Biden Has a Real Latino Problem

Screenshot of Joe Biden speaking from his home via video chat on April 8
For Latino voters, this isn’t working. Handout/Getty Images

With just over six months before Election Day, the odds of a Joe Biden presidency are improving. Despite being unable to campaign in person, Biden has opened a comfortable national margin over President Donald Trump. He also leads in most battleground states, including Florida and Wisconsin. If he wins every state now leaning his way, Biden’s Electoral College tally could be significantly larger that Trump’s in 2016. It would be a resounding victory.

Still, Hillary Clinton held a similar edge over Trump in the middle of the spring four years ago. To prevent a bitter surprise in the fall, Biden’s campaign needs to focus on those demographics that remain skeptical of the former vice president. While the election’s result might finally hinge on suburban voters, that holy grail of modern American politics, no group should concern Democrats more than Hispanics.

A recent Latino Decisions poll reveals a clear enthusiasm gap among Latinos for both Biden and the 2020 election itself, with only 49 percent of registered voters currently committed to choosing Biden over Trump, and just six out of 10 planning to go to the polls in November. Compare that with black voters, who seem deeply committed to Biden’s candidacy: In another recent poll, 65 percent said they would support Biden. While a mere 23 percent of Hispanic voters seem to be leaning toward Trump, the lack of interest Biden generates within a community already plagued by low voter turnout should be an immediate cause for alarm for the Democratic Party.

What explains Biden’s lack of appeal among Latinos? For Democratic consultant José Parra, former adviser to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Biden’s troubles began with the campaign’s financial constraints during the primary. “Biden was running a campaign on very tight budgets, so I assume that was reflected in not being able to invest in the Latino community,” Parra told me. During the primaries, Bernie Sanders’ campaign both outspent and outsmarted Biden’s with Latinos. With outreach led by Texan strategist Chuck Rocha, Sanders invested early in Hispanic voters, setting up offices in various Latino enclaves in California, Iowa, and other early states and hiring organizers within the community. Rocha also had the political insight to focus on Sanders’ immigrant heritage and refocus the candidate’s Hispanic policy agenda away from immigration and onto health care, jobs, and the economy. The strategy worked. Sanders beat Biden by almost 30 percent among Latinos in California, and at least 33 percent in Nevada.

I spoke with Rocha a few days ago from D.C., where he was having, by his own admission, a difficult time winding down from the commotion of a presidential campaign to the quiet of the coronavirus quarantine. He was eager to share some thoughts on Biden’s Latino challenges. “He was just not talking to them,” Rocha said. “They spent little time and money actually having a conversation with these voters.”

And “these voters,” as Rocha noted, are not just one bloc. “Biden has had a hard time motivating young voters in general, and Latinos are just younger,” Rocha told me. Among older Hispanic voters, Rocha suggested, Biden faces a different kind of challenge. “With those who are older, who have voted in one or two cycles, there’s still some Obama hangover with immigration policy,” he said. “Deportations are still fresh on many people’s minds.” At first, Biden was reluctant to distance himself from the controversial immigration policy of the first two years of the Obama administration. He finally did so in an interview with Jorge Ramos.

Rocha warned that Biden’s current approach to campaigning from confinement is not reaching the Hispanic electorate. “Biden is having webinars and getting endorsements and he’s doing all the things that the status quo says you are supposed to do, but that’s not how you talk to Latinos,” he explained. “You have to spend money, go have a conversation, and tell them why your policies are different from Barack Obama’s.”

Of course, the problem is that Biden can’t really “have a conversation” with anyone in person at the moment, Hispanic or otherwise. The solution, Rocha says, could come from Biden’s long list of Hispanic surrogates. “People like congressmen Tony Cárdenas and Ruben Gallego—there’s a lot of members of the Hispanic caucus who are true champions of our community,” Rocha told me. But Rocha thinks the Biden campaign still seems reluctant to properly invest in those surrogates: “They don’t spend money to get them out there in a mail piece or digital or television ads in Spanish, written by Latino consultants.” Rocha compared this with how he took advantage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s crucial backing of Bernie Sanders. “Just her endorsement would have meant nothing,” Rocha said. “But taking her endorsement, making it into a television commercial in Spanish, and then delivering it to every Latino in Nevada or California—that’s how you use a surrogate.”

Ocasio-Cortez is an interesting case study for the Biden campaign’s sluggish Latino strategy. Rocha told me Sanders’ internal polling consistently showed no Hispanic surrogate polled better than Ocasio-Cortez with Latinos, but also among coveted young, college-educated whites. Incredibly, according to Ocasio-Cortez herself, as of mid-April no one from the Biden campaign had reached out to her, and she had yet to speak to, let alone meet, the former vice president.

The Latino Decisions poll offers one possible key for Biden with Latino voters in the selection of his running mate. As the campaign’s vetting process begins, Biden is said to be considering Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. An impressive 72 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to turn out in November if Biden chose Cortez Masto or another Hispanic woman like the Nevada senator as his vice presidential candidate. (It has to be a woman because Biden has already committed to picking a woman.) Even more important: 67 percent said such a selection would likely inspire them to support Biden at the polls. For Parra, the choice of a Hispanic woman like Cortez Masto would be a watershed moment for Hispanics. “Seeing ourselves reflected in a national presidential ticket is something we’ve never experienced. It would probably be a game-changer,” he told me. And Rocha notes that the selection of a Hispanic woman as a running mate would give Biden much-needed free media attention within the Latino community. “If you were to pick Cortez Masto or [New Mexico Gov.] Michelle Lujan Grisham, the press covers it and it gets out to the masses,” Rocha told me. “That’s how you move things.”

One more thing: While his numbers are up and his absence from public view does lessen the chance that he will have a viral senior moment, Biden’s hibernation has had another negative consequence for Biden. According to the Latino Decisions poll, almost half of all respondents approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, with 47 percent saying Trump was delivering “clear and helpful” information about the pandemic. “That is a function of Trump being in front of the cameras on a daily basis, a luxury Biden doesn’t have,” Parra told me. “But the Biden campaign has room to improve in reaching out to Latino media in order to create a contrast. That has not happened yet.” Rocha agrees: “Hispanics are not hearing from anyone in the community except Donald Trump, every single day, for an hour of primetime news, talking about how he is fixing this.” Without pushback in Spanish, Rocha says, Hispanics are left with Trump’s narrative on the pandemic. “There’s nobody out there saying what he’s doing to our community.”

In spite of Biden’s lackluster polling with Hispanics, both Parra and Rocha remain optimistic. “He still has plenty of time to maximize the Latino vote, but it’s going to take investment, paid communication to that community, and it needs to be done by Latinos,” Rocha insists. Parra adds a warning: Don’t assume Hispanics will show up just based on Trump’s horrible treatment of the Hispanic community. The Biden campaign, he told me, should “invest well in bicultural and bilingual talent who have a seat at the table in the campaign and who know the communities well.” If Biden and his team stall, Latino voters could deliver, either through apathy or rejection, a loud enough rebuke come November. No hay tiempo que perder.