When the first votes began to trickle in on Tuesday night, alarm bells went off for top Democratic operatives tasked with turning out Latino voters.
President Donald Trump had delivered on his pledge to make inroads with Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade, the most populous county in Florida, significantly increasing his vote total there. The shift led to anxious public speculation Democrat Joe Biden’s ability to turn out Latino voters nationwide.
But days into the vote counting, Democrats appear to have done well with wide swaths of Latino voters across the country, painting a far more upbeat view of Biden’s appeal across diverse voting blocs, despite Trump’s inroads in Florida and Texas. Turnout was high with Mexican Americans in places like Nevada and Arizona, while Democrats succeeded in tapping growing Hispanic communities in new battlegrounds like Georgia. There was also overwhelming support of Latinos in the so-called “blue wall” states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – where the White working class has been an obsession for years.
The durability of that support, though, will be a question that hangs over into the next four years. For Democrats, the good news is that even with a candidate who has often gotten crosswise with Latino activists and struggled to win over the broader community in the primary, Biden managed to hold together a coalition dedicated to Trump’s defeat. Less optimistically, Trump’s inroad with certain parts of the Latino community – particularly younger men – are real and will continue to be a source of concern for the party in the years ahead.
The disappointing results in Florida and Texas, where some Democrats saw an opportunity to score a game-changing political victory that could have transcended the current election, underscored the complexity of the Latino vote. What appeals to second-generation Mexican American business owners in South Texas might turn off immigration activists in Wisconsin. The result is a Rubik’s Cube effect that both parties have found challenging to solve – and an acknowledgment, after too long in the estimation of many Latino political operatives and activists, that the conversation over the “Latino vote” still does not take into full account the diversity of interests at stake.
Some leading Democrats say there are still plenty of warning signs for the party’s broader outreach to Latino voters, pointing specifically to what they described as the Biden campaign failure to establish early outreach or sufficiently aid grassroots organizing. There has also been criticism, from inside the party and among activists, that the campaign did not realize the power of Republicans linking Democrats to socialism and disinformation campaign aimed at Spanish speakers. But few said that the failures in Florida should overshadow the successes in other parts of the country.
“Latino voters are driving victories in Arizona and Nevada where money has been spent and organizers are on the ground,” said Julián Castro, the only Latino to run for president during the Democratic primary. “We saw a groundswell of new Latino voters turning out and in many communities supporting Democrats in record numbers.”
But, Castro added, “There are clearly some gaps we have as a party when it comes to Latino outreach and investment. We need to look at where we fell short on our messaging and investment. And as a party we need to develop a 365-day full court press for Latino outreach so that we don’t lose this critical constituency.”
Latino leaders: Where Democrats invested, Biden won
With the dust settling on the election, Democrats now see that their perceived issues with Latinos was less about their turnout and more about Trump’s ability to overperform in key areas, like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley, on the US-Mexico border, in Texas.
“Biden still won Dade County, he still won the Rio Grande Valley,” said Domingo Garcia, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “He just lost his margins. That was a lack of messaging.”
And, Garcia noted, a lack of early investment.
“Too little too late,” he said of some of Biden’s work. “There was a medium investment by the Biden campaign in hiring Latino grassroots consultants and organizers. But he could’ve won Texas, he could have won Florida. Instead I think they lost that opportunity.”
Democrats knew headed into Election Day that Republicans in Miami-Dade were turning out in substantial numbers, causing uneasiness among operatives in the state. On the Friday before Election Day, nearly 63% of the counties 428,000 registered Republicans had already voted early, compared to just 56% of the county’s 634,000 registered Democrats.
That figure dampened the early optimism of Democrats in Florida, who believed that an unexpected result in the populous county could off-set growth in places like Duval County and the area around Tampa. And that is what ended up happening: Biden has netted roughly the same vote total Clinton received in the county in 2016, while Trump’s share grew by a substantial 200,000 votes.
“I am amazed by the Latinos in Miami Dade county,” said Henry Munoz, head of Momento Latino and a top Democratic operative, noting that many backed a President who is “actually friends with dictators” and is threatening “not to respect the votes” against him.
But, Munoz said, it is “so important to expand our understanding and what is really happened this year because we are going to miss out on a critical election cycle because we are distracted by what happened in Miami Dade.”
And other parts of the country did tell a dramatically different story about Democrats’ ability to court Latino voters.
In Philadelphia, where a growing Puerto Rican community has become a political force in the swing state, Biden carried over 75% of the vote in precincts with high concentrations of Latinos, according to the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative at UCLA. In Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest population center that has a sizable and growing population of Mexican American population, the policy center found Biden won upwards of 78% support in precincts with high Latino concentration. And in states like Nevada and Colorado, Latinos continued the leftward bent that have helped cement the states as rising Democratic strongholds in the West.
