Thomas Kennedy remembers spending all day on the phone keeping up with excited new voters wanting to know how “el caucus” worked, ahead of the first Democratic primary contest in Iowa in February.
The most noticeable callers were highly motivated young mothers, part of a huge wave of Hispanic voters, activists and volunteers inspired to get involved in politics for the first time by passion for their candidate.
That candidate was Bernie Sanders. Kennedy, a progressive activist and former Sanders operative, has switched to support Joe Biden, who will next week become the Democratic nominee for president, but worries whether Biden can win over valuable young progressives underwhelmed by his moderate politics.
“Bernie talked directly to people’s material needs,” said Kennedy. The clear populist promises of universal healthcare and cancelling student debt in particular caught fire, Kennedy said.
And expansive outreach and slogans like ‘¡Nuestro Futuro, Nuestra Lucha!’ — Our Future, Our Struggle – clicked with the cohort who nicknamed Sanders “Tío Bernie” (Uncle Bernie).
For the first time, Latinos are poised to be the nation’s largest non-white ethnic voting bloc in the 2020 election, with a large young cohort among the estimated 32 million eligible to vote – a record.
Democrats know that their support is crucial to winning the White House – and potentially both chambers of Congress – but concerns remain over whether Biden can not only persuade young progressives who were energized by Sanders, but mobilize Latinos in decisive numbers at a moment when the coronavirus and economic crises are disproportionately hurting communities of color.
“The Biden campaign must reach young people,” María Teresa Kumar, the president of Voto Latino, a political organization focused on voter engagement. “Because if you’re not reaching young people, you are not reaching the Latino community.”
A survey published last month by Voto Latino and pollster Latino Decisions found that only 60% of Latino voters in six battleground states say they definitely plan to vote, and fewer than half say they are “extremely motivated and enthusiastic” about doing so.
Though the poll was conducted before many of Trump’s recent comments on immigration and the coronavirus, it found enthusiasm for Biden waning, particularly among young Latinos. His support among Latino voters slipped to 60% from 67% in February. By comparison, 73% of Latino voters supported Hillary Clinton at this point in 2016.
“When I worked for Bernie, it wasn’t about electing one person. It was about a movement,” Belén Sisa, a former Sanders press secretary, said. “I don’t feel that from Joe Biden.”
Since the primary, Biden has appeared to move to the left on key policies important to young Latinos. He has embraced a $2tn climate plan, though not the Green New Deal, and pledged an ambitious overhaul of Trump’s immigration orders, and an economic agenda centered on racial equality.
“We’ve moved the needle a bit,” Sisa said.
But, like many progressives, she is frustrated by Biden’s reluctance to embrace Medicare for All, the universal healthcare policy that she says would reduce health disparities for Latinos, who are among the country’s most uninsured. And he has refused to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), the agency carrying out hardline Trump anti-immigration policies at the US-Mexico border and in raids in US cities.
Sisa also said Sanders’ campaign invested more, much earlier, to cultivate Latino voters.
Chuck Rocha, the architect of Sanders’ ambitious Latino outreach strategy, is now applying some of the tactics used to win Hispanics voters in primary contests from Iowa to California, to help Biden beat Trump in November.
After Biden won the primary, Rocha founded Nuestro Pac, a Democratic Super Pac that will target Latino voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
“Part of our work is spreading the message that Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden agree 75% to 80% of the time,” Rocha said.
The Biden campaign recently made other high-profile hires including Julie Chavez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of civil rights hero Cesar Chavez, and Matt Barreto, the founder of Latino Decisions, a top Democratic polling firm. The campaign has also hired Republican strategist Ana Navarro.
Biden’s platform aimed at Hispanic voters – “Todos con Biden” – focuses on healthcare, education and reversing Trump’s anti-immigration agenda. Biden has promised to reinstate the Daca program of rights and protections for undocumented young people, and send a bill to Congress “on day one” that would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US.
He has also pledged a 100-day moratorium on deportations.
During the primary campaign, Biden was repeatedly confronted by immigration activists who demanded contrition for the more than 3 million deportations carried out while he was vice-president.
“You should vote for Trump,” Biden told one critic. Weeks later, he was obliged to apologize for the “pain” caused by the policies.
Earlier this week, prominent Latino politicians, activists and organizations applauded the selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate. Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, represents California, which has the largest population of Hispanic voters in the nation.
