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“The Latino vote is not being taken seriously”: Longtime Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha sounds an alarm

A former senior campaign adviser for Bernie Sanders explains why Joe Biden seems to be underperforming among Latinos.

A bilingual sign stands outside a polling center at a public library on April 28, 2013, in Austin, Texas.
John Moore/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

In recent months, one consistent weak spot in former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential polls has been with Latino voters.

Hillary Clinton won an estimated 66 percent of those voters in 2016. Biden appears to be earning between 45 percent and 64 percent of Latino support nationally. In Florida, Biden’s lead among Latinos is substantially slimmer than Clinton’s results in 2016 exit polls (11 percentage points off Clinton in a recent poll), which could become the difference between winning or losing a swing state that backed Trump in the last election.

Latinos are the largest contingent of nonwhite voters in America. And Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser on Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, is worried that Democrats are taking them for granted in 2020.

Rocha was the architect of an outreach effort — described in his new book Tío Bernie — that helped Sanders secure the most votes among Latinos during the Nevada, Texas, and California primaries. (Biden had the edge in Florida.)

Under Rocha’s leadership, the campaign showed up in Latino communities early and often, investing heavily in spreading Sanders’s message in Spanish and English. He set up offices everywhere, from the heavily Latino area of East Las Vegas to Texas border districts that have long been neglected by politicians at the state and national level due to historically low rates of voter engagement. And he hired Latino staff from the grassroots advocacy community and integrated them into every facet of the campaign.

In Texas, that strategy took Sanders from winning 28 percent of Latinos in 2016 to 41 percent of Latinos in 2020, according to entrance and exit polls.

Winning the general election is a different game. Roughly half of registered Hispanic voters identify as Democrats, and about one-quarter identify as Republicans. Biden, who has tried to portray himself as a moderate, might be better positioned than Sanders was to pick up votes among independent and Republican Latino voters.

But Rocha is still concerned that Biden is underperforming due to a lack of investment in Latino outreach. The Biden campaign appears to be investing more heavily in Latino outreach in recent weeks, but outside donors and PACs — apart from Rocha’s Nuestro PAC — aren’t yet following suit. In a conversation, Rocha and I discussed Latino voters, Biden, and down-ballot Democrats; why Trump might be gaining ground with Latinos; and where Biden should be targeting his outreach efforts. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nicole Narea

Why do you think the Sanders campaign was so successful in capturing the Latino vote in key states like Nevada, California, and Texas?

Chuck Rocha

We started early, and we hired lots of Latino staff and consultants. There was no Latino department. We made Latinos an integral part of the overall campaign instead of siloing them off into departments with no power and no influence over the campaign. So there were influential Latinos at every level of the campaign.

Nicole Narea

You’ve been urging the Biden campaign to replicate that strategy. But in your view, has the campaign, and the Democratic Party more broadly, been doing enough to engage Latino voters? Have they leaned on the model that you created at all?

Chuck Rocha

The Biden campaign got a late start because of the coronavirus. They just started really doing aggressive Spanish-language and Latino-focused outreach through paid communications. They may not spend as much money in the general election as I did in the primary, which is disappointing. I spent $15 million in the primary, and I only did it in four states.

But the Biden campaign currently is not my biggest worry. They have shown that they’re going to spend money to talk to Latinos. And I hope that they are targeting infrequent and newly registered Latinos, like we did with Bernie.

He doesn’t have to take people as far as I had to take Bernie. Joe Biden already has 50 percent of Latinos in every state. He needs to get that to 70 percent to be the next president. So you can still move Latinos 10 or 15 points in 60 days, but you have to spend a lot of money to do that.

Nicole Narea

So what is your biggest worry?

Chuck Rocha

It’s the outside outreach game that’s currently keeping me up at night: I’m currently tracking over a half a billion dollars that had been given to outside super PACs to boost Joe Biden in the presidential election, and less than 1 percent of all of that money went to Latino super PACs.

Currently, I’ve spent more money talking to Latinos than any other Latino super PAC in America — and that’s currently at just under $4 million. If my PAC is the biggest and has spent the most money talking to Latinos all summer, and I’ve only raised and spent $4 million, it shows you the disparity.

