On August 29th, Kamala Harris addressed the Latino community for the first time as Joe Biden’s running mate. The senator from California headlined the launch of Nuestros Negocios, Nuestro Futuro, a new campaign initiative designed for Latino business owners. Held via Zoom, the event centered on Florida, a crucial battleground state where Biden needs to reverse an ominous sign for Democrats. According to recent polls, Biden leads Donald Trump among Latinos by a smaller margin than that of Hillary Clinton, who won two-thirds of their votes in 2016 and still lost the state. Many audience members had tuned in to the event searching for answers, or, at the very least, a measure of comfort. When the coronavirus began spreading across the country, the unemployment rate among Latinos nearly quadrupled and their businesses shuttered. Harris listened to the woes of business owners intently, and described an economic plan meant to provide much-needed relief. She cast Biden’s Presidency as an imperative. Her message felt overly scripted at times, but convincing enough to end with an ask of her listeners. “Years from now, our children, our grandchildren, will look in our eyes and they’re going to ask us, ‘Where were you at that moment? And what did you do?’ ” Harris said, tilting slightly to the camera. “We will start by telling them, ‘I voted.’ ”
In this year’s general election, Latinos will make up the largest minority group in the electorate and play a decisive role in four states that could give Trump an Electoral College victory: Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. During the primaries, Bernie Sanders beat Biden by wide margins among Latino voters in key states with large Hispanic populations, including Nevada, Texas, and California. But, over the summer, the former Vice-President rolled out a more robust strategy to secure support from Latino voters, and Harris’s presence on the ticket has given him new momentum. Leaders in the community nevertheless warn that the Biden-Harris effort may be overdue. National polls show that Trump has the support of roughly a third of Latinos and is trailing behind Biden by about twenty points—a far narrower gap than the thirty-eight-point lead that Clinton had over him. One cohort of voters, in particular, could boost Biden’s candidacy: young Latinos. Approximately forty per cent of eligible Latino voters are between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five—nearly four million of them have become eligible to vote since 2016. Trump is highly unpopular with the group, yet polls also show that young Latinos, in particular men, are deeply cynical about politicians.
To win in Florida and other battleground states, Biden and Harris must focus both on inspiring young and old generations and countering a plethora of false information meant to convince them to sit out in November. “They have failed to articulate a message that can convince our people that they matter and that their votes can be decisive,” José La Luz, a Puerto Rican labor activist who served as a surrogate for Sanders in the primaries, told me. Harris will, no doubt, be central to that effort. Born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, the former attorney general of California can relate to the experiences of immigrant families through her own. She has a track record—on housing, health care, and even criminal-justice reform—that could resonate with Latinos. In California, Latino voters have already shown a remarkable degree of confidence in her leadership. During the 2016 Senate primary, she defeated a Latina candidate, and, as attorney general, earned a majority of support from Latinos in two consecutive elections. So when Biden announced his Vice-Presidential pick, Dolores Huerta, the civil-rights icon, described Biden’s decision as “historic and wonderful,” and the former Democratic Presidential candidate Julián Castro praised Harris as a “groundbreaking leader.” Within days, the Biden campaign released its first bilingual ad featuring Harris as a champion of Latino voters. The video opens with a famous Spanish proverb, “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres”—“Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
During the Nuestros Negocios, Nuestro Futuro virtual event, many business owners appeared drawn to Harris. Pilar Guzman, the owner of a Miami empanadas business that had closed a third of its locations owing to the pandemic, asked Harris for advice. “You’ve been the first woman to secure many of the positions in your career,” Guzman said. “What do you say to a woman like me?” Harris responded that her mother often told her, “You may be the first to do many things. Make sure you’re not the last.” That piece of advice, Harris added, drove her to “lift up the people from our communities and let them know that they belong.” Cecilia Tavera-Webman, one of the attendees, said that seeing Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the first South American to serve in Congress, moderate the event along with Harris created a unique sense of accomplishment. “It’s the American dream,” Tavera-Webman, who was born in Peru, said. For her, the event was as much a preview of what a future without Trump would bring as an ode to the country’s diversity. Asked about her takeaways, Tavera-Webman offered an unequivocal response: “That there is hope.”
