Former Vice President Joe Biden is heading to Florida on Tuesday amid major worries about his campaign’s Latino outreach operation.
Florida is one of four battleground states with a substantial Latino population. Recent polls there have seen Biden’s lead dwindle to just about 1 percent, in large part due to soft support among Latinos, including in the normally reliable Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County.
Some Biden supporters are concerned.
“Not only am I surprised. I’m shocked. I’m aghast. It’s perplexing,” Florida pollster and Democratic strategist Fernand Amandi said in an interview with Yahoo News. “There were plenty of times and plenty of opportunities to have addressed the situation earlier rather than trying to salvage it at the 11th down.”
Florida, which has 29 votes in the Electoral College, is one of the biggest prizes on the election map. Donald Trump won the state by about 112,000 votes in the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton, and his campaign has repeatedly described it as their most important target this time around.
Trump’s last Sunshine State victory came despite the fact that exit polls showed more than 60 percent of Latinos, who are over 15 percent of the state’s voters, backing Clinton. While recent polls have shown Biden doing better than Clinton with white voters in Florida, he is underperforming among Latinos.
A poll conducted by Amandi’s firm that was released on Sept. 8 added to worries about Biden’s standing in Florida. It showed that he was winning Miami-Dade County by 17 points. But to put that number in perspective, Clinton won the county — the state’s most populous — by 30 points in the last election.
And that poll isn’t the only one that spells trouble for Biden in the state. An NBC/Marist poll that also came out on Sept. 8 showed Trump and Biden effectively tied in Florida, with the former vice president losing the Latino vote there by four points.
The good news for Biden is that reinforcements are pouring in. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year, announced over the weekend that he would spend $100 million to boost Biden in Florida. But Bloomberg’s intervention, which comes less than two months before Election Day, also underscores Democrats’ anxiety about Biden’s chances in the state.
Prior to the cash infusion, Amandi described Florida as being “as competitive as it always has been” and argued that Biden’s team needed to do more.
“If you’re the Biden campaign … what you need to do is improve your performance with Hispanic voters,” he added. “If that doesn’t happen … it’s going to be almost impossible for him to carry Florida.”
Weakening support among Latinos is clearly an issue for Biden in Florida, but it’s also part of a larger problem. Polls show him slightly trailing Clinton among the Latino population nationwide. And Clinton already lost Latino support relative to President Barack Obama’s 2012 performance.
While there is a particularly large Latino population in Florida and three Southwestern swing states — Texas, Arizona and Nevada — some strategists point out that Biden could also do more to target Latino populations in other battlegrounds. Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist, cited Wisconsin as another example of a state where Biden should capitalize on the Democratic Party’s edge with Latinos.
“I do know 60,000 Latinos on the south side of Milwaukee who would make a whole hell of a lot of difference that nobody's talked to,” Rocha said.
As the 2016 election showed once again, a relatively small number of voters in swing states can prove decisive. Although Clinton handily won the nationwide popular vote, Trump secured an Electoral College win because he won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by just about 79,000 total votes.
Rocha was a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders and helped lead a Latino outreach effort that contributed to victories for the Vermont senator in the California and Nevada primaries. He went on to found Nuestro PAC, which is working to drum up the Latino vote for Biden. He attributed Biden’s issues with Latinos to “underinvestment” by his campaign.
“Nobody's talking to them,” Rocha said, later adding, “It doesn’t matter what your message is if you don’t spend money to go tell motherf***ers what your message is.”
Rocha said he is regularly on strategy calls with other progressive strategists and organizations focused on Latino voters who share his concerns.
“Everybody is extremely worried. Like, we’re even worried about Nevada now, which is supposed to be this easy state that everybody thought we were going to win,” he said.
Rocha suggested that Biden should be devoting more resources to events and advertisements focused on Latinos. He also pointed out that Trump, who began running for reelection on his first day in office, had a head start compared with Biden, who won the Democratic nomination only last spring.
“Joe Biden started that spending late. Donald Trump was up for two and a half months with no competition talking to Latinos in Florida while Joe Biden was dark,” Rocha said.
Juliana Cabrales, a top official at the educational fund run by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said her group has found that most Latinos have not been contacted about the election by either campaign.
“Latinos are listening, and they need to be engaged. Political parties must invest in outreach. In polling we conducted earlier this month, 60 percent of the individuals surveyed said they hadn’t been contacted by a political party, campaign or other organization about registering or voting,” Cabrales said.
A Latino outreach strategist who has worked with Biden’s campaign said the Democrat’s team has stepped up its efforts in the community. However, the strategist also noted that the coronavirus pandemic has made traditional outreach methods like door knocking and rallies much harder.
“The campaign has clearly had a blind spot with Latino outreach that they’re working to fix. These are communities that are difficult to organize under normal circumstances, and that much more difficult now. They’re going to need a full-court press,” the strategist said of Biden’s team.
