In early September, Democrats picked up signs of a worrying new weakness in Joe Biden’s coalition: Latino voters.
Nationally, Trump was polling 2 points higher among Latinos than he did in 2016. A series of polls released in September suggested that he and Biden were neck-and-neck among Latino voters in Florida, where Trump had been trying to woo conservative Cuban Americans and Venezuelans. And it seemed that a subset of Latino men were gravitating toward Trump in Arizona.
The Latino vote in America often defies simple explanations. But these gains for Trump, while small, could be the difference between winning and losing in tight contests — not just in Florida and Arizona, but in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
It was clear that the Biden campaign had “work to do” with Latinos, senior adviser Symone Sanders said on September 13. Democrats sounded the alarm in the media, again and again.
“It seems like the Latino vote is not being taken seriously,” Chuck Rocha, a former senior campaign adviser for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, told Vox at the time. “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?”
As Biden’s poll numbers have improved, he’s caught up at least somewhat among Hispanics (a term that is often used interchangeably with “Latino” but refers specifically to anyone who descended from Spanish-speaking populations, as opposed to people of Latin American origin, including non-Spanish speakers).
Biden now has support of 63 percent of Latinos nationally, according to an October 14 Latino Decisions poll — roughly on par with Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016, though still short of the 71 percent of their support for President Barack Obama in 2012. (Some other surveys have shown a persistent gap for Biden compared to Hillary Clinton’s Latino support.) Recent polls also signal that he’s also gaining ground among Arizona and Florida Latinos specifically but still isn’t quite where Democratic pollsters hoped he would be.
Any erosion should be concerning for Democrats. Latinos are the nation’s largest and fastest-growing contingent of nonwhite voters, and the Democratic coalition has historically depended on their overwhelming support.
To take Florida — Trump’s adopted home and a historical bellwether of who has won presidential contests — Democrats need to run up big margins in diverse, heavily Latino districts from Palm Beach to Miami, where Biden has been underperforming compared to previous candidates. As in previous years, Florida is the narrowest contest nationwide, but with 29 electoral votes at stake and a robust infrastructure to handle mail-in ballots, it could be a source of clarity about the winner on election night.
Arizona, which has 11 electoral votes, is another top prize for Trump and a state that the Republican candidate has carried every year but one since 1952. But large Latino populations of predominantly Mexican origin in districts encompassing Tucson, Phoenix, and Maricopa County could help flip the state, if Biden can inspire them to show up in the numbers necessary and overcome an apparent weakness among Latino men in particular.
“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,” Julián Castro, who ran against Biden in the primary, told the Washington Post.
Trump sought to pick up Latino votes as Biden delayed outreach
During the primaries, Biden had a poor showing among Latinos relative to Sanders, especially in states where Latinos make up a large portion of the electorate, including California, Nevada, and Texas.
Critics of Biden’s strategy argued he had neglected the Latino vote, failing to advertise early and often in Spanish-language media, show up for in-person outreach in Latino communities, or deliver a major address speaking to the concerns of Latino voters directly. And Biden’s Latino outreach efforts were slow even after he secured the nomination, ramping up only in late August.
By then, the Trump campaign had spent months investing heavily in eroding Biden’s margins in Florida, casting him as a socialist and capitalizing on the fears of Latinos from failed socialist regimes. (Biden has run as a center-left moderate, and even Sanders’s brand of democratic socialism has little relationship to the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela.)
Among a subset of Latinos — whose political leanings vary across gender, generation, country of origin, and how long they have lived in the US — Trump might be an attractive option. Latinos don’t reliably back Democrats in the kinds of overwhelming numbers that Black voters do, and a significant proportion of Latinos (about a third right now) identify as Republicans.
In Florida, Latinos’ political leanings are particularly diverse, with populations hailing from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Mexico and from other parts of Latin America. Democrats have struggled to make inroads among the Cuban American community, which has historically leaned more Republican than Latinos from other countries of origin, embittered by John F. Kennedy’s withdrawal of support for an operation against dictator Fidel Castro at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs decades ago.
What’s more, disinformation campaigns have permeated Florida Latinos’ WhatsApp chats, Facebook feeds, and radio programs, falsely claiming, for example, that Biden has a pedophilia problem. Trump’s Spanish-language ads, which began airing in Florida as early as June, liken Biden to ruthless Latin American caudillos like Castro and Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.
One 30-second ad, narrated by a Cuban actress, paints Biden and the Democrats as extremists, playing images of Cuban refugee flights, a 2015 photo of Biden with Maduro in Brazil, and a red flag emblazoned with an image of Che Guevara, the communist Cuban revolutionary:
Trump has pursued policies designed to keep Venezuelan refugees out of the US. But the ad portrays him as an ally of Latinos for earning the support of the CEO of Goya Foods, the nation’s largest Hispanic-owned food company, which Democrats consequently sought to boycott.
