”
“If they wait too much longer until late September, that might be more concerning,” he added.
According to Lorella Praeli, Clinton’s Latino vote director, the campaign has consistently targeted Latino voters through digital ad campaigns in Spanish, appearances by surrogates on Spanish-language radio and through English-language ads targeted at Latino audiences through non-Spanish-language media.
“There are new tactics, new strategies and new platforms,” Praeli said. “The way that we absorb information is also evolving, and if you don’t adapt to that, then we’re missing out on reaching Latino voters where they are.”
With fewer than 70 days remaining until Election Day, television ads targeted at Hispanic voters in Spanish are beginning to roll in, albeit slowly. A new Spanish-language television ad from the voter registration group Mi Familia Vota is aimed at Hispanic voters in Arizona. Pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action announced a small ad buy this week in Nevada and Florida targeting Latinos in Spanish.
“Florida and Nevada are behaving like battleground states — they’re supposed to be close,” said Priorities spokesman Justin Barasky. “That’s a problem for Trump. We have said on the record countless times that we expected the race to be competitive and close, and in a lot of cases, it is.”
In 2008, Obama’s campaign began airing Spanish-language ads in mid-September, a timeline Clinton could still match this year. But in 2012, the president’s reelection campaign spent tens of millions of dollars on ads in Spanish beginning in April, although he did not have a competitive primary campaign.
Obama won Latino voters in 2012 by 71 percent to 27 percent for GOP nominee Mitt Romney — the largest for a Democrat since Bill Clinton won 72 percent of Hispanics in 1996. Latino turnout in 2012 also hit a high of 11.2 million voters.
This year, an average of recent Post-ABC polls shows Hillary Clinton leading Trump by 70 percent to 25 percent among Hispanic voters — similar to Obama’s margin over Romney.
“Given how badly Democrats have been burned in recent elections by low turnout from episodic voters like Latinos and millennials, you would have thought the Clinton campaign would have spent more [on ads] than Obama, rather than less,” said a Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the state of the race.
Polls show that Clinton is weakest among Hispanic voters who are English-dominant and U.S.-born, while Spanish-dominant and foreign-born Hispanic voters are more likely to support her over Trump. The campaign has been running English-language ads targeted in part at the first group.
One English-language campaign ad called “Brave,” featuring Clinton and a young girl, Karla Ortiz, whose parents are undocumented, proved to be highly effective across a range of demographic groups, a campaign aide said. The ad debuted in the primaries against Sen. Bernie Sanders and has continued throughout the general-election campaign.
Still, Democrats say there is no substitute for engaging many Hispanic voters in Spanish and in bilingual ads.
“People want to see that they’re being reached out to,” de Jesús said. “They want to feel like their vote is in play and they’re not being taken for granted, and speaking in their language is important.”