When the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s oldest Hispanic civil rights group, invited Pete Buttigieg to events in Milwaukee and Des Moines, the South Bend, Ind., mayor declined. When the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials held a summit this summer, Biden and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) did not attend. Both passed up a second chance to address the legislators in the fall.
“It’s always scheduling,” NALEO chief executive Arturo Vargas said of their explanations. “But you know, scheduling is a reflection of your priorities.”
Hispanics are increasingly influential in the Democratic Party and in general election contests, but leaders and activists say they feel ignored and misunderstood by candidates who have spent much of their time focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire, predominantly white states at the top of the nominating calendar. They are bluntly calling on party leaders to reconsider the voting order of the states in four years.
Last week’s Democratic presidential debate in California, an important primary state where the population is nearly 40 percent Latino, put an exclamation point on their outrage. Many had hoped it would showcase the rising influence of Hispanics. Instead, the only Hispanic in the race, former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, failed to qualify to be on the debate stage, and the participating candidates devoted little time to highlighting how their ideas would affect Latino communities.
Many fear that Democrats are also squandering a unique opportunity to boost Hispanic voter turnout in the general election. Shifting demographics and a backlash against President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have given Democrats an opening in diversifying battleground states from Arizona to Pennsylvania. But Latino officials fear that a primary contest that often feels far removed from Hispanic communities could blunt excitement for the November election.
“At this stage in the game, we are well beyond talking about missed opportunities,” said Clarissa Martínez de Castro, the deputy vice president for policy and advocacy at UnidosUS, the country’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group. “This is seriously in the territory of political malpractice.”
Some Latino leaders and voters are more confident that anger with Trump will drive turnout in November far more than the course of the Democratic primaries will. Still, even they want to see their party’s candidates do more to connect with Hispanic communities.
“None of them really stand out,” said Jesús Medina, 37, an undecided voter who attended a Spanish-language town hall hosted by top surrogates of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Medina said he was seeking something that “doesn’t sound like the same old politician talk.”
Although Latino leaders are demanding greater attention, Hispanic voters have not rallied around one of their own as a candidate. Castro has failed to crack the top tier even in heavily Latino states such California and Nevada, showing that his struggles are not limited to the less-diverse states whose primaries come before the California and Nevada contests.
Latinos are poised to make a significant general election impact in the Sun Belt, the Rust Belt and parts of the South, including closely contested states seen as crucial in 2020. On average, there was a near doubling last year in the number of Latino voters ages 25 to 34 in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to an analysis by Univision.
There have been bright spots in the primary campaign, activists said. Many applauded Sanders’s outreach to Hispanic communities — his popularity among young voters, who are more likely to be nonwhite than older voters, has helped him broaden his reach — and his populist economic pitch. Castro received high marks for focusing sharply on issues that matter to Latino voters. But mostly, there has been much more cause for concern than celebration.
“I would characterize the overall campaign, with a few exceptions, as really disappointing, in terms of their engagement,” said NALEO’s Vargas, who said he felt the debate did nothing to improve the situation. “I think there have been some who have really done some missteps when it comes to trying to engage Latinos, or ignoring them, frankly.”
Many activists put Buttigieg, who has jumped to the top of the polls in Iowa, at the top of that list. The candidate has also struggled to appeal to African American voters.
“Buttigieg is basically nonexistent in the Latino community,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a member of the leadership of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who supported Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) when she was a candidate for the Democratic nomination.
On a trip to California last month, Buttigieg was asked at a forum hosted by Latino and immigrant groups whether he would be willing to commit troops to Mexico, with its consent, to help it fight violent drug cartels.
“There is a scenario where we could have security cooperation, as we do with countries around the world. Now, I would only order American troops into conflict if there were no other choice, if American lives were on the line,” Buttigieg replied, adding that he would need Mexico’s support.
When California state Sen. María Elena Durazo heard that from Buttigieg, she was shocked, believing his words would upset many Latinos.
Durazo, an influential former union leader who is Mexican American, recalled a “bit of a gasp” in the crowd after Buttigieg’s remarks. The long history of troops being used against Mexicans in the Southwest made Buttigieg’s comments especially tone-deaf, in her view.
