The fight for the roughly 32 million eligible Latino voters is on, despite the relatively meager attention this bloc has received.
With Election Day just five days away, Latino voters are expected to be consequential in states including Florida and Arizona. In fact, President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden held dueling events in the Sunshine State on Thursday. And Trump held two rallies in Arizona on Wednesday.
But don’t mistake Latino voters for a monolith.
According to CNN’s Poll of Polls, Biden has a slim lead over Trump in both Florida and Arizona.
But in Florida, the polls offer a mixed picture of Biden’s standing among Latinos. Trump has an advantage of 52% to 46% with the state’s Latino voters, a new NBC News/Marist poll shows, while recent polling from Quinnipiac University and Monmouth University puts Biden ahead with the group. Cuban voters make up a healthy portion of Florida’s Latino population, and they tend to vote Republican.
Meanwhile, it’s possible that Latino voters in Arizona, which the Republican presidential nominee has won in every election since 1952 save for one, could deliver the state to Biden. Arizona’s Latino voters are much more likely to be from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America. A big push from this group, which tends to favor Democrats, would complicate Trump’s quest for reelection. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll puts Biden’s advantage with Arizona’s Latino voters at 61% to 33%.
“Whoever wins the Latino vote is going to win Maricopa County. And whoever wins Maricopa County is going to win Arizona,” Joseph Garcia, the director of the nonprofit Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund, told The Guardian. “And whoever wins Arizona is likely to win the White House.”
Over the past several days, Trump has pushed to gain the backing of Latino voters in key states – but through characteristically vague and anemic appeals, as my CNN colleague Maegan Vazquez wrote of his “American Dream Plan” for Latino communities.
Crucially, while Latino voters are a Democratic-leaning bloc, that doesn’t mean that the former vice president hasn’t been facing challenges on this score. Compared with Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden is winning Latino voters by fewer points in preelection polls. His campaign also has received criticism for reaching out to these voters later in the game.
To discuss the battle for Latino voters – what it looks like, what lessons it offers for the future – I spoke with Democratic California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who from 1993 to 2017 was a US representative from California. During his tenure, he was a visible member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
There’s long been this notion that Latino voters are the “sleeping giant”: a politically inert bloc with massive potential. But these days, the term seems too simple and timeworn, as many people are pointing out. What are your thoughts on how we, as a society, tend to characterize – even mischaracterize – Latino voters?
More and more, the Latino community is becoming familiar with being American. You’re seeing more and more integration and participation in the things that we sometimes take for granted as Americans.
My parents have always voted, though they were new voters. As an immigrant, you become a new voter after you become a citizen. What you’re finding is that the experience their generation had to go through to understand the process is very different today, when there are programs to help people become citizens, to learn what it means to exercise their rights as citizens.
So participation is growing. More and more, you’re finding that the Latino community, like other communities, is becoming active. And honestly, it’s being driven not by very seasoned people but by young people, a trend that bodes well moving into the future.
Could you talk a little bit more about young Latino voters? It sounds like there’s an interesting shift taking place.
You’re seeing that younger voters are more cognizant of the circumstances of the vote – what it means.
Quick example. There are hundreds of thousands of young Latinos who are Dreamers and can’t vote. But I guarantee that they’re active on the campaign trail, and for a righteous reason: They can’t help themselves to a vote, so they’re going to reach those who can. They have many friends who do have the right to vote. And these friends don’t understand why they can vote but others can’t, and they’ve become politically active because they see the injustice visiting their peers.
So it’s activism that comes from a personal experience and that maybe a generation ago wasn’t as salient. This activism has always sort of been there – the whole issue of immigration. But now it’s so salient because Trump, in trying to repeal the DACA program and in being so frontal in his assaults against immigrant families – has made it very personal. Activism has taken on heightened importance for many but especially for the younger generation.
What about Biden? What are some of the challenges that the campaign has been confronted with regarding Latino voters – it’s gotten some flak for seemingly neglecting them – and how has the campaign sought to overcome these challenges?
Remember that there were many candidates early on during the Democratic primary, and it was difficult for Biden to break through. There was a point when a lot of the resources for the Biden campaign had been exhausted. But then all of a sudden when he caught fire and it became clear that he’d be the nominee, he had to play catch-up, compared with the Trump campaign, in terms of resources and being able to reach out.
But what the Biden campaign has done is dramatic. It has 11 Latino vote directors throughout the country. It has multiple state directors who are Latino. It has what it calls Latino leadership councils that essentially help bring together the community to understand what’s at stake.
And all that is complemented by a platform that’s related to the interests of the Latino community. Without question, Biden can say when he takes office as president that he has the most ambitious agenda for the Latino community of any person who’s taken that office.
The blow that the pandemic has dealt to Latinos is staggering: More than 25,000 have died from Covid-19. Latino voters are no monolith, but what are some of the chief issues on the ballot for this bloc?
It always surprises people when I say this, but the reality is that when you poll in the Latino community, chances are the top three issues for Latinos are going to be the same top three issues you see in America writ large: jobs, health care, education. The intensity may vary slightly, but it’s largely the same.
Americans, regardless of their background, are most concerned about their jobs, about having the wherewithal to provide. And that certainly plays out more intensely among Latinos because, generally, we’re not a wealthy community.
What I can tell you is this. Anyone who can speak to providing for families is going to have an in with Latinos. Anyone who can offer security when it comes to health care is going to have an in with Latinos. Anyone who believes in offering a path to real educational opportunity is going to have an in with Latinos.
If you take a look at the two presidential nominees, you’ll see that Biden’s message resonates far more than Trump’s. Because while Trump likes to say, “Things are great. The economy is moving forward,” he forgets that most Latinos don’t work on Wall Street. In fact, he forgets that the very essential workers whom he insists go to work and not have protections are, for the most part, Latinos.
Trump is so out of touch with the needs and interests of Latinos that it doesn’t take much for Latinos to see the difference between what he’s offering and what Biden is offering. I haven’t even gotten to the harmful way Trump speaks about Latinos. Many people can disregard that kind of talk if they’re doing well, but Covid-19 has illustrated that Trump really doesn’t care about workers, in particular Latino workers.
Anything else you want to add, maybe about what observers should keep an eye on in the future?
I’ll just say that growth in civic participation is becoming more evident within the Latino community. I remember being interviewed in 2015 or 2016 about how there weren’t enough Latino leaders in elected office, yet political parties kept saying that Latino voters ought to go with them, though the parties weren’t giving Latinos opportunities to be in the highest posts.
Five or 10 years ago, there weren’t too many statewide elected officeholders in California who were Latino. Today, you don’t have to look very far. You’re beginning to see that Latinos are reaching those higher posts.
And so growth takes a while. But once it starts, it keeps going. And anyone who ignores that – who doesn’t realize that this is a community that’s only beginning to taste what it’s like to be involved in politics – does so to their detriment.