Domingo Garcia, president of Lulac, the oldest Hispanic organization in the US, said: “She [Harris] knows what Dreamers are facing, the impact Covid-19 is having on black and brown communities, and the contributions immigrants are making to the economy of the United States.”
He described the Biden-Harris ticket as “looking to the future, and the changing demographics in the United States”.
The campaign hailed her efforts to stop the Trump administration separating undocumented families crossing the US-Mexico border and “sponsoring legislation to help victims of Hurricane Maria”, which decimated Puerto Rico in 2017.
But her record as district attorney and attorney general in California has prompted disquiet among some progressives.
Meanwhile, leading Democratic figures say Trump’s handling of the public heath crisis and the economic slump, allied to his xenophobia, is driving voters away from the Republicans.
“Donald Trump’s cruelty is backfiring on him,” said Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate in the Democratic primary race.
Castro believes frustration with the president could have a significant effect in battleground states such as Arizona, Florida and his native Texas, where coronavirus is wreaking havoc.
“More people are getting sick, and more people are dying,” said Castro, whose stepmother died from coronavirus. “That’s not going unnoticed.”
And yet strategists say antipathy for Trump is not enough.
“It has to be ‘this is why you should vote for Joe Biden’,” said Nathalie Rayes, the president and chief executive of Latino Victory.
Elsewhere, voting by mail, likely the safest way to cast a ballot during a pandemic, presents another hurdle for Latino voters. Overall, Latinos have said they had little experience and low confidence in the security of voting by mail, according to the Latino Decisions survey.
“That was a big code red for us,” said Kumar. “Especially where there is no habit of voting by mail.”
The Biden campaign has pivoted sharply to Latinos, but is it too little too late?
Cristóbal Alex, Biden’s senior campaign adviser, and the former president of the Latino Victory Fund, said Latinos are “essential” to winning the White House.
“We’ve brought in the A-team to ensure that we engage Latinos and compete for every single vote as we go into November,” he said. “That’s a very dramatic scale-up in staffing, and that’s also being reflected in the organizing at every level of the campaign. It’s an indication of just how seriously the campaign takes the Latino vote.”
Alex said it is understandable that in the midst of a national crisis, which he says has been made worse by Trump’s extraordinarily divisive presidency, many Latinos are not yet fully engaged in the election. But he is confident that will change.
Over the past several weeks, the campaign has significantly ramped up its outreach, touting a “culturally competent” advertising strategy that includes younger English-heavier speakers and older Spanish speakers.
In an effort to reflect the diversity of the Hispanic electorate, the campaign is “micro-targeting” Latinos by region and ethnicity. For example, the narrator in an ad running in Arizona has a Mexican accent, while the same ad running in Miami features a narrator with a Cuban accent. But some say, as a strategy, it needs more fine tuning.
Federico de Jesus, a Democratic strategist and former Obama campaign spokesperson, said: “It’s the start of something that should evolve, not just translating the ads, [but also] targeting issues. The VP has talked about giving TPS to Venezuelans, it would be great if they had that in an ad.”
The temporary protected status (TPS) government program is designed to prevent foreign nationals from being deported back to countries facing threatening conditions such as civil unrest or the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster.
Microtargeting with accents is a “necessary” principle of outreach, said De Jesus, and has been used since Obama’s 2008 run to the White House. But more cultural nuances need to be included now, De Jesus said. He pointed at a successful ad by the Trump campaign after liberals began to boycott Goya, the canned food brand, citing its impressive depth and authenticity.
“Its content was reprehensible, but it used a specific slang that a millennial Puerto Rican woman would use. So it’s not just the accent or the policy, but the words and the music,” said De Jesus.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is due to speak at the Democratic national convention this week, fresh from being a member of the Biden-Sanders policy taskforce created after the primary in an effort to unify the party against Trump. Sanders, Michael Bloomberg and Andrew Yang will speak, too, but as of Friday, Julián Castro had not been scheduled.
And with the stakes so high, the latest ad from the group America’s Progressive Promise is narrated by Sanders, who says: “Every person who voted for me or the other candidates … understands that Donald Trump is the most dangerous president in the history of our country.”
“It’s absolutely imperative that we come together and defeat him, and defeat him badly.”
The spot concludes by declaring that Biden would be “the most progressive president since FDR”.