On June 28, Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez joined a protest in Brownsville, Texas, the site of a former Walmart turned into the largest child immigrant detention center in the country. “This is unconscionable,” Perez said of the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents, in a video produced by the Democratic Party. “I wanted to make sure we were down here because Democrats believe that families should be united with their children.”
Later that day, Perez hopped on a private plane to Los Angeles for a lavish Democratic National Committee fundraiser, where a $100,000 ticket came with dinner and a photo opportunity with former President Barack Obama. Perez’s travel mate — and the owner of the private jet — was DNC donor Albert Dwoskin, a landlord who’s currently engaged in high-profile litigation over accusations that he violated federal civil rights laws by evicting Latino immigrant families from their homes. (The DNC did not respond to requests for comment on Perez’s flight.)
While the details of Perez’s flight haven’t previously been reported, the anecdote in general is unlikely to surprise many potential Latino voters, whose experience with governments in Latin America, either directly or passed down through parents, has engendered a well-earned skepticism about politicians. Now with midterm elections less than two weeks away, Democratic operatives are kept awake at night, as one strategist put it, by the question of Latino voter turnout, which is critical to the party’s chances of retaking the House or the Senate. That existential fear, however, has not been matched by an equally robust effort to reach voters.
More than half of Latinos nationwide haven’t been contacted by a political party or campaign about voting or registering to vote, according to an NALEO Education Fund/Latino Decisions poll. Sixty-four percent reported not being sure what the Democratic Party stands for.
“They’re telling us they’re angry, they’re disgusted, they’re frustrated.”
Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, said the polling firm has never seen higher levels of anger in the Latino community but that Democrats can’t expect anger alone to mobilize voters. “They’re telling us they’re angry, they’re disgusted, they’re frustrated,” he said, but those emotions won’t translate to votes “if voters don’t know who individual candidates are and what they stand for — because Trump isn’t on the ballot, and they need to know where to direct their anger.”
Indeed, a recent national NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released Sunday found a surge of enthusiasm among registered Latino voters. Seventy-one percent expressed high interest in the midterms, up from the 49 percent that said so in September.
Latino voter turnout, however, has historically been low, and Democrats have not done much over the years to court the diverse political force of at least 29 million eligible voters. This year, conventional wisdom says that the rage that exists within Latino communities over the Trump administration’s virulently anti-immigrant policies and racist rhetoric will be enough — but if that does not translate to votes, Democrats will only have themselves to blame.
Campaign outreach is one of the strongest predictors of turnout, and political candidates and campaigns have largely ignored Latino voters for decades. This year — even as a number of hotly contested seats happen to be in states with sizable Latino populations like Nevada, Florida, and Arizona — is no exception.
In interviews with The Intercept, Latinos who don’t intend to vote on November 6 gave two common explanations for their reasons: “I’m not informed enough to vote” and “I don’t know who the candidates are.” All but one said they had not been asked to vote by any political organization or campaign, nor had they received any mailers.
The Democratic Party has been defensive in response to criticisms over its lack of attention to Latino voters. On Twitter, Meredith Kelly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s communications director slammed a New York Times reporter for his reporting on the subject.
FYI: We’ve had a 2 year, unprecedented $30M Dem base turnout program w/ big focus on Latinos.
This is really bad reporting.
— Meredith Kelly (@meredithk27) October 26, 2018
The DCCC has been doing on-the-ground outreach in Latino communities since February 2017, a DCCC aide told The Intercept, and has invested heavily in media messaging, including Spanish-language ads. In at least 29 congressional districts, the DCCC has at least one Latino field staffer, and the organization has also designated Latino constituency organizers in districts with large Hispanic populations, the aide added.
The DNC, for its part, pointed to to nearly $3 million spent on voter registration, organizing, and Spanish-language ad buys ahead of the midterms. A DNC official, who requested anonymity to discuss the party’s finances, said there’s been a big investment in Latino outreach infrastructure since Perez took over last year. But, the official said, the DNC doesn’t “necessarily have the resources that the RNC has had this year” to do as much as it would like.
The number of eligible Hispanic voters has significantly grown in recent years, primarily due to U.S.-born Hispanics turning 18. But the rate of voter turnout has been on the decline. In 2014, the Hispanic turnout rate for midterm elections reached an all-time low, the Pew Research Center found, even though a record number of Latinos voted. Age is one factor. The Hispanic population is younger than any other major ethnic or racial group, and age is one of the strongest predictors of whether someone is likely to vote. Young people are significantly less likely to vote in midterm elections, compared to older generations. About 43.5 percent of all Hispanic eligible voters in 2018 are 18 to 35 years old, compared with 30.6 percent of all eligible voters, according to Pew.
But demographics alone don’t explain voter apathy. It feels suspiciously simple, but like other communities that are considered disengaged, Latinos don’t vote because no one is asking them to. Beyond feelings of distrust of the political system, which aren’t exclusive to this group of voters, the pattern of low Hispanic turnout can be blamed in part on the Democratic Party’s decadeslong failure to adequately invest in Latino outreach and infrastructure.
This is a problem identified by David Garcia, the Democratic nominee for Arizona governor. His campaign made deliberate efforts to reach long-ignored voters in the state — Latino or otherwise — and those efforts were likely a factor in record-high voter turnout in the August primary. “The Democratic playbook in Arizona has historically been, go to the middle to try to embrace moderates and then in the end — I have literally heard it said this way — going out to young people and people of color to get you over the top,” Garcia told The Intercept this summer. “That is what the Democrats have tried to do in Arizona forever … and we are flipping that.”
