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Hispanic voters are growing in power. Why are Democratic presidential candidates ignoring them?

Last week’s Democratic debate in California, an important primary state where the population is nearly 40 percent Latino, put an exclamation point on the community’s outrage. The candidates devoted little time to highlighting how their ideas would impact Latino communities.
Last week’s Democratic debate in California, an important primary state where the population is nearly 40 percent Latino, put an exclamation point on the community’s outrage. The candidates devoted little time to highlighting how their ideas would impact Latino communities.Mario Tama/Getty Images/Getty Images

When the Latino Community Foundation sent questionnaires to the Democratic presidential candidates asking where they stood on issues such as education, health care, and immigration, the result was hardly what it anticipated: no response at all.

Even after the deadline was extended, nine out of 15 candidates didn’t submit answers, including former vice president Joe Biden.

When the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s oldest Hispanic civil rights group, invited Pete Buttigieg to events in Milwaukee and Des Moines, Iowa, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., declined.

When the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials held a summit this summer, Biden and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey did not attend. Both passed on a second chance to address the legislators in the fall.

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‘‘It’s always scheduling,’’ said NALEO chief executive Arturo Vargas of their explanations. ‘‘But you know, scheduling is a reflection of your priorities.’’

Hispanics are increasingly influential in the Democratic Party and in a general election contest, but leaders and activists say they feel ignored and misunderstood by candidates who have spent much of their time focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire, predominantly white states at the top of the nominating calendar. They are bluntly calling on party leaders to reconsider the voting order in four years.

Last week’s debate in California, an important primary state where the population is nearly 40 percent Latino, put an exclamation point on their outrage. Many had hoped it would showcase the rising influence of Hispanics. Instead, the only one in the race, former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, failed to qualify, and the candidates devoted little time to highlighting how their ideas would impact Latino communities.

Many fear that Democrats are blowing a unique opportunity to boost Hispanic voter turnout in the general election as well. Shifting demographics and a backlash to President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have given Democrats an opening in diversifying battleground states from Arizona to Pennsylvania. But officials fear a primary that often feels far removed from Hispanic communities could blunt excitement for the November election.

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‘‘At this stage in the game, we are well beyond talking about missed opportunities,’’ said Clarissa Martínez de Castro, deputy vice president for policy and advocacy at UnidosUS, the country’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group. ‘‘This is seriously in the territory of political malpractice.’’

Some Latino leaders and voters are more confident that anger with Trump will drive turnout in November far more than the course of the Democratic primary. Still, even they want to see their party’s candidates do more to connect with Hispanic communities.

‘‘None of them really stand out,’’ said Jesus Medina, 37, an undecided voter who attended a Spanish-language town hall hosted by top surrogates to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. He said he was seeking something that ‘‘doesn’t sound like the same old politician talk.’’

Latinos are poised to make a significant general election impact in the Sun Belt, the Rust Belt, and parts of the South, including closely contested states seen as crucial in 2020. On average, there was a near doubling last year in the number of Latino voters age 25 to 34 in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to a Univision analysis.

Hispanics are projected to account for more than 13 percent of eligible voters in 2020, surpassing all other ethnic minority groups, according to a Pew Research Center study. After years in which Hispanic turnout disappointed Democrats, their performance in the 2018 midterm elections was up 13 percent from 2014, and about 7 in 10 voted for Democratic candidates in House races.

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There have been some bright spots in the primary, activists said. Many applauded Sanders’s outreach to Hispanic communities — his popularity among young voters, who are more likely to be nonwhite than older voters, has helped him broaden his reach — and his populist economic pitch. Castro received high marks for hitting sharply on issues that matter to Latino voters. But mostly, there has been much more cause for concern than celebration.

‘‘I would characterize the overall campaign, with a few exceptions, as really disappointing, in terms of their engagement,’’ said Vargas, who felt the debate did nothing to improve the situation. ‘‘I think there have been some who have really done some missteps when it comes to trying to engage Latinos or ignoring them, frankly.’’