Democrats running for president are awakening to the reality that Latinx voters, poised to become the largest nonwhite eligible voting bloc in 2020, are crucial to their chances of winning the presidency. The desire to connect with Latinx voters was apparent in this week’s presidential debates, when several contenders made a direct appeal to the growing electorate by answering questions in Spanish on the national stage. The Democrats’ recognition of the importance of Latinx voters extends beyond the meme-like performances in Miami, though — in a number of campaigns, outreach to this community of 29 million people has become a core part of strategy.
Among the front-runners, the campaigns of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been building outreach operations to engage with Latinx voters in early primary states, while former Vice President Joe Biden has been criticized for not doing enough to engage the community.
The Intercept reached out to the campaigns of the leading Democratic candidates; some of them, citing debate prep, said they were unavailable to discuss outreach to Latinx voters, while others did not respond to requests for comment. Just four candidates responded to our questions; Biden, Sanders, and Warren’s campaigns said they have brought Latinx organizers onto their staff and are focusing efforts on Nevada, while former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign said he is committed to ensuring his campaign staff reflect the diversity in experiences and backgrounds of all Americans.
“We know that we’re going to communicate with young Latinos in English, we know we’re going to communicate with young Latinos in Spanish,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior Sanders adviser. “We also understand the cultural differences between Latinos in Des Moines, Iowa, and Latinos in the East Side of Las Vegas.”
Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have both done interviews with Univision’s “Despierta América.” Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, the only Hispanic candidate running for president, has also interviewed with Spanish-language outlets.
High turnout, particularly among people who are eligible but don’t typically vote, could be a deciding factor in the general election.
Their efforts are not just about winning Latinx voters over in the primary; high turnout, particularly among people who are eligible but don’t typically vote, could be a deciding factor in the general election. Latinos are projected to account for more than 13 percent of eligible voters in 2020 — slightly more than the share of black voters, according to Pew Research Center. And thanks to an adjusted primary schedule that prioritizes states like California and Texas, two delegate-rich states with the largest Latinx populations in the country, the Latinx community will play a greater role in deciding the Democratic nominee than ever before. Nevada, where roughly 28 percent of its population is Hispanic, will be the first state in the West to hold its caucus, followed by California and Texas on Super Tuesday.
Sanders and Biden have been leading every other candidate in support from Hispanic voters in national polls. According to a recent Univision Noticias poll conducted by Latino Decisions and North Star Opinion Research, 21 percent of the Latinos surveyed currently plan to vote for Biden while 20 percent currently plan to vote for Sanders. Both are front-runners among overall voters as well, with Biden in particular benefiting from high name recognition.
Sanders and Castro had the highest favorable-to-unfavorable ratio among Latino Democrats surveyed — a nearly 5-to-1 favorable ratio. The fact that the electorate skews younger than other racial and ethnic groups also bodes well for Sanders, who tends to poll favorably with young voters. In the 2018 midterms, about 43.5 percent of all Hispanic eligible voters were 18 to 35 years old, compared with 30.6 percent of all eligible voters. Young Latinx voters also helped drive record turnout rates in the midterms, as 27 percent of Hispanics who cast a ballot said it was their first time voting in a midterm election.
The candidates’ embrace of Spanish-language television networks and casual, albeit mediocre, use of Spanish — in campaign ads as well as at the presidential debate — signals the Latinx vote is on their minds. Using the language alone won’t get Latino voters to turn out on election day, but it’s a useful way of connecting with the estimated 41 million U.S. residents who speak the language.
On Wednesday night, O’Rourke spontaneously broke into Spanish just minutes into the first presidential debate to avoid answering a question about marginal tax rates. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who appeared to be taken aback by O’Rourke’s Spanish skills, triggering a flurry of memes in the process, answered a question about immigration in Spanish. Castro began his closing statement in Spanish and ended with an “adios to Donald Trump.”
