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Joe Biden isn’t doing great with Latino voters. He’s trending worse than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did in their elections, and a recent poll has him trailing Donald Trump by 4 points among Latinos in Florida. With just a few weeks to go before Nov. 3, the Biden campaign is ramping up its appeals to Latino voters—but will it be enough? On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Chuck Rocha, head of Nuestro PAC and a former Bernie Sanders campaign adviser, about what Democrats need to do to reach this key demographic. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: You helped Bernie Sanders craft a strategy that would explicitly connect with Latino voters. So what did that look like?
Chuck Rocha: I was a senior adviser for the entire campaign. Because of that position, I got to sit in rooms where the decisions actually were made to make sure that Latino programs were fully funded. And I say that now because it’s probably the biggest mistake all campaigns make with their Latino outreach. I’ve sat in that meeting … for 20 years, where they come back around Labor Day and go: “The budget is tight. We really got to double down on these white, persuadable voters, so we’re going to cut the Latino budget.” … Most campaigns wait till the last three or four weeks and then they start talking to Latinos and Black voters.
What I wanted to prove is that … if you treat a Latino voter like a white, persuadable voter, giving them information early and often and with culturally competent consultants, you can get a dramatic amount of them to show up for you. People are always shocked when I say we did not have a Latino outreach department at the Bernie Sanders headquarters. They’re like, “Well, then how did you do all of this work?” Because we integrated it into everything we were doing. We had 200 Latinos on staff. … Every department head, every office, every state had a Latino in a leadership position to run the overall campaign. They were making sure that Latinos weren’t left out there. You couple that with us starting six months early talking to Latinos in every state, spending millions of dollars, and then having a candidate who was rock-solid on an economic issue that most Latinos could relate with—that’s nirvana. That’s the perfect storm. That’s how we got 73 percent of the Latino vote in the Nevada caucuses.
You’ve written that, by some estimates, 60 percent of eligible Latino voters in battleground states are going to sit out the 2020 election. And you’ve done some focus groups where you’ve talked to voters like this. What are they telling you about why they would make that decision?
What NALEO—the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials—found in its national poll of Latinos in battleground states is that 60 percent of Latinos they talked to had not heard from either campaign. So if you’re not hearing from either campaign, guess what you have a high likelihood of not doing? Voting. I’ve tried to explain this to people, and it’s almost too simple for them to understand. They were like, “Chuck, what was your secret weapon to get all of these new Latinos to show up in the primary for Bernie Sanders?” And I was like, “You got your pen and paper? You go ask them.” “No, no, no. What was the message strategy?” … I’m like: “Nope! Again, too complicated. Just go ask them.”
They literally couldn’t get it through their head that by asking them a few months out and then starting a conversation that can lead to a policy discussion, then you can engage them and give a person, a Latino, a reason to go vote. But if you show up in the last two days, that’s not reason enough—to say, “Donald Trump is bad. You’ve got to go vote.”
During the focus groups, it was two things that came up all the time. Latinos said: “Look, we get that Donald Trump is not with us and that he is crazy. We get it. You don’t have to tell us no more. But you need to tell me, because I don’t know Joe Biden, what he’s gonna do to make my life better.”
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In Florida, how could the turnout of Latino voters really shift the margins?
It’s about a new demographic of Latinos. Florida’s changing at a dramatic pace when it comes to Latinos. Folks in New York City or sitting in Nebraska, when they think about Latinos, they just think about Cubans down in Miami. But that’s less than 20 percent of the total Latino population—and half of them are conservative Republicans who would never vote for any Democrat. So people always lump us together. There’s just such a big difference between Cubans and the other demographics that are there. You layer in, over the last four to six years, this dramatic increase of the Puerto Rican population because of these hurricanes and the downturn and the collapse of their economy, where you have all these multigenerational families having to live together in the I-4 corridor. Then you have all of these other Latinos from South America, who’ve escaped Venezuela, who were very rich, very conservative, who have a different ideological thinking when you say “democratic socialist” to them. And then on top of all of that, you have, like, Mexicans in Tampa that are part of a farming community. But on a voter file, it all says “Latino.”
So to win this thing, you’ve got to win it on the margins. You go to Little Havana. You go talk to Cubans. But you really concentrate on Cubans under the age of 60. … Cubans that were born in America, and not on the island, act much differently. So you try to cut your losses there, and that’s where you’d put up a good fight, but you don’t double down. Where you double down is in the I-4 corridor, because that’s where the Mexicans and the Puerto Ricans live, and that’s the base of your support. Currently, Donald Trump is winning like 60 percent of Cubans. But Joe Biden is winning 70 percent of Puerto Ricans. So that’s where you double and triple down, where your base is, to get more people to come out and vote. But establishment white consultants don’t understand the theory of trying to get a new brown voter to show up versus the money spent to go persuade another old white woman to vote for Biden who may have voted for Trump the first time.
I wonder, too, if the voters that the president is trying to talk to—folks from Venezuela, older people in Cuban families—are more likely to vote, historically. And so it’s an easier time than someone like Joe Biden would have convincing folks who’ve just come here from Puerto Rico, and are climate refugees essentially, to vote.
These people that came from Cuba who automatically become citizens the moment their foot touched the U.S. soil, and then they got a check from the government that’s like, “Welcome to America. Let’s get to work,” or these Venezuelans who become U.S. citizens—they are highly, highly motivated to vote, and they vote at higher rates than even white people. But then you have Puerto Ricans who’ve just gotten here, Mexicans who have moved here from Texas or other places, who are just not talked to as much. They are also not as wealthy as many of these Cubans, so they just have more life getting in the way of them having to vote—maybe two jobs, lower income, all of the things that stand in the way of most working-class people trying to figure out how to stand in line for three hours. You couple all of that with the coronavirus that has everybody laid off, everybody losing their health care, Latinos dying at three times the rate, our children eight times as likely to catch it, based off the CDC report—then you’ve got the perfect storm of how this has come to be.
You have a lot of experience campaigning in Nevada. I want to talk about why you look at this state and you say Democrats had better be keeping their eye on it.
It’s mainly around the coronavirus effect, because they’re almost entirely a service sector and tourism economy. All of these brown and Black folks and immigrants and children of immigrants who work out there are all tied to this industry that is faltering. So you want to go out there and talk to them about showing up to vote and talk to them about the issues when they’re literally trying to figure out how they’re going to feed their families. And because this huge powerhouse out there, the Culinary Union, is like 80 percent still laid off from all the casinos, they’re not ready to do all the work that they may have done before because they have been doing so much services to their union, as they should be. I just feel like there’s going to be an effect there.
You can see the machinery cranking up—Joe Biden this week releasing ads that are almost entirely in Spanish, scored by Bad Bunny, making the case that you want to break up with Donald Trump. But is it enough?
I think he should double everything he’s doing, just to make sure. And then there needs to be an outside validator game like you do with white voters. I am not anti–white folks. I’m anti–you spending 10 times the money on white voters than you do on brown voters.
These rich people aren’t throwing their money away to persuade white people to go vote. That is smart political strategy. My point is that we could do the same thing with Latinos if we use the same strategy.
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