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The Biden campaign launched a $30 million Hispanic media campaign, which includes ads that will run in English, Spanish and Spanglish, along with regional accents in different battleground states. Matt Rourke/AP

Democrats Are Running Out of Time to Bring Back the Latino Voters They’re Losing

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told NOTUS that her party’s talking points with Latinos have “historically left something to be desired.”

Prominent Democrats say their party has a history of taking Latino voters for granted and is running out of time to win back those who have been drifting away since 2016.

“I think Democrats, for the most part, as a party, ignore Latinos,” said former Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who has focused on mobilizing Latino voters since he retired from Congress in 2018.

Gutierrez told NOTUS he worries that Democrats are running out the clock on how long they can maintain Latino support without fostering relationships within communities. He still plans to campaign in support of President Joe Biden, but he has major concerns with how Biden and the party have handled Latino issues.

“If you do not speak to a community, do not complain if they wander,” he added.

A recent New York Times/Siena poll released earlier this month showed Donald Trump ahead with Latinos by 6 percentage points. Similarly, in a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll, Trump led Biden with Latinos by 5 percentage points. (When asked about these polls, several Democrats dismissed them, arguing their sample sizes for people of color, and particularly of Hispanics, were too small and that polls show that most Latinos still support Democrats.)

But Democrats in Congress said the shift, however slight, is something to be taken seriously. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told NOTUS that her party’s talking points with Latinos have “historically left something to be desired.”

Rep. Maxwell Frost, who is part of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board, said Democrats have talked “about the ‘Latino vote’ like it’s a monolith.”

“All these things have to, you have to really account for them, or else we could end up, you know, spewing out a message that we think is a Latino message that might help us with some folks but might put some other people off,” Frost told NOTUS. He added that “I think we’re doing a better job of looking into the diaspora and figuring out how should we communicate with very specific communities and what issues do they care about.”

This week, Biden kicked off “Latinos con Biden-Harris,” a campaign program aimed at reaching Latino voters. He was joined by several Latino organizers at a campaign event in Arizona, where he made an explicit contrast with Trump, who, he reminded eventgoers, has referred to Latinos as “criminals, drug dealers and rapists.”

“You’re the reason why, in large part, I beat Donald Trump,” Biden said to a room filled with Latinos. “I need you. I need you badly.”

The fact is that Biden really does need Latinos.

In 2020, exit polls showed that while Biden got 59% Latino voters, it was the lowest margin for a Democrat since the 2004 election. Meanwhile, Trump received 38% of the vote from Latinos, the highest for a Republican since George W. Bush in 2004 and a significant increase from Trump’s 28% in 2016.

The Biden campaign also launched a $30 million Hispanic media campaign, which includes ads that will run in English, Spanish and Spanglish, along with regional accents in different battleground states. The accent tailoring and how early the Biden campaign is focusing on Latinos, Democratic strategists say, is a major change from prior campaigns.

Democrats overlooking Latinos “certainly has happened in the past,” said Maria Cardona, a strategist working closely with the Democratic National Committee, but she added that this election cycle, “Democrats … understand that they cannot take the Latino vote for granted.”

That change is, in part, because there are more Latinos “at the table,” said Rep. Nanette Barragán, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, pointing to Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who is running the president’s reelection campaign.

But even as some Democrats are optimistic about Biden’s current handling of Latinos, others are more hesitant. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who has kept his seat even as South Texas has seen voters moving over to Trump, told NOTUS that he thinks the Biden campaign is “adjusting” but suggested Democrats need to get better at talking about the “right issues” with Latinos, such as jobs and border security.

Latinos who participated in a large survey by Florida International University said that the “principal threat” to U.S. national security was the “open border” and undocumented immigrants. Border security, the survey found, was also one of the top three issues respondents said were the “most important” problems facing the U.S., behind only inflation and the economy.

“The perception is that Democrats are the ‘open border party,’” said Eduardo Gamarra, the political science professor at FIU who conducted the survey. “I think Democrats have to very specifically state that they’re not in favor of an open border. If Biden doesn’t do that, he’s going to lose … on that issue.”