Activists alone cannot counteract the campaigns with anemic investment in Latino outreach.
Grassroots groups have ramped up their efforts to register Latinos ahead of the midterms. The nonprofit Voto Latino, for example, aims to register 1 million new voters by 2020 through their first bilingual campaign. But activists alone cannot counteract those campaigns with anemic investment in Latino outreach.
It’s a vicious cycle. Campaigns would rather spend their resources on groups they have more confidence will show up at the polls, instead of going against a consultant’s advice and investing in Latino outreach infrastructure, said Barreto, of Latino Decisions. Consequently, campaigns presuming disinterest won’t do the work of knocking on doors, making phone calls, and engaging with Hispanic communities and their specific policy priorities: the economy, education, health care, and immigration.
Instead they rely on identical messaging or last-minute Spanish-language ads. Hispanic voters lean Democratic, but are, more often than not, treated as a monolith. Even though — like any other voting bloc — their political beliefs are influenced by factors like age, region, and education.
California’s 25th District, which includes parts of northern Los Angeles and Ventura counties, is now about 40 percent Hispanic. Mario Castro, a second-generation Salvadoran-American industrial welder, said he’s not voting there because he doesn’t “feel like this current administration is here to help anyone but themselves.”
“I’m not really informed that well on each party and each of the candidates,” said Diana Nava, a 23-year-old medical assistant in the 25th District, where Republican incumbent Rep. Steve Knight is in a tight race against first-time candidate Katie Hill. “And it’s kind of disappointing because they do say one thing, and they end up doing another thing, so it’s hard to trust some leaders.”
When asked why he isn’t planning on voting given his position against the Trump administration and Republican-led Congress, Castro said it’s because he doesn’t feel strongly about any of the candidates. The one candidate he had “looked forward” to was Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the 2016 presidential election, but even then, “I didn’t vote when I probably should’ve.”
Balbina Ornelas, 45, became a U.S. citizen less than a year ago and has no intention to vote. Ornelas, who lives in Sylmar, California, said it’s because she’s politically uninformed and doesn’t understand much English. “I don’t know anything [about politics]. I received the papers to vote, but I don’t know how to do it,” she said in Spanish. (Her congressional district, California’s 29th, leans solidly Democratic.)
In addition to voter suppression laws in dozens of states that disproportionately impact communities of color, the Hispanic population’s electoral impact is diluted by geography, causing some to feel like their vote doesn’t count. Most Latinos are concentrated in non-battleground states. Just six states hold about 71 percent of eligible Hispanic voters, including 7.7 million who live in California and 5.4 million who live in Texas. At least one battleground state, Florida, has a sizable population of eligible Latino voters at 3 million.
Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke is stalking Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, where Latinos make up roughly 40 percent of the population. Even with a candidate like O’Rourke — who raised a stunning $38 million of campaign cash in just three months, traveled to each of the state’s 254 counties, and speaks fluent Spanish — his chances likely hinge on his campaign’s ability to turn out Latino votes. Texas — where many Latino families have been living for centuries, long before it was a state — isn’t so much a red state as it is a nonvoting state, as it consistently ranks as one of the states with the lowest voter participation rates. Latino voters there — at least the ones who vote — lean Democratic, but by a far smaller margin than elsewhere in the country.
“A lot of Latinos just don’t see how their lives are going to be different if they go out and vote.”
“You will see in the Latino community, unfortunately, a high level of cynicism, but I think that’s because both parties have failed to talk to them, to reach them, and to really speak to how their lives are going to be better,” said Cristina Tzintzún, the founder and executive director of Jolt, a Texas-based nonprofit working to register and mobilize young Latinos across the state. “I know that sounds incredibly simple, but they’re really not doing it with the Latino community, for the most part. So a lot of Latinos just don’t see how their lives are going to be different if they go out and vote.”
What O’Rourke has done right, Tzintzún said, is “run a campaign that is unabashedly progressive, that is willing to be strong on the issues that matter to Latino voters.” But the voters still need to be turned out — and that’s about knocking on their doors, she added. “We’ll find out whether Beto’s campaign did that early enough and whether they spent enough money to do that.”
Most of the Hispanic population is not yet of age; 32 percent are under 18, and nearly half of U.S.-born Latinos are under 18. But demographics are not destiny, Tzintzún said, “unless you invest in registering and turning out voters, talking to them about how you’re going to make their lives better.”
“It’s very simple steps that you would think parties and candidates would do, but you would be surprised that, I find, that most candidates running for office don’t do that with Latino voters, and they leave everything on the table.”
Another Texas candidate, Sri Preston Kulkarni, has taken the radical step of building his campaign around the idea of talking to voters — in his case, the diverse Asian-American population that comprises the state’s 22nd Congressional District. He did it so effectively, setting up phone banks in 13 languages, that the party has taken note, adding him to the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” list.
Political pundits assume that Latinos know they’re the “sleeping giant” and are actively choosing not to participate, Tzintzún said, but that’s not the case at all. She said most young Latinos she meets “have no idea they make up 40 percent of the state’s population.”
Luis Martinez, a student at the University of California, Irvine, hadn’t realized the race in the 45th Congressional District where he lives is rated a toss-up. “I feel like if I were to vote, I need to research the candidates and what they are trying to do, which right now I don’t have time for,” he wrote in a text message. “If I were to be more up to date with the news, maybe I would, but like I said, politics aren’t for me.”
Update: Oct. 26, 2018, 3:06 p.m.
This piece has been updated to include comment from a DCCC aide that was received after publication.