David Catanese, McClatchy, April 2, 2020
One of the legacies of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign is likely to be his success with engaging Latino voters, a constituency Democrats often take for granted that the Vermont senator invested in early and heavily.
Sanders’ triumphs in the primary with a group that’s projected to be the largest nonwhite voting bloc in the general election also exposed a glaring weakness for Joe Biden that many Hispanic leaders worry remains uncorrected heading into his battle against President Donald Trump.
But they also see a potent remedy to Biden’s deficiency: mirroring Sanders’ strategy by pouring exponentially more resources into outreach, hiring more Hispanic advisers as decision-makers, and clearly articulating how policy proposals will specifically impact their communities — and doing so sooner rather than later.
“We spent more money on Latino outreach than Sen. Biden spent on his whole campaign probably,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior Sanders campaign adviser. “When we had time to run an extensive organizing program, we devastated people and showed how the Latino vote should be prioritized in every election.”
“Anybody can rebuild what I did,” Rocha added. “They just have to start early, listen to the community and hire the community. Bernie Sanders’ campaign proved you can do this.”
From the outset of the race, Sanders empowered Rocha to plow considerable resources into the Latino community with specificity and consistency. The campaign spent $4 million in California, $3 million in Nevada and $1.3 million in Iowa on Hispanic outreach alone, far outpacing his Democratic rivals. Sanders won a majority of the Latino vote in both Nevada and California amid a crowded field of opponents.
“They know they need to do a lot more than what has been done to date. They need to speak to younger Hispanics,” Maria Cardona, a Latina Democratic strategist, said of the Biden campaign. “Frankly, they should hire Chuck Rocha to do the same type of outreach. … It was beautifully done. They put in the effort. … They did it early. That’s what needs to be done.”
Biden was hobbled by paltry fundraising early in the primary, but aides note the campaign eventually spent six-figures on Hispanic advertising in the Florida and Arizona primaries, where the former vice president significantly improved his standing.
Those performances were likely driven more by Biden’s national momentum. Still, the Biden team indicated it would be focusing on Latino outreach for the general election, including in places that are not Hispanic-heavy states. For instance, the campaign targeted an online ad to the growing Hispanic population in Reading, Pa., last May to promote Biden’s kick-off rally in Philadelphia, about an hour drive away.
“In Wisconsin, we’re going to have a focus on Latino voters there, which happen to be heavier Mexican. In Ohio, there’s a large number of Puerto Ricans … and other places where you wouldn’t automatically think, that’s a Latino state,” said Cristóbal Alex, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign and former president of the Latino Victory Fund. “But the Latino growth there is so substantial, they can make the difference.”
The consensus within the Latino political community is that Biden was already behind where he needs to be seven months out from the election, even before a national pandemic scrambled his plans.
Asked to evaluate the Biden campaign’s Hispanic strategy thus far, Lorella Praeli, who led Hilary Clinton’s Latino outreach in 2016, replied, “I think it’s been dismal.”
Hispanics are statistically less likely to turn out than African-American and white voters. But most presidential campaigns typically spend only a fraction of their budgets on motivating them compared to other demographic groups. Under financial pressure, strategists are less inclined to try to gamble on expanding their voting universe.
The average age of a prospective Latino voter is younger — between 27 and 30, depending on the state — meaning they often automatically fall out of the campaign universe simply due to their youth.
Community leaders see the millions of Hispanics who have recently turned 18 in Texas and the hundreds of thousands of displaced Puerto Ricans in Florida as ripe opportunities for Democrats, but only if they are given good reason to turn out to vote.
“That means having Bernie go out there and try to inspire these young folks,” Cardona said. “He said, and I take him at his word, he’s going to do everything he can in his power to beat Trump. If that means going out and stumping for Joe Biden, he’s got to do that. He can’t wait a month to do that.”