There are 5.7 million Latinos in Florida alone, and reaching them is an expensive and complex undertaking. Once overwhelmingly Cuban, the Latino population in the state now includes many people with origins in Venezuela and Puerto Rico, among other places. These communities have different priorities and dialects, meaning campaigns can’t rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.
This diversification should, in theory, present opportunities for Biden. Florida’s Cuban-American population includes many people who escaped Fidel Castro’s communist regime, and has for decades been a reliably Republican constituency. But polls indicate younger Cuban-Americans tend to be less conservative than their elders and open to voting Democratic.
Florida also saw an influx of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017. A majority of Puerto Ricans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the storm.
Mike Madrid, a veteran GOP operative who oversees political operations for the Lincoln Project, a group dedicated to swaying conservative voters away from Trump, argued that Biden has “not taken advantage of the post-Maria opportunity to this point.”
The Biden campaign has aggressively pushed back on the idea that they haven’t done enough to woo Latinos. A Biden campaign official pointed to the number of Latinos in senior leadership roles, Spanish-language radio ads recorded in multiple different dialects and numerous grassroots groups the campaign organized for different Latino communities.
“We are not taking anything or anyone for granted, and our pathway to winning this state is earning the vote of everybody in that vote,” the official said.
Nevertheless, the official admitted the campaign sees Florida as “the battleground of battlegrounds” that could go either way.
“We’ve been up and down and up and down so many times, there is no world — and because Donald Trump’s our president now — in which we would even be close to thinking we haven’t anything on lock. Run scared, you know?” the Biden campaign official said. “I mean, I don’t sleep anymore, because that is how we have to be. Especially in Florida.”
Biden has also been giving the state’s Latinos his personal touch. His visit to Florida on Tuesday will include a Hispanic Heritage Month event in Kissimmee, the epicenter of the growing Puerto Rican community. On Sept. 10 his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, visited Florida and made a stop in Doral, Miami’s largest Venezuelan-American neighborhood.
The Biden campaign said it has spent over $10 million on Spanish language ads and that there are eleven Latino vote directors on the team. It did not provide information about the total number of staffers dedicated to the effort.
For its part, the Trump campaign boasts of having “dozens” of Latino staff who have been on the ground in Florida since last year, 16 “targeted” field offices focused on the community and a slate of Spanish-language ads.
Amandi, the Democratic strategist and pollster, said, “It appears as of now the Trump campaign has just made Florida a greater priority.”
Ali Pardo, a deputy communications director for the Trump campaign, described the president as “well positioned with Florida Latinos in November.” She accused Biden of taking Latino voters “for granted” as Trump gained their support.
“The president has consistently delivered for our community, creating jobs, boosting income and standing up to socialism and communism,” Pardo said of Trump.
Pardo’s comment echoed a core part of Trump’s pitch to Florida Latinos — painting Biden, a relatively moderate Democrat, as beholden to his party’s resurgent left wing. It’s a tactic designed to appeal to Latinos — particularly those in the Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan communities — who fled socialist regimes. The Trump campaign’s Spanish-language radio ads, for example, refer to Democrats as “socialists” and highlight liberal protesters waving flags bearing the face of the infamous leftist guerrilla Che Guevara.
Some Biden backers fear those messages are gaining traction. And these worries aren’t coming only from outside groups. Carmen Pelaez is one of the administrators of Cubanos con Biden, one of the grassroots Florida groups touted by Biden’s campaign.
“I don't think it’s that Biden is underperforming with Latinos. I think it’s that the Trump campaign is effective. It’s cynically using Latino trauma,” said Pelaez, who argued that Biden’s economic and immigration policies would do more to benefit Latinos.
Pelaez said Trump’s ads are “everywhere” in the community. She would like to see the Biden campaign release more radio commercials and hold more events in Florida.
Pelaez noted that Biden’s campaign has been far more reluctant to hold in-person events than Trump in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly held outdoor rallies in defiance of local social distancing regulations, including a small one in Tampa on July 31. Pelaez described the situation as one where “the bullies are running the sandbox.”
“We just need to see them in the community. We need to see them interacting, because the GOP is putting everybody’s lives at risk by having these rallies,” Pelaez said. “We can have get-togethers where we can be safe. And I think we need to move out of the virtual space a little bit more.”
As the race tightens in Florida, Biden does have some more help on the way. In addition to Bloomberg’s spending spree, Rocha’s Nuestro PAC announced it would be doing a “seven-figure” mail campaign in the state. And Madrid said his group, the Lincoln Project, which has already produced a slate of notable anti-Trump commercials, is working on an ad aimed to counter the president’s message to Latinos in Florida.
“They’re relying on a potential bogeyman that they’re going to equate with socialism and communism,” Madrid said of Trump’s ads. “We will be going directly at the fact that we currently have a strongman who has dictatorial tendencies. … Making very direct comparisons with Donald Trump and Latin American caudillos, as they’re called.”
Madrid also echoed a point made by many of the others — there are fewer than 50 days left until Election Day, which doesn’t leave much room for further course corrections.
“There’s no more time for missed opportunities,” he said.
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