Latino voters moved toward Republicans. Now Biden wants them back.
By Jennifer Medina and Lisa Lerer
Alejandra Gomez was surprised, but pleased, by a flurry of phone calls from the White House in the spring, offering updates on its efforts toward an immigration overhaul. Officials also asked what her Arizona-based advocacy group thought of its work on voting rights and how the pandemic relief package was affecting the state.
“It’s absolutely different than what we’ve seen before,” Gomez said, comparing the efforts with those of previous Democratic administrations, which typically waited to reach out only during reelection campaigns.
She wasn’t alone. Leaders of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials were taken aback when both the president and vice president committed to speaking at their conference in June, the first time in the event’s decadeslong history that the top two White House officials had agreed to speak in a non-election year.
And in Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera, a group that represents low-wage immigrant workers, was thrilled when the White House reached out to arrange a conversation between their members and Marty Walsh, the secretary of Labor, during a swing he made through Milwaukee.
“We had an opportunity for all our members to come listen to him and for him to listen to us,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of the organization. “That’s a good cue that they haven’t forgotten us after the elections.”
For years, Latino activists and organizers complained that Democratic efforts to woo their community often seemed like an afterthought, a motley collection of Spanish-language advertisements, haphazardly translated campaign literature and a handful of outreach staff members tacked on to campaigns.
But after last year’s election, when Republicans peeled away significant amounts of Latino support across the country, Democratic leaders are trying a more aggressive approach.
Led by a White House that recruited top Latino organizers to high-level staff positions, and with the first lady, Jill Biden, taking a particular interest in reaching out to Latino voters, the new effort bridges the party, encompassing policy, communications and political organizing. The outreach encompasses a broad number of community leaders and social media stars, such as Eugenio Derbez, a Mexican comedian, and meetings with Hispanic faith leaders.
The efforts reflect how vital Latino voters are to the party’s success, but also the extent of the work needed to win back a group that makes up nearly 20% of the population. Democrats have long viewed these voters — a diverse group that includes dozens of countries of origin and a wide range of socioeconomic status — as a mostly monolithic bloc that could be taken for granted, operating as though the most important factor was simply turnout; if Latino voters cast ballots, the reasoning went, they will vote Democratic.
But 2020, with a record 18.7 million ballots cast by Latino voters, proved just how wrong that theory was. Though roughly 60% chose President Joe Biden, the movement toward Donald Trump plunged Democrats into a period of soul-searching.
While there has not been a conclusive detailed analysis, exit polling and focus groups from both parties show that Trump won over Hispanic voters without a college degree who were critical of shutdown orders amid the pandemic and believed the former president would be a better steward of the economy. Republicans also did well with Cubans, Venezuelans and Colombians in South Florida who viewed Democrats as sympathetic to socialism, as well as Mexican Americans in South Texas and other regions who backed his border policies. Evangelicals made up a sizable portion of Latino Trump supporters based on their opposition to abortion.
The Democratic Party is now trying to use data to better understand Latino voters, and to try to develop a more granular understanding of how different national backgrounds, economic status and other factors change voting behavior.
As a candidate and president-elect, Biden has had uneven success with Hispanic outreach. In early 2020 primaries, he trailed his rival Bernie Sanders among Latino voters. Top Latino officials were frustrated during his campaign last year by the absence of Hispanic officials in his inner circle.
Some activists are quietly criticizing the new efforts as lackluster, and point out that while outreach has increased, there has not been a major policy victory on a critical issue like an immigration overhaul. But they acknowledge that there is a growing recognition that winning over Latino voters will take more than stops at taco shops and inserting mangled Spanish slogans into stump speeches.
Democrats’ efforts are also geared toward persuading voters to see benefits of the party’s policies, particularly in key places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where more defections could cost them congressional seats.
Since Biden entered office, the White House has held dozens of meetings, many of them virtually, with leaders across the country. It is also finding ways to reach out directly to Latino voters and not rely solely on advocacy groups.
There are biweekly calls with Latino organizations on vaccination efforts and economic policies, as well as one-on-one meetings and briefings on more specific issues. Officials responsible for hiring held months of weekly calls with outside organizations to help develop a pipeline of Latino candidates for administration posts. The effort has been successful: A number of Latino organizers and strategists now hold high-level posts in the White House and the Cabinet.
White House aides say that many of the top policy priorities will benefit Latino voters significantly; the child tax credit, for instance, could have an outsize effect on a Latino population that is disproportionately young. In private polling of Latino voters shared with The New York Times, Building Back Together, a group run by Biden allies, found that economic concerns and public health were the top-ranking issues, with immigration ranking third.
Top aides said they were particularly pleased that their efforts on vaccination had appeared to pay off, as the gap between Latino and white Americans receiving vaccinations has narrowed. Latinos have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, in part because they make up a disproportional number of essential workers, and have seen life expectancy decrease significantly.
“It’s definitely by design,” said Emmy Ruiz, the White House director of political strategy, “In everything that we do, there’s a Latino frame to it.”
It’s an approach that differs from the past. During the Obama administration, much of the outreach came after the midterms and was focused largely on health care legislation and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed young immigrants brought into the country illegally to live and work in the United States.
Still, the effort falls short of what many Latino leaders hope to see, particularly in the wake of last year’s election, when the Hispanic vote caught many Democratic officials by surprise.
“This moment requires a full-court press,” said Carlos Odio, a co-founder of Equis Labs, a research group that has spent the last several months examining the shifts among Latino voters during the last election cycle. “My concern is that there is a belief that last year was an anomaly, and that it is just going to go back to normal. That’s especially troubling if Republicans go back to campaigning for those votes.”