'Always an afterthought.' Strategists question Biden strategy to win Florida Latinos

  • In Politics
  • 2020-05-22 10:30:00Z
  • By Miami Herald

After months of Democrats' hand-wringing about Joe Biden's efforts to win over Hispanic voters in Florida and other 2020 battleground states, the party's presumptive presidential nominee's campaign this week hired a national senior Latino adviser, began to sharply attack President Donald Trump over the state's Latino unemployment rate and moved to host regular Spanish-language virtual chats with Florida allies.

But Democratic activists still worry that Biden has done too little with Hispanic voters to take back the nation's largest swing state from President Donald Trump. And some say that, soon, it may also be too late.

In the midterm elections, Democrats widely blamed narrow losses in races for governor and U.S. Senate on poor Hispanic outreach. Now, some strategists are concerned that Biden is making the same mistake. With less than six months to go until Election Day, the former vice president is preaching patience to frustrated grassroots activists who are questioning the campaign's dedication to winning over minority voters in the state.

"It's unclear whether the Biden campaign is going to invest in the levels necessary [to reach Hispanic voters] in a state like Florida, which is distressing to those of us on the ground here," said Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority, one of the state's largest grassroots political organizations.

Even though polls have found Biden slightly ahead of Trump in Florida, the Hispanic vote could be critical.

With Trump holding strong among white voters - who comprise a majority of the state's electorate - Biden must likely win a large share of Florida's diverse Hispanic community if he wants to win in a consequential swing state where a few thousand votes can make or break a presidential campaign. And surveys published since March have found that his support among Hispanic voters is behind Hillary Clinton's in 2016 - when Trump won Florida - and well below the 71% support captured nationally by President Barack Obama in a winning effort in 2012.

In March, a Univision poll found Trump had a 3-point lead over Biden, though 62% of Latino voters in Florida said they disapproved of Trump's overall performance as president. In April, a Latino Decisions poll found Biden at 49% support nationally among Latino voters.

The struggle is a continuation of the Democratic presidential primary, when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign invested millions of dollars in states like Nevada and thumped the former vice president among Latino voters. Biden performed better among Florida's diverse Hispanic population in the state's March 17 primary. But in some ways his campaign is starting from scratch as the race moves to the general election and he is forced to reach out to voters outside the Democratic Party.

"They need to be gearing up and by June have infrastructure set up in Florida," said Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based consultant who led Spanish-language media for Andrew Gillum's unsuccessful 2018 Florida gubernatorial campaign.

It won't be easy.

Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to Sanders' presidential campaign specializing in Latino mobilization, said reaching Hispanic voters in Florida is especially expensive and time-intensive. Rocha warned against adopting "the Bill Nelson model," a reference to the 2018 U.S. Senate campaign of former Sen. Bill Nelson, who was blasted by other Democrats for doing too little to win over Hispanic voters, particularly Puerto Ricans. Nelson lost the race to Rick Scott by a few thousand votes following a recount.

"Whatever their program is for white voters, they should be spending double that" reaching Hispanics, Rocha said. "The Latino vote is always an afterthought for these campaigns. They don't understand the nuances."

Rocha said Biden needs to be on the radio in Miami, and should be reaching out to Puerto Ricans in Orlando, where many have a dim view of Trump but are also registering as independents. "They know they hate Donald Trump. They know they hate Republicans because of what Donald Trump did," he said. "But they also want Democrats to tell them what they're going to do."

Tailoring unique messages to Florida's Venezuelan, Colombian, Nicaraguan and other Latin American communities complicates the effort. And Biden has to contend with Trump's support among Miami's conservative Cuban-American exile community and his campaign's accusations that the former vice president is soft on Latin America's autocrats.

"The more Latinos get to know Biden and his record the more they're going to realize he's the wrong choice for America," Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said in an interview.

Activists like Mercado worry that Biden is not just failing to spend the money to create a message on TV and social media that will speak to individual segments of the Hispanic community. He's also at times failing to do the bare minimum in campaign events. Biden's first visit to Florida as a candidate - before the statewide lockdown for the coronavirus - included a stop in Miami's Little Havana. But when he kicked off a virtual tour of the country early this month by holding virtual events with allies in Jacksonville and Tampa - a relaunch of a new, online-only phase of the campaign amid the pandemic - Biden didn't include an event for Hispanic voters.

