Democrats Reassess What They Thought They Knew About Outreach to Latinos, Starting With the Economy

Two months before the election, former Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia scrambled unsuccessfully to get funding for a "speaker's bureau" of Democratic surrogates in Florida to push back against socialism messaging and disinformation from Republicans and local Trump-supporting activists and media commentators.

A week before the election, Representative Vicente Gonzalez was alarmed when he saw a stream of cars in a caravan for Trump in his McAllen, Texas, border district composed almost entirely of Latinos, he told a friend.

And after Texas came in comfortably for Trump on Election Day, Julian Castro and Representative Joaquin Castro scheduled a call with Biden pollster Matt Barreto to begin trying to understand what happened along the heavily Hispanic border counties where Trump did well, effectively sealing off yet again the Democratic dream of a blue Texas.

While Biden won the majority of votes from the diverse group that makes up the Latino vote nationally, he was unable to improve upon Hillary Clinton's overall 2016 performance, according to exit polls, and Trump improved at least four points, with impressive gains in some majority-Latino areas in Florida and Texas.

In Florida, for example, much has been made of Trump's improvement with Latinos in heavily Cuban Miami-Dade County, but he also gained 11 points of support with Puerto Ricans, which was unexpected. Along many border counties in Texas, some more than 90 percent Hispanic, Trump grew his support, as well.

"What happened across the Rio Grande Valley was entirely organic," said Daniel Garza, executive director of the Koch-backed, conservative LIBRE Initiative. "There was no Trump campaign team, no one paying for ads, and no campaigning that went on down here."

While socialism was a major issue in a state like Florida—where Trump's campaign and allies successfully convinced voters Biden would pursue a socialist agenda—many Democrats fret that their top priority with Latinos is to improve their party's messaging on the economy to win back lost voters.

"Democrats don't have a Latino vote problem, they have a working-class voter problem," said Kristian Ramos, an expert on the Latino vote. "The Latino voters who voted for Trump were largely men showing working-class solidarity."

Democrats like Ramos want the party to understand that if all politics is local, as the adage goes, all votes ultimately are decisions based on kitchen-table concerns. COVID-19 might have been the number one issue for Latinos, and health issues mattered, but much of that concern was through the prism of the economy and jobs, they said.

"Can I get a job, can I keep a job, does that job have health insurance?" Ramos continued. "If I'm a working-class Latino and I can't find a job and I can't work right now, it doesn't matter who tells me what on any other issue as long as I can get a job."

Giancarlo Sopo, a former Democratic operative who ran Spanish-language rapid response for Trump, told Newsweek that the campaign ran economic ads in August and September contrasting Biden's economic record with Trump's.

"We emphasized issues like poverty, which is not something I've seen too many candidates talk about in their messaging," Sopo said.

Democrats are working through election data and talking among themselves about inadequacies with their outreach this cycle, but many are hesitant to make those concerns public with President-elect Joe Biden set to take office in less than 60 days and a desire to work with his incoming team rather than draw its ire.

States like Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona have given us a template for year-round organizing of Latino voters that our party needs to replicate nationwide, including in Texas. (When the) investment is absent or insufficient it allows misinformation and false narratives to take hold.
Julian Castro, former presidential candidate

Former presidential candidate Julian Castro who worked in Texas for Democrats told Newsweek that the election underscored how important it is for Democrats to have a 365-day outreach and investment strategy for the Latino community.

"States like Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona have given us a template for year-round organizing of Latino voters that our party needs to replicate nationwide, including in Texas," he said, adding that when the "investment is absent or insufficient it allows misinformation and false narratives to take hold."

Castro noted that without Trump constantly putting Democrats on defense with lies, the party can and must do a better job letting know voters know they're fighting for things like universal healthcare, better-paying jobs, a clean planet, and a more equitable society.

"These have overwhelming support among voters, but the message too often gets lost," he concluded.

Representative Tony Cardenas, who is running for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair after the party unexpectedly lost seats in swing districts leading to a slim House majority in 2021, told Axios on HBO that the party must improve everywhere from culturally competent diverse staff, vendors, and campaign consultants, to the candidates they run, the polling they use, and digital outreach to Latino voters.