One would think that the notion of hope could serve the former Vice-President well with voters these days. But Biden and Harris’s message to Latinos comes at a time when the pandemic has fundamentally upended political outreach. María Elena López, a member of the group Cubanos con Biden and a vice-chair of the Democratic Party in Miami-Dade, said there was a “disconnect” between the expectations of voters and the campaign’s limited bandwidth. López, who was born in Havana and was a registered Republican until Barack Obama’s reëlection, explained that people were eager to engage with Biden in person. “One of the complaints that I hear, and I understand where it’s coming from, is ‘Oh, we never see the Vice-President in person,’ ” López said. She feared people would lose interest in the election now that most, if not all, campaign activities are held virtually. She also questioned Biden’s alacrity. “Biden is a gentleman,” López observed. “On the one hand, that is a hundred per cent a great quality. But, on the other hand, he does not have something that, let’s say, excites people.” Next to Donald Trump, López argued, the Vice-President’s manner could be perceived as dull. “I’ve heard comments such as, ‘Well, you know, he’s just, like, boring.’ And I’m, like, ‘Boring is good!’ ”
Recent polls have only brought the limits of campaigning remotely to the fore. In early August, a nationwide survey by the polling firm Latino Decisions found that most Latinos had not heard from a single campaign this year about voting in November. An earlier poll by the same firm in six battleground states found that fewer than sixty per cent of respondents were definitely planning to vote in the general election. Latino Decisions is now advising the Biden campaign, and the firm’s co-founder, Matt Barreto, told me that as a result of the pandemic Latino voters were only now focussing on the race. “The high intensity of coronavirus in our community made it more difficult to have the election be a top-of-mind issue for us,” he said. Latinos have suffered disproportionately—they are twice as likely to die from the coronavirus as whites. “At the beginning it was just a matter of survival, frankly,” Barreto said. “Now, the longer it goes on, many people are connecting this ongoing pandemic to our failed political leadership.”
Biden’s success among Latinos will therefore depend on his ability to convince voters that he is more likely to revive the economy and stabilize the country than Trump—a message his campaign struggled to convey during the primaries. “One of the challenges he needed to overcome was that Joe Biden was well known, but he wasn’t sharply defined among Latino voters,” Stephanie Valencia, a co-founder of the research group Equis Labs, said. “Everybody knew that he was Barack Obama’s Vice-President, but they couldn’t really establish or say anything more than that.” At a policy level, Biden’s association with Obama put him at odds with a significant number of voters, particularly in the area of immigration. Many Latinos associate Obama with the deportation of more than three million undocumented people and the failure to secure comprehensive immigration reform. Early on in the campaign, Biden tried to justify Obama’s policies, quarrelled with protesters, and alienated immigration-rights activists with a number of gaffes. During the second Democratic debate, he suggested that undocumented immigrants should “get in line,” obviating the fact that there is no clear pathway to citizenship for them. Compared to Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who promised to overhaul the country’s health and immigration systems, Biden appeared to be an advocate for the status quo.
But, ultimately, his underwhelming performance among Latino voters was a function of poor campaign strategy more so than policy. Vanessa Cárdenas, the Biden campaign’s former national-coalitions director, said the campaign’s limited budget caused it to prioritize some states, and by implication some demographics, over others. “The whole focus was on Iowa and New Hampshire,” she said. Cristóbal Alex, a senior adviser to Biden who has led his outreach efforts from the onset, said Democratic competitors had outspent the former Vice-President by more than twenty to one. “We were a small and very scrappy campaign in the primary,” Alex said. “A lot of folks counted out Joe Biden.” Two months before the Iowa caucuses, Cárdenas resigned her position, raising concerns over the departure of the campaign’s most senior Latina staffer. “I just didn’t think I was going to make the difference that I had hoped to make,” she told me. “A fundamental problem for our community is how do we translate those thirty-two million voters into actual votes. Because, I think, at the end of the day, the influence that we have is a mirror of the power that we exercise.”
For decades, Latino voters have been cast as a “sleeping giant.” Their turnout has lagged about twenty per cent behind that of white and African-American voters—less than half of eligible Latino voters went to the polls in 2016. Theories on why Latinos don’t vote abound, but if there’s a lesson from past elections it’s that much of the blame falls on the candidates. During this year’s primaries, Sanders showed that it was possible to rally Latinos, particularly younger ones, to vote for the first time. “When you think of Bernie Sanders, he is not some Latino savior. He’s a grouchy, old democratic socialist—he’s all the things that would make you go, ‘How the hell did he dominate this vote?’ ” Chuck Rocha, a political strategist and the architect of Sanders’s Latino outreach efforts, said. “It’s because I spent fifteen million to go talk to a whole bunch of Latinos. That’s the key here.” Rocha argued that Biden could still succeed by focussing on advertising, mailing, and outreach on social-media platforms, where Latinos have a strong presence. He thought of the Nevada primary as a telling example. Sanders earned the support of more than fifty per cent of Latino voters there, but his campaign managed to reach only two per cent of caucusgoers in person.
Over the summer, the Biden campaign ramped up its outreach to the community. The former Vice-President now has a Latino leadership committee, made up of elected officials, in more than eighteen states. Many Latinos have also taken on senior positions at the campaign headquarters and in several state offices. But the campaign faces yet another challenge: that Trump’s exaggerated claims about electoral fraud and mail-in voting will drive down Latino turnout. “I just wonder how many in our community, who may be first-time voters, because they were naturalized or because they just turned eighteen, and are already suspicious of the electoral process, will be swayed by the misinformation that their votes will not count,” Sindy Benavides, the C.E.O. of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest Latino civil-rights organization in the country, observed. To make matters worse, surveys have shown that a majority of Latinos are unfamiliar with how to vote by mail in their states. Julie Chávez, a former adviser to Obama who was recently named Biden’s deputy campaign manager, expressed concern about how Trump’s tactics could play out. “We are facing voter suppression in ways that we never imagined and that are 2016 on steroids,” Chávez, who is the granddaughter of the labor organizer César Chávez, said. “It is going to have an impact if we don’t create important strategies and avenues that insure that folks feel calm and confident in their ability to vote.”