Republicans credit the increase in support from Latinos, particularly in states like Florida, to their messaging, which has focused heavily on border security.

“Many people ask me, ‘How do you explain that President Trump, who has promised the biggest deportation operation in U.S. history, has so much Hispanic support?’” said Jaime Florez, Hispanic communications director for the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign. “What most Hispanics are bothered by is that 9 million people passed through the border without documents, and they cut in front of [documented] immigrants who have been waiting for years” for their cases to be heard by U.S. immigration officials.

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The FIU Latino survey found that about one in five Latino voters say they have considered changing their party affiliation. Of those, over 60% said they were open to leaving the Democratic Party (38.1% switching to the GOP and 23% to becoming independents).

“What is clear, this is what I think is important, is that Democrats have lost membership,” Gamarra told NOTUS.

GOP Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, whose district in Florida is predominantly Hispanic, said it wasn’t anything Republicans were doing to attract Latinos but that Democrats’ “extreme left” policies and messaging were pushing Latinos away.

“We’re seeing a rejection [from Latinos] more than anything; it’s not some sort of zealotry towards Republicans,” he added.

A harsher rhetoric on immigration and the border has been helpful for Democrats. Rep. Tom Suozzi won a special election in New York after campaigning on tightening immigration laws. Last month, the Senate’s campaign arm even launched ads attacking Republicans who opposed a bipartisan bill that they had initially long demanded to secure the border. (Trump reportedly told Republicans to oppose the bill because he wanted to campaign on the issue.)

Biden himself has also started taking a tougher stance on the border. He put out a statement embracing how the dead border bill would have given him “authority to shut down the border when it becomes overwhelmed.”

Hispanic voters tend to identify as independent voters at higher rates compared to other ethnic and racial groups. While 58% of Latino voters say they support Biden and 31% stand with Trump, per a Noticias Univision poll, the distinction is not as clear-cut among independent Latinos, 46% of whom support Biden, 24% support Trump and 30% who say they don’t know.

“There’s nothing alarming in the data,” said Matt Barreto, who conducted the poll and was the lead Latino pollster for the 2020 Biden campaign. “It’s very normal with every other election I’ve ever observed that independents have a very high rate of being undecided, and so they will take a lot of outreach and contact and persuasion in order to win them over.”

Republicans see an opening there to win over more Latinos, particularly with Mexicans near the border and Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, where they draw similarities between their countries’ left-leaning regimes and Democrats. The GOP has pointed to Hispanic community centers they’ve built to bring people into the party. (Most of these centers have been shut down, but Florez told NOTUS that the RNC plans to reopen them “soon.”)

Giancarlo Sopo, who was one of Trump’s 2020 campaign Hispanic media strategists, told NOTUS that Trump was able to gain Latino supporters in Miami because he was specifically critical of Fidel Castro in Cuba, of Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and of Gustavo Petro in Colombia.

“Trump is down there saying … ‘We’ve got to stop Castro-Chavismo from penetrating our borders,’ and then people were like, ‘Holy shit, he said Castro-Chavismo,’” Sopo said. “He sounds a lot more like the way people normally speak, than the more technocratic, less emotionally charged language of the Democrats.”

Some Democrats say that Latinos are drawn to Trump because they “like to be entertained. And sometimes Donald Trump, what he does is, it provides that entertainment,” Democratic Party Chair Yolanda Bejarano told reporters at the Biden Arizona rally, adding: “We just need to … make sure that Latinos understand exactly who Donald Trump is and what danger he presents to us.”

But Republicans say whatever Donald Trump is doing is working for them.

“Much the same way that people said Bill Clinton was the first Black president, there’s an argument to be made that Donald Trump was the first Hispanic president,” Sopo said. “I mean, he’s like your ‘tío,’ right? He’s brash, he’s not particularly politically correct … he just says things, you know? And there’s a part of that that is quite charming to blue-collar Latinos.”

Oriana González is a reporter at NOTUS.