"If we did a better message in Spanish and English to a community that communicates in two languages, we are going to get them to nod their head and say, 'I like this Democrat,'" Cardenas said.

But if Democrats are going as far back to the drawing board as ensuring that their messaging is bilingual, some also are wondering if the party has gone too far in its messaging on immigration and policing.

Most Democrats believe they offer a balanced and fair choice on immigration compared to Trump's right-wing, border-security policies focused on cutting off both illegal immigration and legal avenues, like asylum. But the Trump campaign saw the dynamic differently and believe its gains showed that Latinos aren't as uniform on immigration as Democrats think they are.

Sopo said the election results in South Texas and in some border counties are "an indictment of the caricature that Univision and liberal activists have sold Democratic leadership and the national commentariat that Latinos are single-issue voters and to talk to us like we're victims and we'll vote for Democrats."

Mario Lopez, president of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Fund, who has opposed Trump, said that on policing, too, national strategies and slogans may not work in heavily Latino districts.

"In the Rio Grande Valley, if you're in a 97 percent Latino and rural county, the police officer is Latino, the judge is Latino, everybody is Latino, so your experience is completely different," he said, again noting that those are good local jobs.

"I can see why defund the police—whoever came up with that slogan has to have their head examined—you can see why that's a powerful thing."

Beyond the exact brew of messaging that will unlock increased Latino support, there are questions among Democrats of whether a fractured Spanish-language media environment and less timely pushback from the Biden campaign, ultimately doomed him in a place like Florida.

"His messaging was not getting to voters," a top Democratic strategist told Newsweek. "Biden's proposals were great, but Latinos never heard them."

While Biden's campaign spent $125 million on its Latino vote program, as Newsweek first reported, veteran Democratic operatives said the money came too late to dent hardening views of the former vice president. By the early summer, Trump still was outspending Biden in Spanish-language media, as Newsweek reported, before shooting past Trump once his fundraising picked up in July.

"He was throwing money at a problem that was already broken," the Democratic strategist said.

Carlos Odio, an Obama White House alum who co-founded EquisLabs, a Democratic research firm, said it would be a mistake to say calling Democrats "socialists" on its own moved the needle "when they've been doing it since the day I was born."

But with Biden slow to defend himself on Spanish-language television, Miami voters were getting a distinct impression of Biden on Spanish-language radio, WhatsApp groups with family and friends, and in YouTube videos from Cuban and Colombian pro-Trump personalities.

"They created a narrative that turned into an identity and it was reinforced across every medium they have," Odio said. "If a nutty thing is on WhatsApp, the radio, newspaper, TV, and there when you opened Facebook, it felt like an inevitability."

It wasn't just Garcia, the former congressman, who believed that Democrats needed to more effectively beat back the socialism narrative, with a Democrat who worked for Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016 identifying the lack of surrogates and improved Trump operation as reasons why Biden lagged Clinton's performance in Florida with Latinos.

But Garza takes issue with reports that said calling Biden or the Democratic Party socialists is "misinformation" to voters.

"In comedy, they say something is only funny when it's half-true," he said. "Well the messaging resonated because it's half-true."

Democrats see Latino voters as a natural part of their coalition and believe understanding slippage with the community will help them do better in 2022 and beyond. There also is concern among Democrats that a lack of ground game—understandable on some level because of the pandemic—nonetheless ceded door-knocking to Trump's campaign and allies.

They also noted that racial and ethnic identity matters in many Latino communities. For example, activists and Democratic operatives heard the most concern about discrimination and Trump's rhetoric in rural towns in Southern states like North Carolina and Georgia, where the Latino and immigrant community was outnumbered by white neighbors, and where fears of an El Paso-inspired shooting were strong.

But for many who wonder how an opponent they perceived as anti-immigrant and anti-Latino was able to increase his share of the Latino vote, there is an acknowledgement that something has to change, with conversations often turning back to the party's message on jobs and the economy.

"Poor people care about the economy, too," a top Latina Democrat said. "My parents are not going to go vote on racial identity, they're just not. They care about jobs and education."

Latino vote
Jasmina Saavera holds a Latinos for Trump sign in front of a COVID-19 Testing place before a Pro-Trump car caravan start in Long Beach, California on October 3, 2020. App Gomez/AFP/Getty