As recent history has shown, Trump’s falsehoods are also a powerful tool for courting voters. María Elena López, the member of Cubanos for Biden, admitted that a strikingly high number of her Republican friends in Florida saw the former Vice-President as a radical socialist. “A very important part of our strategy is to counteract the messaging of socialism, which is still the most crucial Trump message that has taken hold in our community—that ‘Biden is a socialist’ and that ‘the world is going to come to an end,’ ” she said. The Trump campaign has repeatedly cast Biden as a “helpless puppet to the radical left” that will only bring “far-left policies” to the country. One of its radio ads released in July simulates a phone conversation between two Cuban women, Marita and Yesenia. “I think the Democrats have a loose screw, mamá. Now they want to raise our taxes and cut police funding,” Yesenia says. To which Marita responds, “And did you see them marching with the Che Guevara flag over by Biscayne?” Those messages, at once false and stereotypical to the point of absurdity, could well resonate among Cuban and Venezuelan émigrés in Florida, who have a deep loathing for the regimes of Raúl Castro and Nicolás Maduro.
Until last month, the Trump campaign had consistently outspent Biden on Spanish-language advertising, but that trend recently reversed. Since mid-June, the Biden campaign has put out a series of bilingual ads, meant to micro-target different nationalities within the Latino community. Some cast Trump as a caudillo akin to Hugo Chávez or Fidel Castro, while others denounce his lethal mishandling of the pandemic. Depending on whether the ad is being rolled out in Arizona or Florida, the narrator speaks with a Mexican or a Cuban accent. The subjects addressed, as well as the music chosen, are designed to convey a deep understanding of the voters Biden is trying to attract. Early last month, Biden also embraced the recommendations of a task force he convened with Sanders supporters, high-level government officials, and policy experts. Biden promised to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and completely overhaul Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Marielena Hincapié, who co-chaired the task force’s immigration group and is the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said that she had found the Biden campaign’s openness to change encouraging. “The research shows that, if you provide a pro-immigrant message and share what are some of the policies that a Biden campaign would move behind, the support jumps tremendously,” Hincapié said.
That is precisely what the Biden campaign is trying to do in Arizona, where Latinos make up nearly a quarter of eligible voters. Congressman Ruben Gallego, a member of Biden’s Latino Leadership Committee, is leading the campaign’s outreach efforts in the state and is a critic of the Democratic Party’s strategy in 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost the state to Trump by three and a half percentage points. “We left too many young Latino votes on the table,” he said. In 2018, Democrats mounted a robust canvassing and registration effort, spent heavily on paid media, and doubled messaging via texts, social platforms, and phone calls. Boosted by higher turnout among young Latino voters, the community cast nineteen per cent of all Arizona ballots. Since the last Presidential election, more than a hundred thousand Latinos have registered to vote as Democrats. “Young voters are very politically savvy. They know that the election is happening. They know the sides. It’s a question of, ‘Can you just get them to take that one more step and vote?’ ” Gallego told me. “In 2018, we were able to do that by making the whole election about Donald Trump and they came out.”
On Tuesday, to mark the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, Biden flew to Florida for the first time since becoming the Democratic nominee. He visited a community college in Tampa, where he met with a diverse group of veterans. Of Trump, the former Vice-President said, “nowhere are his faults more glaring—more offensive—than when it comes to his denigration of our service members, veterans, wounded warriors, and the fallen.” Adding, almost scornfully, “It makes my blood boil.” After the roundtable, Biden headed to Kissimmee, where a lineup of Latino celebrities awaited him. Ricky Martin, Eva Longoria, and Luis Fonsi introduced the former Vice-President and made an urgent plea for their listeners to cast their ballots in November. “I would be lying if I didn’t recognize that this is one of the most difficult periods in this country’s history,” Fonsi said. “One song en español broke all the barriers across cultures, languages, and ages. ‘Despacito’ proved to me that, in this country, we will never be defined by our differences.” When Biden walked to the lectern, he pulled out his cell phone and played Fonsi’s hit song, smiling and swaying to its rhythm.
Hours later, Trump retweeted an edited version of the video that showed Biden playing the N.W.A. song “Fuck tha Police” instead of “Despacito.” Twitter labelled Trump’s tweet “manipulated media,” but the fake video had been viewed more than four million times the following day. During his address, Biden spoke of the “Hispanic roots” of the country and laid out his vision for a future where “there is no room for the idea of second-class citizens.” He trumpeted his policy agenda for the Latino community from health care to wages, housing to education. He reminded his audience that four million Latinos—who have the highest uninsured rates in the country—had gained coverage during the Obama Administration. In conclusion, Biden offered a personal plea. He recalled urging voters decades ago, when he knocked on doors in his first Senate race, “Look me over. If you like what you see and believe what I say, help me out” and added, “I’m here in Florida to say, ‘Look me over again.’ ” Biden then grew solemn. “Please, this election, make your vote heard,” he said. “More than any other time, the Latino community holds in the palm of their hand the destiny of this country.”
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