The Biden Campaign Still Has ‘Work to Do’ With Latinos: Will It Happen? (OPINION)

Sep 21, 2020
8:37 AM

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden smiles at supporters during a campaign event at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

It took 138 likely Florida Latino voters from a September 8 Marist/NBC News poll to ring the alarm for the Joe Biden campaign. That’s the number of Latino respondents surveyed for this specific poll, resulting in President Trump getting 50% of respondents (69 likely voters) to Biden’s 46% (63 voters).

It would be easy to dismiss this poll as an outlier but doing so would be a serious mistake. If national polling trends were the indication, Biden is getting slightly less Latino support than Hilary Clinton did in 2016, which also means that the former Vice President is also underperforming President Obama in the 2008 and 2012 cycles in terms of overall support. In the middle of a global pandemic that has disproportionally impacted the U.S. Latino community.

A new WSJ/NBC News poll released on Sunday of 300 registered Latino voters shows a few takeaways: Biden’s margin with Latino voters (36 points) is still smaller than 2016 (38 points), 2012 (44 points) and the same as 2008 (36 points). Still, according to the poll, “Biden’s support draws heavily from younger voters (71%), women (67%) and Latinos who primarily speak Spanish at home (68%),” Telemundo stated in a release about the poll. That also means that Trump is doing better with Latino males and also with a population that is becoming more and more English-dominant.

The reality is that the Biden campaign has been struggling to connect with Latino voters ever since he announced his intent to run. With Latinos estimated to be a voting bloc of 32 million eligible voters in 2020, questions about the campaign’s strategy have been lingering, and two Sundays ago, Biden campaign senior adviser Symone Sanders admitted that “we know we have work to do” when it comes to Latino voters.  

The latest Florida polling should not surprise anyone who has been following the campaign, and President Trump in particular. There are so many reasons why Biden is not performing well, and one of the biggest is Trump, who knows that he must win the state or risk losing re-election. The more conservative Cuban-American vote, along with a new crop of Venezuelans, Colombians, Nicaraguans and yes, even Puerto Ricans who align ideologically to the right will always choose a Republican. As simplistic as it sounds, all Trump has to do to neutralize the Latino vote in Florida is this: scream socialism and tell supporters that Nicolás Maduro and Fidel Castro’s ghost will be part of a Biden administration. That strategy would get him 40% without any challenges That type of thinking is aligned to more robust polls of Florida Latino voters that showed Biden getting 53% of support to Trump’s 37%.

Lost Opportunity

Florida appears to have become a lost opportunity for the Biden campaign because of Biden’s lack of a real Florida strategy, according to state insiders who have worked Florida’s Latino voters for years. Investment and hires have come too late. In addition, particularly in the central part of the state —where Puerto Ricans have settled more and more— there has been a disconnect with grassroots organizations who are beginning to flex political muscle. 

“The organizers’ input has also not been taken into consideration, and the campaign has an attitude that they know best. They also tend to silence their critics instead of having constructive conversations, they fall prey to ‘if you criticize us you are only helping Trump’,” one Florida Latino insider, who chose to remain anonymous, told me. 

Other strategies by Democrats in Florida to portray Trump as a Latin American caudillo might also not be working.

“Painting Trump as a caudillo seems to be backfiring. This is unexpected. Many of us were recommending the Democrats take this line of attack once it was clear Trump was behaving like an autocrat,” said Federico A. de Jesús, the Director for Hispanic Media in the Obama-Biden 2008 presidential campaign and Democratic strategist. 

In addition, de Jesús added, certain images that might work in other parts of the country for Biden supporters, are not as effective in Florida with Latino voters.

“What many liberals see as images of Trump’s authoritarianism, mainly gassing peaceful protesters in front of the White House and arbitrarily arresting peaceful protesters by scary unmarked paramilitary-style federal officials, can backfire with elements of the Latino electorate who fled countries that had social disturbances like that and the images used in the Biden ads remind them of a past they do not wish to replicate in the U.S. Recognizing these subtleties will help the Biden camp pivot in the correct direction,” de Jesús explained.