"It wasn't lost on me there wasn't a specific Latino-focused event," Mercado said in a recent interview.

Mercado, though, is also among those encouraged at signs of life from the campaign.

This week, Biden hired Julie Chávez Rodríguez, the granddaughter of civil rights leader Cesar Chávez, to spearhead his Latino outreach campaign. The position had been vacant for six months, following the departure of Vanessa Cardenas, reportedly over frustration at a lack of commitment to win over Latinos. Chávez Rodríguez joins Biden's National Latino Outreach Director Laura Jiménez, who is Dominican and a Palm Beach County native, and other advisors such as former Latino Victory Fund head Cristobal Alex and former deputy assistant secretary of state Juan Gonzalez.

And Mercado will participate in a Charla con Biden event Saturday, one session of a three-part Latin conversation series aimed at Florida supporters. Similar virtual chats were already launched in Arizona and Colorado, two states where the former vice president lagged behind Sanders with the Hispanic vote. The round-table discussion in Florida, which is open to the public, will include panelists like Miami Sen. Annette Taddeo and Kissimmee Sen. Victor Torres.

Biden's campaign has also hosted several events in recent days aimed specifically at Florida's Hispanic voters and the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic - a vast public health crisis that has complicated Biden's ability to campaign in Florida but also has undercut Trump's message of economic prosperity.

"I'm pretty confident the next job report, I hope I'm dead wrong, that the Latino unemployment rate will probably be more like 20%," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, noting the current 19% unemployment rate for Hispanics, told reporters Thursday in a conference call about the struggles of Florida's Hispanic community. "That's the reality of this Trump economy."

Biden also has an opportunity to pick a Latina for his running mate. "No question. It would make a difference in Florida for sure," said Henry Muñoz, former finance director for the DNC, who said he's been in contact with the Biden campaign and consistently "reminds" its leadership that there are several Latinas who would be up for the job.

Also unclear to Democratic strategists and activists who spoke to the Miami Herald: whether Biden will make a significant investment in an ad campaign targeting Hispanic voters. Newsweek reported this month that the campaign was preparing to launch a $55 million outreach effort to Latino voters, but the campaign disputed the figure after publication.

When asked about the report by the Miami Herald, the Biden campaign did not comment on its accuracy.

"We are competing for every vote in the community - men and women - and are in the process of building out and scaling up our efforts to do so," Isabel Aldunate, Biden's deputy director of strategic communications and Hispanic media press secretary, said in a statement.

Aldunate added that the campaign is working on a "robust and thoughtful" paid media plan, "but we are being smart and judicious to ensure we get it right."

Two Democratic consultants who spoke to the Miami Herald said Biden still has time to mobilize an ad campaign aimed at Florida's Hispanic voters, noting that Obama's ads weren't on air in 2008 until June. But in 2012, Obama began his Hispanic messaging campaign in February. And former Congressman Joe Garcia, a former head of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, noted that Obama repeatedly visited Florida and Miami in 2007 and 2008, specifically touching on issues of Latin America diplomacy and Cuban-America relations during speeches, including one on May 20, Cuban Independence Day.

"The idea that [Obama] just got started late is a misunderstanding of what was going on," said Garcia.

Still, even critics of the Biden campaign's efforts noted that the Democratic National Committee and Florida Democratic Party bear responsibility as well for reaching out to voters, and the two organizations have been working since 2019 to create deeper ties to minority neighborhoods. Garcia noted that the party is now being managed by Executive Director Juan Peñalosa, a Hispanic, South Florida strategist.

The FDP has also made improvements to its Latino outreach since 2018, including launching a regular Spanish-language program on Actualidad Radio, one of the largest Spanish AM radio stations in South Florida. The state party's leadership, which Peñalosa said is also majority Hispanic, has been ramping up outreach in the past year and half, investing in local media buys.

"We have Hispanic outreach here," Peñalosa insisted. "I think a lot of people just aren't connecting the dots."

This story has been updated to clarify that Christian Ulvert led Spanish-language media for Andrew Gillum's 2018 general election campaign.


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