“I think he really didn’t get that even with a full explanation, what a shocking thing it was to hear, ” said Durazo, who has not made a presidential endorsement.
From the perspective of Domingo Garcia, the president of LULAC, whose invitations for Buttigieg to appear before his group were declined, “there’s been, like, no outreach from his campaign to the Latino community.”
The Buttigieg campaign defended its efforts, noting that the candidate met with the top official at UnidosUS and that staff members have met with representatives of leading Latino groups. Buttigieg recently released a plan for the Latino community that would create a fund to invest in Latino-owned businesses.
“As Pete continues to lay out his bold vision to address our country’s challenges in a way that unites the American people, we’re going to continue to meet people where they are and work to earn their support and draw people into this movement and build a bigger coalition,” said Buttigieg spokesman Chris Meagher.
Other candidates have faced similar heat. Biden, who put his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president at the center of his platform, has encountered criticism over the administration’s deportations of some 3 million undocumented immigrants. Protesters have demanded that he apologize, and lawmakers have sought clarity on his position.
Responding to these concerns, Biden’s campaign recently released an immigration proposal that featured rare acknowledgment of the suffering Obama’s policies caused. “Joe Biden understands the pain felt by every family across the U.S. that has had a loved one removed from the country, including under the Obama-Biden Administration,” the plan said.
Appearing at a recent culinary union town hall in Las Vegas, Biden was asked what he would do differently from Obama and Trump. “A lot,” he responded. Biden said he would focus on deporting only those who have committed serious crimes. The crowd applauded.
Biden’s level of participation in events and other initiatives has also drawn concerns. Christian Arana of the Latino Community Foundation said he sent the Democratic campaigns a questionnaire in November with a deadline of completing it by Dec. 11. After no campaign sent a response, Arana, the LCF’s policy director, extended the deadline to Dec. 15. Arana said he received replies from Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Buttigieg, Castro and Booker, but not Biden. Later, the billionaire activist Tom Steyer replied.
Biden’s team said it was not slighting the groups that have invited him to their events or sought his thoughts. “While we greatly respect the leadership of the organizations, and the organizations themselves, we have to be very strategic in the use of our principal’s time,” said Cristóbal Alex, a senior adviser to Biden and former president of the Latino Victory Fund.
The campaign said it is making overtures to Latino voters in numerous ways. When Biden launched his campaign, his team had prepared an ad in Spanish as well as a translated version of his website. The campaign said it plans to run ads on Spanish-language TV and radio in Nevada early next year. Biden also won the endorsement this week of Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s political action committee.
As complaints have mounted about other candidates for the Democratic nomination, Sanders has without fanfare been building a base of support in Latino communities. He has won plaudits for his aggressive outreach, especially in California, which advanced its primary to March 3 and is expected to play a bigger role in determining the nominee. Last week, he held a rally in San Diego just miles from the southern border.
“Sanders continues to probably have the best Latino outreach so far,” Garcia said.
Analilia Mejia, Sanders’s political director, said the campaign mapped out “different organizations and groups and spaces in which voters organize themselves, Latino voters in particular.” She added, “We took the time to engage and connect with hundreds of community leaders across the country, not just the early states.”
Mejia said she recently joined Sanders at a pair of meetings that included Spanish-speaking Latino activists. She said she translated for the senator, who understands some Spanish but doesn’t speak the language. She also joined an exclusively Spanish-language town hall in Las Vegas on Saturday, fielding questions after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who is of Puerto Rican descent, gave a keynote speech in Spanish.
Still, Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, has his own vulnerabilities. In Florida, where many Latinos have family members who fled oppressive Latin American regimes, some Democrats have expressed concerns about his rhetoric. Earlier this year, Sanders’s refusal to label Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro a dictator was controversial; his vote against an immigration overhaul bill in 2007 has haunted him in the past.
Warren is still introducing herself to Latino voters, activists said. Her campaign has hired senior Latina staffers to lead operations in California, Texas, Florida and Massachusetts. The campaign has also held Spanish-language organizing events. But like others, she is mostly focused on the first two states.
“The whole process, you know, starting in Iowa, New Hampshire, states with limited Latino populations,” said former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic and ran for president in 2008. “I would hope there is a reassessment after the next election.”