MIAMI — There is outrage over Trump administration policies that have torn migrant families apart and left some children locked up. There is pervasive fear of immigration raids. And there is the new political reality that Latino voters came out in such force in the 2018 congressional midterm elections they helped flip key seats in the House to Democrats from Republicans.
If there was ever a campaign in which Democratic contenders for the White House were sure to engage in an early courtship of Latino voters, it would be the 2020 race. But Latino advocates like Jacqueline Martinez Garcel have been baffled by the lack of urgency from presidential candidates when it comes to reaching out to Latino voters. And only four of the two dozen candidates have even put forth detailed plans on immigration.
“We are not one-issue voters, but this matters,” said Garcel, a New York native of Dominican descent who heads the Latino Community Foundation, which works to increase the number of Hispanic leaders. “The Muslim ban, the deportations, the attempt to end protections for Dreamers and visas, the citizenship census question, the family separations. We need candidates to have a plan — not just say they are upset.”
Latino political analysts and consultants echoed her concerns, saying Democratic campaigns are overlooking opportunities to rally a key constituency long treated as an after-thought, even as it is expected to be the largest group of eligible nonwhite voters in 2020. The inaction, they say, could open the door for President Trump, who plans an aggressive push to secure Hispanic American votes.
Case in point: 22 Democratic presidential candidates traveled to South Carolina on Friday night for Representative Jim Clyburn’s fish fry and the state’s Democratic convention the following day.
Only eight of the party’s White House hopefuls, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, also made a trip beforehand to Miami on Friday to attend an important forum hosted by the Spanish-language network Telemundo and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that drew more than 800 of the nation’s top Latino policy makers and strategists.
Among the no-shows was the front-runner in the polls, former vice president Joe Biden. Participants in Miami noted the absences.
Denise Diaz, a 32-year-old city councilwoman from South Gate, Calif., said this was the second time Biden had disappointed her. The first was when he skipped California’s Democratic convention three weeks earlier.
“I have really changed my opinion in supporting him,” she said. “I am looking for someone who is relatable, has boots on the ground, and is accessible.”
On Monday, Biden’s campaign appeared to try to make up for the lost opportunity, calling for a citizenship path for immigrants living in the country without legal documentation and unveiling a first glimpse into his potential immigration policy in a Miami Herald op-ed.
Roughly 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election, estimated to be 13 percent of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, African-American voters will have 30 million eligible voters.
In key swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania, Latinos are poised to play a critical role after helping deliver Colorado and New Mexico to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Across the Southwest, they could make the presidential race much more competitive. And in California, which has moved up its Democratic primary to Super Tuesday on March 3, Latinos will make up 30 percent or more of the vote.
“This is the first time in American political history that a candidate can focus solely on Latinos in the Democratic Party and remain viable past March or April,” said Fernando Guerra, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
The voter bloc is not a monolith. And simply blasting Trump won’t be enough for Democrats, Latino elected officials, organizers, and policy advocates said, particularly as a younger generation craves substantive policies on issues such as police brutality, stagnant wages, and health care.
“This isn’t your mami and papi’s Democratic Party,” said Natalia Salgado, political director for the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a progressive policy advocacy group. “The old strategy of Democrats stopping by, saying a few words at the local action or rally because you feel confident that Latinos are going to come out anyway is no longer going to cut it.”
But campaigns have often failed in voter outreach, moving slowly — or not at all — in putting staffers on the ground in heavily Latino neighborhoods, making appeals to Spanish speakers, and taking into account the energy of a population that skews young, organizers and advocates said.
While Democrats have been slow to mobilize Latinos, Trump campaign officials have identified the Latino vote in Florida and beyond as crucial to a victory. Just a day before the Democrats hold their first presidential debate in Miami on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence is expected to appear there to roll out the “Latinos for Trump” coalition.
Trump has touted what he has claimed is growing support among Latinos. His campaign officials have pointed to the record low unemployment rate among Hispanics, efforts to keep the border secure, as well as his support of change in Venezuela and Cuba.
National exit polls in 2016 found Trump did better with Latinos than expected: He captured 28 percent of such voters compared to 66 percent for Clinton. She lost ground with Latinos when compared to the 71 percent of support Barack Obama drew in 2012.
Democratic campaign staffers counter they have started laying the groundwork to improve their performance in 2020, and Latino strategists have lauded the fair number of high-ranking Latino staffers now on campaigns.
On stage at the Telemundo Center, Julian Castro, former Housing and Urban Development secretary under Obama and the only Latino in the race, and former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas drew cheers as they underscored their ties to immigration and border communities.
“I want those people of the future looking back on us, the people of 2019 and 2020, to be proud of what we have done, not to ask themselves, ‘Who were those pendejos who gave up this great opportunity that we had?’” O’Rourke said, eliciting laughter as he spoke on climate change, by using a Spanish word for stupid people. “So let us be great. Let us not be pendejos.”
Sanders’s campaign appeared to be the only one over the weekend to host a separate public event to woo attendees at the forum for the Latin officials association. Over happy hour drinks and hors d’oeuvres at a Miami hotel event room, Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser for Sanders, and Belén Sisa, a press secretary, both Latino, urged more than 30 Latino elected officials and policy makers to join their campaign.
Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan, one of four national campaign co-chairs for Sanders, told the crowd the fight against Trump was personal, saying the image of the president throwing paper towels at Hurricane Maria survivors in Puerto Rico was now a GIF you could send someone to show disrespect.
“It is not enough to speak a few phrases in Spanish and believe that buys the Latino vote,” she said. “It is endearing, and we applaud it, but that is very different from having public policies that are consistent, consequential, and bold.”