“Within the last two weeks, they’ve been making an effort to put all the pieces in place,” said José Parra, who served as a senior adviser to Harry M. Reid when he was Senate majority leader and lives in Miami. “What worries me is how late in the game they are trying to put those pieces into place.”
The Democratic anxiety extends to Arizona, which the party hopes to turn blue for the first time in 24 years, as well as Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Georgia — all states where the Latino vote is important. Adding to Biden’s challenge in Florida, a must-win state for Trump, is the complexity of the Hispanic population, where the president is popular among conservative Cuban Americans and Republican attacks on Democrats as “socialists” have resonated.
Critics, including some close Biden allies, are frustrated that the Democratic nominee has not given a major speech on Latino issues, advertised more aggressively and earlier on Spanish-language media, or given more interviews to Latino news outlets.
“The campaign understands that this is a priority, but at the same time there needs to be a little bit more support shown,” said Julián Castro, the only Latino who ran in the Democratic presidential primary. He added, “If we allow a narrative to take shape that somehow the issues of concern to this growing community are not prioritized, then we risk backsliding in the years to come.”
National surveys show Biden faring slightly worse with Latinos than Hillary Clinton in 2016, when she won the group by 38 points. No one on either side expects Biden to lose the Latino vote; the question is the size of his margin.
The issue is particularly stark because Trump is seen by so many activists as more anti-immigrant and anti-Latino than any president in memory. He began his 2016 campaign suggesting that many Mexican immigrants are “rapists,” and later he questioned the objectivity of a judge of Mexican descent.
But Latino leaders say Biden has yet to overcome suspicion of Barack Obama’s tough deportation policies or outline his own immigration plans in greater detail; that his inner circle lacks enough Latino decision-makers; and that his campaign has focused almost entirely on White suburbanites and African Americans to the detriment of their community. Latino Democrats also worry about the onslaught of Republican attacks casting them as socialist sympathizers.
Biden campaign officials said they are steadily building an aggressive Latino outreach program, with Latino vote directors in 11 states and micro-targeted efforts in various communities. The campaign’s advertising includes specially curated speakers — with Mexican accents in Arizona, Cuban accents in Miami, and Puerto Rican accents in Orlando and Tampa.
The campaign has divided Florida into three regions with individual Latino vote directors and ramped up its staffing and ads.
“We take Florida extremely seriously,” said Cristóbal Alex, a senior Biden adviser who works on Latino outreach. “As the vice president said in my very first sit-down with him, we are committed to competing for every single vote.”
Latino leaders routinely note that the community is far more complex and varied than many strategists assume. Some Latinos are quite conservative, holding traditional religious and social positions, while others are young and liberal, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had significant success in attracting their support during the Democratic presidential primary. Chuck Rocha, who spearheaded Sanders’s Latino outreach, said the party now risks leaving behind a hugely influential population.
“There is still no direct investment into the community to get our vote out,” said Rocha, who now runs a super PAC aiming to boost Latino turnout in November. “We’re still doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on White women and White steelworkers in Michigan.” Rocha said he is struggling to secure funding to air an ad featuring young Latinos who supported Sanders in the primary and now back Biden.
Sanders himself has voiced private concerns about Biden’s standing with the community, according to three people with knowledge of the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. The senator from Vermont “thinks that a stronger outreach to young people, the Latino community and the progressive movement will be of real help to the campaign,” said his former campaign manager, Faiz Shakir.
Biden campaign officials strongly reject the notion that Latino voters are not a priority. “We really see the coalition to win as helping to rebuild the original Obama-Biden coalition,” said Biden deputy campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez, the granddaughter of labor activist César Chávez. “That definitely includes White voters and African American voters, but it also includes Latino voters, [Asian American and Pacific Islander] voters and the tribal community.”
Pre-pandemic projections showed that Latinos were on pace to be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate, accounting for just over 13 percent of eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center. But if persuasion is one challenge Democrats face in courting them, mobilization is another.
That is compounded by the pandemic, which has disproportionately hit Latino communities and prompted a national move toward mail-in voting. “The Latino community has lower confidence in mail-in voting than other communities,” Castro said.
No state is more urgent for Democrats than Florida, whose vote could determine the next president. Trump’s fading popularity among Florida seniors due to his handling of the virus gives Biden an opening, but that has been offset in part by the former vice president’s lackluster support from Florida Latinos, making the state essentially a toss-up.
Biden’s trip to the state Tuesday will mark his first visit to Florida as the Democratic nominee, and it is seen by many state Democrats as part of a scramble to shore up Latino support. While the campaign has been tight-lipped about Biden’s specific activities Tuesday, Latino activists hope he will deliver rousing remarks aimed at energizing their communities.
Many would have liked to see that earlier this year. Instead, Latino activists and strategists said, the Biden campaign was slow to fully engage despite entreaties from local Democrats, while the Trump campaign jumped in. They cite a run of Trump ads in the early summer on Florida Spanish-language television, which was not matched robustly by Biden until about three weeks later.
Now, the Biden campaign is outspending Trump in every Hispanic media market, Alex said. In Florida, Biden’s campaign is engaged in text-banking in Spanish and has organized daily calls to Hispanic radio stations. Trump, one aide noted, has been campaigning in the state for years, a head start Biden did not have.