Furthermore, and this is something coming from several operatives who believe that Democrats have yet to fully tap into the state’s growing Puerto Rican population, many feel that Biden has not done enough to focus on issues that matter specifically to Puerto Ricans. Similar concerns were raised when Democrats like Bill Nelson didn’t do enough to court Boricua voters in a contested Senate race. Nelson eventually lost to Rick Scott, who actually was active in visiting the island after Hurricane María and appeared responsive as governor to the community. 

Did Democrats learn from the lessons of 2018?

If Tuesday’s Biden visit to Florida —his first one as the Democratic nominee— was any indication, apparently not. Much was expected of a renewed fight to win over Florida’s Latinos, but it seemed that Biden seemed a bit disconnected as to whether his campaign had the desire or vision to win Florida in November.

First, he brushed off a very direct question from Telemundo’s José Díaz-Balart about the Marist/NBC News poll, giving a very general answer about working hard “for every single vote” and how the campaign has “advertised more in Latino stations than anybody else has.”

Second, after months of being asked for a specific policy plan for Puerto Rico by several Puerto Rican grassroots organizations that would go beyond a rather general op-ed he penned in late 2019, Biden revealed a fuller plan hours before a Tuesday event in Kissimmee to mixed reviews. At a time when Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the diaspora are debating colonialism, the failed bipartisan PROMESA vote signed by President Obama that led to a non-elected austerity board, the disastrous Jones Act that continues to choke the island’s economy and even statehood, Biden’s positions and comments seemed to either ignore these political realities or follow a rather safe path that really won’t move the needle with Puerto Rican voters in Florida.

“Advocates worked tirelessly since last year to get presidential candidates to Show Us Their Puerto Rico policy and we’re glad Vice President Biden finally put out his. It is strong on self-determination and equal funding for health care and nutrition. It lacks substance on PROMESA and the debt, while ignoring the economic burdens of the Jones Act. What is really disappointing is that in his speech announcing the policy, Biden said he supported statehood but would let the people decide. Puerto Ricans are tired of US politicians trying to have it both ways. Unfortunately Biden fell into that trap and could wind up disappointing most boricua voters as a result,” de Jesús said.

Meanwhile, Trump’s purely political play on Friday to finally release promised aid to Puerto Rico will be seen by his Puerto Rican supporters as a victory.

Finally, there is the issue of being Vice President during a Democratic administration that deported more people than any other administration in the history of this country. A lack of a real public reckoning with the community has plagued enthusiasm with many Latino voters, including younger Latinos who were gravitating to Bernie Sanders. Winning over those voters might take a bit more empathy and acknowledgment of more culpability, something Biden did not fully do during the Diaz-Balart interview.

“It took much too long to get it right. That’s the fact. Period. Number one. Number two, but… compared to where we are today, and look who you are. How are you feeling today in terms of this president? Everything he’s done, separating thousands… there are still thousands of people who are being separated from their families,” Biden said, while he promised to freeze deportations for the first 100 days of his administration, even though the Obama-Biden administration had laid the foundation to Trump’s abhorrent policies.

Nonetheless, the Biden campaign insists all is well, telling journalists on a press call last week before the start of Hispanic Heritage Month that it will go after every Latino voter in every contested state, “Despacito” ring tones included.

According to campaign officials, it has identified the following states where it will run a concerted effort with Latino voters: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas. Officials also said that they are organizing in states where the Latino population is growing and significant enough to get votes. Those states include Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin. Besides their push for ads that are running in both English and Spanish, the campaign will coordinate Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations and events, featuring virtual bus tours with key members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez, who was also on the press call, praised the party’s targeted and data-driven campaigns across people’s Latin American countries of origin and regional differences.

Such a strategy goes beyond the conventional thinking that winning Florida is the only path to victory for Democrats with Latinos, but the data would confirm it. Earlier this year, Pew released a detailed map of eligible Latinos voters in the United States, and many of the states listed by the Biden campaign have enough voters to put him over the top. Biden doesn’t necessarily have to win Florida if states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin go his way and if more investment and outreach has occurred in these states with Latinos, it would certainly offset the Trump must-win Florida strategy.

Still, after Biden visited Florida last Tuesday, the “we know we have work to do” attitude will get more urgent. Though the question still remains: is it too late?


Julio Ricardo Varela is founder and publisher of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media. He tweets from @julito77.