It seems like the Latino vote is not being taken seriously by activists around the country, because again, even after I proved that it’s possible for us to get out if we’re funded — and I literally wrote a book about it — Latino organizations are still not being funded to get out the vote and to maximize our input. Why are we spending 99 cents of every dollar on white suburban voters and not on Black or brown voters?

Joe Biden needs to win suburban white people. But he also has to have African Americans turn out at the same rate that we did in ’08, and have Latino percentages of support be the same as they were for Barack Obama. I see the investment going into [the] white suburban vote, and I do not see the investment in outside support to get the Black and brown vote up.

Nicole Narea

Do you think that leaves an opening for Trump and the Republican Party to try to make a play for Latinos?

Chuck Rocha

Up until August 1, Donald Trump had spent three times as much money on Spanish-language communication as Joe Biden. Joe Biden has caught up with that spending and it’s equal now, but he’s done it all in the last two weeks. He’s made huge buys. That tells me they’re not doing as well as they can. Donald Trump got ahead of him, defined who he was, and they had to really ramp up their Spanish-language spending, outspending Donald Trump by 10 to one in the last two weeks trying to catch up.

I’ve been doing focus groups and polling all summer with my leadership PAC, which is called Nuestro PAC. And we’ve known all along that Latino men were a soft spot. They just weren’t as convinced [as women] about Joe Biden. Some of this “law and order” stuff, about having safe streets for your kids and your family, works with Latino men. Not a majority of them. Not even 30 percent. But he only needs to skim off 4 or 5 percent of Latino men, and it changes the entire electorate.

Nicole Narea

You mentioned that newly registered Latino voters are a group that you targeted specifically. Are there any other kind of demographic subgroups where there could be particular growth opportunity for Democrats?

Chuck Rocha

There are 138,000 new registered Latinos in Arizona alone, and if [Biden] was to get half of them to vote for him, this election would be over.

There’s what we call “infrequent Latino voters” — Latinos who have registered to vote because somebody registered them at a grocery store or at some other place, and they’ve never really voted. Maybe an election here or there, [but] they’ve just never really been involved. They have been so impacted by Covid and so impacted by the Donald Trump presidency, with his racial rhetoric that’s affected them in ways that they hadn’t seen before. So I think there’s an opportunity to engage them.

And then third would be newly naturalized citizens. But Trump has used Covid as an excuse not to [naturalize people], unless it’s for lonesome souls who didn’t know they were going to be on camera that he uses as puppets at his convention.

Nicole Narea

Are there other states, besides Arizona, where you see Latinos tipping the scales?

Chuck Rocha

What’s underreported right [now] is the problem in Nevada. It worries me that the donor class and the consultant class think that Nevada is a safe blue state, but what they don’t realize — because they haven’t been there in a while, and they don’t know the Latino community like I know it in Nevada, where Bernie Sanders got 73 percent of support amongst Latinos — is that the entire Culinary Union is laid off. The entire [Las Vegas] strip is shut down, for the most part. So there’s astronomical unemployment there.

Normally you have a robust infrastructure going on there, lots of money being spent. The Culinary Union spends a gazillion dollars putting all their people in the streets and then the neighborhoods, getting Latinos out to vote. That’s how [former Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid did it back in the day.

Nicole Narea

But none of that’s happening?

Chuck Rocha

Yeah. And so that worries me. I’ve been seeing some inside polls that say it’s much closer than people think it is.

Nicole Narea

We’ve been mostly talking about the presidential election, but do you also see Latinos making a big difference in down-ballot races in any particular parts of the country?

Chuck Rocha

I worry that the lack of investment in the Latino turnout operation is going to make some of these targeted congressional seats really problematic for Democrats to hold. Because all of the money for this type of work is just going into white voters in Pennsylvania and white voters in North Carolina, I worry about democratically held Latino seats that are going to be tough to hold — like Xochitl Torres Small in southern New Mexico and Gil Cisneros in Orange County, California. There’s nothing going on in California in the general election; there’s nobody spending money getting people out to vote. They’re in California, for god’s sake.

And I worry about the lack of investment in Latinos in a district like Florida’s [26th Congressional District], the district from Miami to Key West, which is Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. If they’re not turning Latinos out there, she’s gonna have a hard time running against a popular Miami County mayor in that seat.

So, yes, it’s going to have huge impact.

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