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Chuck Rocha is a former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders and the head of Nuestro PAC; his specialty is advising candidates on reaching out to Latino voters, like the ones Joe Biden seemed to lose in Miami-Dade County in this year’s election. Rocha says the way for the Democratic Party to make up their losses with Latino communities is not only by reshaping the national Democratic Party but its state apparatuses as well. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Rocha about what we can learn from 2020. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: There’s been a lot of bellyaching over Latino voters leaving the Democratic Party. But you see it a little differently: Latino voters really delivered for the president-elect, but they just might not live in the places you’d expect. That doesn’t negate the fact that something is certainly going on.
Chuck Rocha: You’ve got to start in Florida because it was the problem. Think about Cubans. Cubans mostly live in Miami-Dade County, and they’re already registered Republicans. They’re going to vote predominantly Republican, and that’s who they are. You’re not going to persuade them to be Democrats.
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But Miami-Dade is a traditional Democratic stronghold, right?
Sure. But what you had was an uptick in actual voter participation, and then you lost some of the margins. You had more Latinos and more Cubans voting, and then your percentages weren’t as great as they were in Hillary Clinton’s run. If Biden had performed at the same level as Clinton in Miami-Dade, that means an improvement of 20 points, but he still loses the state of Florida by 180,000 votes because of his underperformance with white people. You can’t lay this all on Latinos. It was an overall underperformance in that county all the way around. That’s why we lost two congressional seats there as well.
I was looking back at Sen. Bill Nelson’s reelection race against former Gov. Rick Scott, and Scott just seemed to really communicate with the Cuban community. He’d picked a Cuban American to be his lieutenant governor, started learning to speak Spanish, and had shown up in Cuban areas often. I wonder if you think there’s a real weakness there for the Democratic Party.
There is, and I think the scenario you describe is a lot like what Donald Trump did as well: He highlighted Cubans, his relationship with them. I would take you back to the RNC, where no fewer than three or four Cubans spoke onstage with very moving immigration and American dream stories. A lot of times Democratic operatives are like, Cubans are Republicans, what are we going to do? I say, let’s have a counterargument. Let’s get on those radio programs and push back and talk about the good things that we’re doing in America around all the different aspects that they care about outside of just Cuba, communism, and socialism. It wasn’t a lack of spending on Spanish-language TV in Miami—Priorities USA and Mike Bloomberg and other consultants made sure that that was done at a really high level. There was plenty of advertisement, but by the end, everybody had kind of tuned it out.
Let’s talk about South Texas: There has been a lot of attention on these border communities that have been traditionally blue even though the state goes firmly red, and how they flipped. I wonder what you see when you look at this compared with Florida.
Again, you’ve got to peel back a lot of layers of what’s really going on there. In Texas, for the first time, they did not have straight-party voting. Every Mexican American in that county is a Democrat for the most part. You used to just have to walk in on Election Day and check one box and walk out. Republicans did away with that because it was starting to make them lose elections down ballot. These counties may be 90 percent Latino, but they are not bastions of liberalism. And very few Latinos actually live in those counties, compared with the other counties around the state.
Because they’re rural.
All of these districts are different. We have a national party, and no disrespect to any of these people, but ain’t none of them been to South Texas. Ain’t none of them spent a lot of time in Little Havana in Miami and understand what I’m talking about right now. Because you have a national woke party who don’t understand that all of these districts are really different, that even the segmentation of the Latino programs should be really, really different—that’s where you lose the nuances and cost us elections sometimes. The unwritten story of this election is how half of all the Democrats who will no longer be in Congress after losing on Tuesday night were Latinos.
What do you think about that?
I think it shows a weakness in the underbelly of the Latino outreach from the party apparatus. State parties and congressional races and Senate races thought they could rely on the investment that Biden was making into the state, and the investment in Spanish-language TV, to lift all boats with a rising tide. And that may have helped in places like Arizona and Nevada, but I don’t know of any specific Latino outreach program that any Senate campaign or Democratic campaign actually ran to go talk to Latinos early about why they should be voting for a Democrat for a congressional or Senate office. I did this research the day after the election: I didn’t find one single Latino or Latina managing any race that we ran for governor, Senate, or in the top 30 congressional races, or any Latino-owned firms doing the top consulting at any level of that work. So we shouldn’t be surprised that that outreach wasn’t done, because there was none of us at the table actually doing it. And that also goes for African Americans: There were no African American men or women in any of those positions either.
There was some good news this cycle for Democrats when it came to the Latino vote, in Arizona and Nevada. I feel like what makes those states different is that they have their own separate nonparty organizing infrastructures that are in the community all the time, making connections. In Nevada, you have the union working and reaching out to its members. You have a lot of young people who have been organizing around issues that are salient to them when it comes especially to immigration.
That’s the best point we’ve made here today, and there’s nowhere that’s a better example than Arizona. Biden spends money starting in late July in Arizona, ads in Spanish, and he stays up the entire time. Was he there as early as Donald Trump? No, he wasn’t. And did that cost him a little bit? Yes, it did. But Biden got there and stayed there. He had a great state director, a Latina, another representative of the community.
You need robust independent expenditure spending, and local organizers on the ground connecting it directly to the community. There’s a group in Arizona called LUCHA that I’ve been working with for years. They were fully funded. They knocked on doors. They were at the supermarkets. They work in the community year-round, helping people apply for driver’s licenses, helping them with health care, helping them with immigration papers, and they transfer that over to political organizing when it’s time.
What should Democratic voter persuasion look like going forward?
It starts with doing things immediately to start a narrative that the Democrats are with us. I think Biden is in a good place. It starts with reinstating DACA, reinstating temporary protected status, closing these private prisons with these children and their mothers are held at the border, reuniting the mothers with their children, getting into an economic populism message around rebuilding showing how he’s going to get us out of this catastrophe, which will take time. He should start talking to Latinos and other folks about what he’s done for us and what he’s done to make their lives better. That’s the key to winning these races: having receipts. You couple that with having more Latinos in positions of power in the party infrastructure, from consulting to managers to the thought leaders, and that’s the recipe for how you do it differently.
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