Biden struggles to close enthusiasm gap with Latino voters
Donna Prado, the daughter of immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico, turned to politics when she was about to graduate from high school in Phoenix, taking a job as a volunteer to register Latino voters in Arizona ahead of November’s general election.
Ms Prado said that while many Latino voters disapprove of Donald Trump, they are not particularly enthusiastic about his Democratic rival Joe Biden either. “They’re like, ‘honestly, I don’t like any of them’,” said Ms Prado, 18, who has worked for the Arizona Center for Empowerment since March.
She said Mr Biden had struggled to generate the same kind of excitement as Bernie Sanders, his chief rival in the Democratic primaries, who engaged younger Latinos on social media platforms like TikTok. “Biden wasn’t really reaching out to those young people,” she added.
There is little doubt that Mr Biden will win the majority of the national Latino vote. But as he tries to reassemble the coalition that twice propelled Barack Obama to the White House, there are worrying signs he is less popular with Latino voters than either Mr Obama or Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Whether Mr Biden can improve his margins with this group of voters could prove decisive in his attempt to capture the White House, given that his odds of victory increase significantly if he can win a string of swing states with large or fast-growing Latino populations, such as Arizona, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina.
Speaking earlier this week ahead of his first campaign visit to Florida, Mr Biden noted that his polling numbers among Hispanics were much better than Mr Trump’s, before conceding, “they gotta go higher”. Polls in Florida, where Cuban-Americans tend to favour Republicans, show Mr Trump doing better than he did in 2016.
Illustrating the challenge Mr Biden faces in Florida, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor who also competed in the Democratic presidential primary, said he would spend $100m in the state, including on media targeted at Latinos, to help the Democrat win.
Clarissa Martínez, deputy vice-president at UnidosUS, a non-partisan Latino advocacy group, said that Mr Biden’s relative weakness among Hispanic voters versus Mrs Clinton was a sign that he is not doing enough to court the Hispanic vote: “it speaks to outreach.”
According to a recent Latino Decisions poll, only 25 per cent of Latinos in Arizona have been contacted by Democrats about registering to vote for the November election — only 2 points higher than for Republicans.
The Biden team insists it is not ignoring Latinos, especially in Arizona, where the Democratic candidate holds a 4-point lead, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. “We’re in striking distance to flip the state. You can see that by the amount of resources we’ve invested there,” said Jorge Neri, a campaign adviser.
The campaign says it has spent millions of dollars on television and digital advertisements in English and Spanish and that it is focused on virtual campaign events, such as bilingual video calls for volunteers on the weekends.
But the criticism that Mr Biden is not doing enough highlights a conundrum: how does he balance the task of winning back white voters in the rust-belt states that Mrs Clinton lost in 2016, while also expanding the Democratic base in states like Arizona that have lots of Hispanic voters.
Democrats wary about trying to expand the party’s base say Latinos have a lower propensity to vote, but critics counter that Mr Sanders proved Hispanics do respond when they are taken seriously by candidates.
Chuck Rocha, who ran Latino outreach for Mr Sanders, said the party is being complacent. He calculates that the top 10 Democratic external fundraising groups have raised a total of $500m to target “white persuadable voters”, whereas the top three Hispanic-focused groups, including his Nuestro Pac, have raised just $6m in aggregate.
“The Democrats are whistling past their own grave if they don’t invest now. [Do] you expect Latinos to show up at the same rate as white voters when only spending 1/500th of the same money?” said Mr Rocha.
Building Democratic support among Hispanics is important not just for this election but also for the future trajectory of US politics since Latinos are the second fastest-growing segment of the electorate after Asian Americans
Latinos are expected to account for 10.6 per cent of the electorate in November, up from 9.2 per cent in 2016, according to UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative. In Arizona, the rise is forecast to be more pronounced with a 5-point increase to 24.6 per cent since the previous election.
Arizona has only voted once for a Democrat — Bill Clinton in 1996 — since Harry Truman in 1948. But the state has in recent years become more liberal, turning it into a genuine battleground. In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema became the first Arizona Democrat elected to the Senate in 30 years.
“It’s clear that Arizona could be the decisive state and the Latino vote is going to be the deciding force,” said Héctor Sánchez Barba, head of Mi Familia Vota, which organises campaigns to register Latino voters.
The Biden campaign is focusing on Mr Trump’s widely criticised handling of the pandemic, although there are signs that the president’s advantage on the economy — where he consistently polls above his rival — is breaking through with some Latino voters.
Nohe Garcia, a rancher and trader who lives in Nogales on the border with Mexico was critical of Mr Trump in 2016, but said the US-Mexico-Canada trade deal negotiated by the president had resulted in economic dividends.
“I’ve been thinking of voting for him, just because down deep in my pocket I can feel it,” said Mr Garcia. “In my circle, people don’t want to say it, but I think they’re thinking of voting for Trump.”
Tomas Robles, who runs Living United for Change in Arizona, an activist group, said Mr Trump was “very good at identifying vulnerable spots” that could pose a problem for Mr Biden.
“Latino men resonate with [the idea] that your worth is proven by how much you’re able to support your family,” he said. “Biden needs to work on much better messaging.”
But Mr Trump’s rhetoric and policies on immigration is anathema to some in the Latino community, creating an opportunity for groups like Lucha.
Sonja Diaz, head of UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Initiative, said Arizona was “a testament to . . . the ways policies that focus on antagonising the Latino community have met their match in Latino mobilisation”.
She argued Democrats have a huge opportunity to invest in young Latinos to build a stronger support base for the future. “If money is spent right now, you’re baking them in, in contrast to the ageing white population in the Midwest,” she said.