“We sacrificed so much to be free and respected,” the narrator says in Spanish. “Joe Biden and the Democrats are too extreme. ... [He] is too weak to defend us.”
Biden was still fighting that narrative in early October, saying, “I’m the guy who ran against a socialist” at a campaign event in Miami on October 5. But for some voters, the characterization has stuck:
Little Havana, Miami politics in a nutshell. Translation to the Spanish below:— Marianna Sotomayor (@MariannaNBCNews) October 5, 2020
Trump supporter: "Go back to Cuba, you socialist! Since you like communism, go wash Raul Castro's feet."
Biden supporter: "You go back since I was born here! I'm not a socialist." https://t.co/ns1YrLcpdR
Biden’s September crisis among Latino voters in Florida might have been overstated. The former vice president trailed in three polls in the state, but by less than the margin of error. And the Latino sample size of each poll was also relatively small, which could have distorted the results. Casting a wide net is particularly necessary in Florida in order to accurately capture voters of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian, and Mexican descent and from other parts of Latin America.
So it’s possible the polls had overstated the depths of Biden’s crisis among Latinos, Michael Jones-Correa, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said.
“I think the polling in Florida on Latinos has not been great,” he said. “I wouldn’t put a huge amount of weight on it.”
Another September 4 poll by the Democratic firm Equis Research showed Biden with a 16-point lead, and veteran Florida Democratic political strategist Steven Schale told the Washington Post he found that poll credible.
On September 15, Biden made his first visit of the general election to Florida with the mission of making his case to Latino voters. He criticized Trump’s policies on immigration, his abandonment of Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and his failures to protect workers from the coronavirus, which has killed a disproportionate number of Latinos nationwide. He made subsequent visits to the state on October 5 and 13, stopping in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
More recent Florida polls show Biden leading among Latinos — earning 52 percent support in a September 28 Univision poll, 58 percent in an October 5 New York Times-Siena College poll, and 55 percent in an October 14 Latino Decisions poll. But he’s still trailing Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory among Hispanics: She won 62 percent of Hispanics but still lost the state, according to exit polls. College-educated Hispanics in the state appear to be an enduring weak spot for the former vice president.
Carlos Odio, the co-founder of Equis, said in a press call that Biden still might win the state if he can do as well with white voters as he was polling during the summer, regardless of his performance with Latino voters, according to his firm’s simulations. But if Biden doesn’t maintain those numbers with white voters, his path to victory would substantially narrow without robust support from Latinos, including Cuban Americans, who backed him 52 percent to 35 in the Latino Decisions poll.
“He needs to get over the 60 percent threshold of [total] Latino support,” Odio said. “To get there, he will need to maximize his support among non-Cuban Hispanic voters, even if he earns a high level of support from Cubans.”
Latinos could help Biden flip Arizona — but men are a soft spot
Biden is counting on Latino support to win in Arizona this year, aiming to win 70 percent of the Latino vote — the same percentage that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Arizona in decades, won in her 2018 race.
Most Latinos in Arizona are of Mexican descent, and Trump has openly derided Mexicans while pursuing immigration policies designed to keep them out of the US.
On the campaign trail in 2016, he claimed the US needed to keep out “bad hombres” from Mexico, suggested that Mexicans were overwhelmingly criminals, and promised his supporters that he would build a “big, beautiful wall” across the entire southern border. And in the years since the 2016 election, racial justice has become a top motivating issue for young Latino voters generally.
But Trump has nevertheless tried to make inroads among Latinos in Arizona, making five trips to Phoenix over the course of the 2020 campaign to make his case. His supporters cite his business policies, from reducing corporate taxes to deregulation, and conservative social values, including his opposition to abortion, as reasons they are drawn to him.
In September, a trend emerged in Arizona that didn’t bode well for Biden: Trump’s support among Latinos has actually grown by 8 percent since 2019, and the most significant boost has come from Latino men under the age of 50, a mid-September Equis poll found.
Trump also appears to have generated particular interest among some young Latino men. Rocha, who led Sanders’s Latino outreach efforts, told Vox in early September that he had observed in focus groups commissioned by Nuestro PAC, a Democratic super PAC focused on Latino outreach, that Latino men were a “soft spot.”
“They just weren’t as convinced [as women] about Joe Biden,” he said. “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 [Trump] only needs to skim off 4 or 5 percent of Latino men, and it changes the entire electorate.”
Trump’s allure among these men is rooted in his machismo. As the New York Times’s Jennifer Medina writes, they may be drawn to him because he is “forceful, wealthy and, most important, unapologetic. In a world where at any moment someone might be attacked for saying the wrong thing, he says the wrong thing all the time and does not bother with self-flagellation.”