The lesson: Where Biden and the party have invested heavily in courting Latino voters, he carried them.
“What is really important about this cycle is that (it shows) there are no shortcuts, there are no shortcuts to organize Latinx voters,” said Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action and Clinton’s national Latino vote director in 2016. “You have to invest early and heavily.”
Praeli added: “It is not enough to just come to us in the last hour and just say, ‘Donald Trump is a horrible candidate, here is how he hasn’t served you.’ You have to give people a reason to turn out and you do it by tapping their network.”
To Democrats, Arizona is a perfect example of this.
A decade ago, as the Democratic Party looked listless in rock-solid red Arizona, Democrats and outside groups like LUCHA, a grassroots organization run by Latino organizers, began to invest heavily in organizing Latino voters around their opposition to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and SB 1070, a controversial immigration law that required officers to make immigration checks while enforcing other laws if “reasonable suspicion” of illegal immigration existed.
The law enraged Latino voters and provided something that Democrats could unify voters, including Latinos, around. The party made fighting Arpaio central to their messaging, while building networks of Latino voters who opposed the sheriff.
This is a key reason Trump, who pardoned Arpaio after he was convicted of criminal contempt related to his hard-line tactics going after undocumented immigrants, found the Grand Canyon State a tough place for him to win.
Yasser Sanchez, an immigration lawyer who backed Biden after working for Republicans earlier in his career, said he would regularly remind Trump-leaning Latinos that the man they were considering voting for had pardoned the man that they hated.
“He pardoned Joe Arpaio, who was facing contempt charges for racially profiling Mexicans and how bragged about it,” Sanchez said, recalling conversations he had. “For (Trump) to come to Arizona and ask Latinos for their vote, I found it offensive.”
Biden’s win highlights growing grassroots Latino power
But vigorously pointing out Trump’s shortcomings and offenses in TV ads and speeches was only a small piece of the battle. The work that might have tipped the balance in a state like Nevada was done on the doors, led by the canvassing efforts of the Culinary Union in Las Vegas. Even as the Democratic universe largely stayed away from in-person outreach due to the coronavirus, the union continued to knock while employing comprehensive safety measures.
“It’s completely different when you have the contact, with the social distance, with another person,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, told CNN ahead of Election Day. “You can see their eyes, they can see your eyes and you can talk, you can answer all their questions, they can ask the questions they want, agree or disagree.”
Argüello-Kline did not dismiss the importance of phone-banking, texting and other virtual means of reaching voters. But the level of engagement from canvassing, she insisted, simply cannot be replicated by any other means.
“You can have a lot of great conversations on the phone, but it’s different when you have that conversation at the door with a person,” she said. “It’s completely different.”
The ideological breadth of Latino Democrats is apparent in Congress, where New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has emerged as a pioneering national progressive leader. On the other end, in South Texas, there is the conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, who defeated a leftist challenger in a primary this year.
Ana Maria Archila, the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, said that credit for Biden’s successes with Latino voters should be shared between the campaign and outside organizations who helped plugged the gaps in its efforts.
Archila spent the last weekend before Election Day in Philadelphia and, while listening to Latino radio, she said, was impressed by the diversity of messaging coming from Biden’s campaign, but also groups like People for the American Way and others.
“There was commercial after commercial talking to different segments or different kind of experiences of the Latino community,” Archila recalled. “So, there was a commercial targeting Puerto Ricans, about the hurricane. And there was one that was a conversation between two women, a mother and a daughter, talking about Latinas going to vote and what we care about. And then there was one commercial about immigrants.”
The growing political programs of groups like United We Dream Action and Make the Road Action, she added, also helped to change the landscape. Biden, too, shifted from the primary, when he was pushed and in some cases attacked by other candidates over the legacy of the Obama administration’s immigration policy.
“It was very helpful to have Bernie (Sanders) and (Elizabeth) Warren and Julian Castro – we should start with (Castro) – having a critical view of the Obama years,” she said. “And not just simply saying that the harm and the persecution of immigrants started with Trump.”
After the primary, Biden and Sanders teamed up to join a series of “unity task forces” to help bridge gaps on a number of issues, including immigration. And in the second and final debate with Trump, Biden in a rare break with Obama, acknowledged the administration’s role in failing to seal the deal on comprehensive immigration reform.
This time around, he insisted, would be different.
“I’ll be president of the United States, not vice president of the United States,” Biden said. “The fact is, I’ve made it very clear, within 100 days, I’m going to send to the United States Congress a pathway to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented people.”
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to properly identify Domingo Garcia.