On the second night of primary debates, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg bantered with the moderator in Spanish before answering a question about the student debt crisis. Other candidates, like Harris, have tested their Spanish in different venues. In a recent interview with Univision, Harris tried a tongue twister in Spanish: “tres tristes tigres,” or three sad tigers. When asked if she knows any words in Spanish, she said “pendejo,” which loosely means “stupid.” (That was the second time a candidate used the word “pendejo” on the campaign trail.)
Indeed, not all Latinx Americans speak Spanish, and the ones who do are more than the language they speak.
While some voters were genuinely moved by the gesture, other voters waved it off as pandering. Indeed, not all Latinx Americans speak Spanish, and the ones who do are more than the language they speak. And Democratic candidates often fall into the trap of treating the diverse demographic group as a monolith, particularly when using immigration as a proxy for Latinx policy issues. Health care and economic justice, not immigration, typically poll as the top issues for the electorate.
Top-tier candidates like Sanders and Warren have been building out their outreach operations in Nevada and states across the country. “Starting with staff, we’re building a campaign that is as diverse and inclusive as the values we are fighting for everyday,” a Warren campaign aide told The Intercept.
In Nevada, they have nearly 40 full-time staffers and several interns on the ground, along with Spanish-speaking staffers at all levels. Their East Las Vegas field team has also been meeting with local Latinx activists and are looking to host caucus trainings.
Rocha, the Sanders adviser, told The Intercept that including Latinos at every level of the campaign is going to help them mobilize the community. “We will spend every resource we need to assure we continue to win the Latino vote as we’re currently doing in every poll,” he said.
“Working with Bernie Sanders every single day and being in a position of decision-making, we run this campaign with a cultural competency that won’t be seen by any other campaign this cycle,” Rocha added.
Sanders has “literally surrounded himself” with some of the best activists of color in the nation and actually listens to them, Rocha said. “That’s how we’re gonna win that vote.”
According to the campaign, 10 percent of his staffers at the national headquarters are Latinx, including several undocumented immigrants. Belén Sisa, an undocumented immigrant under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, serves as the campaign’s national deputy press secretary, and Analilia Mejia is the campaign’s political director.
Texas is also a prime target for Latinx outreach, and O’Rourke’s campaign said his grounding in the state will enable him to make inroads with the community there. “Growing and raising his kids in part of the largest binational community in the Western Hemisphere, Beto understands the issues facing Latinx people are not just felt in El Paso but in communities across the country,” a campaign spokesperson said. “As Beto continues to travel and meet with people from all walks of life, he is committed to ensuring his policy proposals — like his comprehensive immigration plan and his plan to help small businesses run by women and people of color – and campaign staff are reflective of the diversity in experiences, backgrounds, and voices of all Americans.”
Biden, meanwhile, has barely even mentioned the Latino community on the campaign trail, and his recent absence at a presidential forum hosted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials fueled criticism of his outreach efforts. Eight presidential candidates attended the forum last week in Miami, Florida, to address the largest gathering of Latinx policymakers in the country. Harris and Booker didn’t attend either.
Leo Murrieta, director of Make the Road Nevada, told Politico it’s “disheartening” Biden’s campaign has not engaged more directly with grassroots organizations or spent more time on the ground while the Nevada caucuses are just eight months away.
“Vice President Biden committed from day one that Latinos will have a voice at the highest level of this campaign,” campaign spokesman Isabel Aldunate told The Intercept, a day before Biden skipped out on NALEO’s forum. “The Biden campaign has hit the ground running with Latino outreach including a fully translated website, top Latino political operatives in campaign leadership, and carefully cultivated policies designed to address problems that specifically affect communities of color.”
In addition to hiring more than a dozen people of color in senior positions like Cristóbal Alex, the former president of the political organization Latino Victory, the campaign also has several full-time staffers in Nevada. Biden’s campaign, which has generally been avoiding the press, did not respond to follow up questions about the criticism from Latinx leaders.