That’s not entirely surprising: Across nearly every demographic group, Trump performs better among men than he does among women. The gender gap among voters outside the Latino community is actually higher than it is within the Latino community, Jones-Correa said.
“There is a gender gap,” he said. “But it’s a bit more muted than within the general public. I wouldn’t overemphasize the gender gap here as something more profound for the Latino community.”
Still, Biden is currently performing well among white voters in the state — but he still needs Latinos to win, Odio said.
Biden has a 4-point edge on average in Arizona as of October 6, and a Biden also has a sizable lead among Latinos, who backed him 62-29 percent in the Equis poll.
That’s roughly on par with Clinton’s performance in 2016, but still short of the campaign’s goal.
“We are urging folks not to be complacent, but ... to push for those levels now, so that we don’t find that it’s too late in October,” Odio said.
Biden is pushing to win in Florida and Arizona
Latinos tend to remain undecided for longer than other ethnic groups. That could be to Biden’s advantage as his campaign has substantially ramped up its outreach efforts in the Latino community, particularly in Florida, in the final weeks before Election Day.
“Progressives consistently get in this boat where we’re a month away from Election Day and there’s a sudden realization that we’ve got to spend big in Florida,” Tory Gavito, president of the Democratic donor group Way to Win, said. “It’s a historic pattern within the Democratic establishment.”
Biden has also hired a slew of new campaign staffers in Florida and in Arizona to support his outreach efforts, including a veteran political operative who handled Spanish-language media for Democrat Andrew Gillum’s 2018 gubernatorial run in Florida. And his campaign, which had a record fundraising bump in September, has been pouring money into reaching out to voters virtually in the interest of protecting campaign staff and the public amid the pandemic. (Trump, on the other hand, has hosted indoor rallies.)
“I’m starting to see in the data that more people are reporting they’re being contacted, and more people are reporting seeing and hearing positive news about Biden, so I don’t think we’re behind any sort of marker,” Matt Barreto, the co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions and a pollster for the Biden campaign, said.
The campaign says being unable to canvass in person amid the pandemic hasn’t put Biden at a significant disadvantage among young Latinos, who are accessible online.
“Our population is exceptionally young,” Barreto said. “It’s a population that’s already in social media, in digital, on texting. And so for a high percentage of people, this is a natural transition for the campaign — to be able to continue that sort of outreach in a medium where lots of Latinos are already living.”
Among older Latinos and immigrants, the campaign is also seeing high rates of television viewership, Barreto said. Biden has consequently outspent Trump in Spanish-language television ads in recent months by a margin of $6.7 million to $4.9 million across heavily Latino cities including Miami, Orlando, and Phoenix. He has also topped Trump’s Spanish-language radio ads, investing about $885,000 compared to Trump’s $32,500.
His messaging is consistent, but delivered in different accents designed to microtarget Latino populations across the country: In Phoenix, it’s a Mexican accent, whereas in Miami, it’s Cuban.
One ad, titled “A Good Plan,” says the president has mishandled the ongoing pandemic, in which Latinos have suffered immensely, and if elected, Biden would deliver much-needed aid to their communities:
Biden surrogates are also pouring dollars into ads targeting Latinos. Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg underwrote a $13.4 million ad buy in Florida with Priorities USA Action and Latino Victory Fund designed to air in both Spanish and English. Priorities USA and People for the American Way also announced smaller, six-figure buys in Arizona media markets.
“President Trump has fueled division in our country including through his relentless attacks on the Hispanic community,” Bloomberg said in a statement at the time. “I’m supporting Latino Victory Fund and Priorities USA Action to persuade and mobilize as many voters as possible and make sure that Hispanic voices are heard — and their votes counted.”
Indeed, there’s no question that the investment in the Latino vote has been substantial over the past month. It has resulted in what appears to be significant growth in his support among Latinos, though still not quite reaching the thresholds that would put Biden in safe territory.
There may still be a window of opportunity for Biden to sway more voters at this late stage, but it’s not clear whether continuing to inundate them with more TV and radio ads will make a difference.
Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic strategist who produced ads for President Barack Obama in 2012, has questioned whether that strategy will continue to pay dividends for Biden.
“If we are not there already, we are quickly approaching the point of diminishing returns,” Amandi told Politico.
And given that many Floridians have already received their first mail-in ballots, Biden is running out of time to change their minds. He is nevertheless continuing to make his case.
“More than any other time, the Hispanic community, Latino community holds in the palm of their hand the destiny of this country,” Biden said during an event in Kissimmee, Florida, last month. “You can decide the direction of this country.”