More broadly, Trump argues that he has been a wonderful president for the Latino community, especially by creating jobs, a boast that glosses over the economic devastation of the pandemic.
“We’ve done really well with Hispanics,” Trump said at a White House roundtable with Latino leaders in July. “We like them, they like me, and we’ve helped them a lot with the jobs. Whether it’s jobs, education, or so many other things, it’s been really good.”
The politics of Florida’s Latino community — like all politics in the state — are complex. Florida is home to the country's largest Cuban American population, which often holds more conservative views than other Latino voters. But it also includes a fast-growing Puerto Rican population, which leans Democratic, as well as many voters of Mexican, Colombian, and Venezuelan descent.
Trump’s pursuit of a more restrictive policy toward Cuba has won him support in the Cuban American community, analysts in both parties say. Aggressive GOP efforts to cast Democrats as radical socialists, even if inaccurate, also have had an effect, Democrats said, particularly when left largely unchallenged.
“They’ve repeated it for so long that they really have caused fear in our community,” said Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), who emigrated from Ecuador when she was 14. “Yes, maybe we should have rejected that premise much earlier. But when something is so far from the truth, the initial reaction, I think, was to just completely dismiss it, not even address it.”
On Sunday, Trump tweeted that “Sleepy Joe Biden has spent 47 years in politics being terrible to Hispanics. Now he is relying on Castro lover Bernie Sanders to help him out.” Sanders has praised Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s literacy program, while criticizing his authoritarianism.
Trump also has been outspoken on Venezuela, but has sent a more muddled message. He initially touted his hard line against authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro, before opening the door to a meeting and then backtracking.
Recent polls by NBC News/Marist and Quinnipiac University show Biden and Trump running about even among Latino voters in Florida — while Clinton outpaced Trump by 27 points with the group four years ago. Similarly, a poll of voters in Miami-Dade County, home to many Latinos, showed Trump trailing Biden by 17; he lost there by 30 points in 2016.
And even with Clinton’s commanding margin among Latinos, “that still was not enough to win the state,” said Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi, whose firm conducted the survey, adding that this is “one of the reasons there is such consternation” over the poll.
Biden’s allies play down the polls’ significance, citing their small sample sizes and English-only interviews. Biden officials said they have conducted their own polling of Latinos in Florida but declined to reveal the results.
Trump, for his part, is placing great emphasis on Florida. He recently changed his residence to the state from Manhattan; his presence is enhanced by his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach; and top campaign aide Brad Parscale lives there. Recent moves also could bolster the president, including his recent expansion of an offshore drilling ban and his brokering of Israel’s acceptance by more Arab nations, an issue important to Florida’s sizable Jewish community.
Trump’s campaign has routinely attacked Biden in Florida, running ads that intersperse video of Biden touting his progressive bona fides with images of leftist Latin American dictators.
While such efforts to portray Biden — a centrist Democrat who has roundly rejected socialism — as a radical socialist have not resonated nationally, Trump supporters hope they can be more effective in Florida.
Among those backers is Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who defied the 2018 Democratic wave to win his seat thanks in part to significant support from Latino voters. “They seem pretty confident,” Scott said of the Trump team’s outlook on Florida.
And the state may be more fluid than other battlegrounds. Further roiling the landscape, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg plans to spend at least $100 million in the state on Biden’s behalf, The Washington Post reported Sunday, a massive 11th-hour infusion that will fund ads in Spanish as well as English.
Biden has clearly begun approaching Florida with more urgency, adding experienced Florida strategists to his staff and devoting more attention to the state. His campaign has stepped up his aggressiveness on the airwaves, releasing new Spanish-language TV and radio commercials on Saturday challenging Trump’s rhetoric. One ad contrasts Trump with Biden on the economy and the pandemic, flashing photos of Biden alongside Obama, who won the state twice.
The campaign also has tapped Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a daughter of immigrants who hails from a state with a large Hispanic population, to take on a large share of the Latino outreach.
Harris campaigned in Florida on Thursday, stopping at an arepas restaurant in Doral, a Miami suburb with a large Venezuelan population. During one exchange, Harris referred to her husband in Spanish as “mi esposo.” On Saturday, Harris held a virtual conversation with local Latino business owners in Arizona.
Annette Taddeo, a Florida state senator who had urged the Biden campaign to do more Latino outreach, joined Harris on her visit and gave her high marks. Taddeo said “the fact there are numerous polls” showing trouble with Latinos for Biden “is definitely alarming,” but that “the campaign is responding as they should.”
“They are just waking up to the coffee,” added Roberto Rodriguez Tejera, who hosts a Spanish-language radio show in the Miami area.
In another sign of that, Nuestro PAC — headed by Rocha, Sanders’s former Latino outreach coordinator — plans to send 3 million pieces of mail to persuadable Latino voters in Florida and other battleground states. Rocha said he conducted summer focus groups revealing that persuadable Latino voters did not want to hear about Trump, but rather more about Biden and “what he’s actually going to do to make our lives better.”
If Biden prevails in November, Rocha quipped, the news headline at the end of the race might be, “Bernie Sanders’s Latino team saves Joe Biden’s a--.”
Scott Clement and Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.