One of the biggest challenges that President Joe Biden and his campaign will face as they embark on his fourth presidential campaign has been obvious for years: rebuilding support from Latino voters. Republican gains in Latino communities have been a major political story, a growing insecurity for Democratic politicians and donors, and a big liability for the Biden administration.
In 2020, Donald Trump did 8 percentage points better with Latino voters than he did in 2016, winning nearly 40 percent of Latino voters nationally. Trump made inroads in heavily Latino regions of southern Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas — all while Republicans flipped House seats in districts with large Latino populations from California to Florida. Republicans retained most of this Latino support in the 2022 midterms, holding about 40 percent of their national popular vote. And polling shows most of this support holding steady.
Those GOP gains stunned much of the political world. But, for many Democrats, the mistakes were clear. In 2020, the Biden campaign started their major Latino outreach operations far too late, and were limited early on by the pandemic and a lack of funds, which hurt their ability to invest in all the places they needed. As a result, Democrats let Trump gain the upper hand with his economic messaging.
But speaking to Latino civil rights leaders and activists now, I got a sense of anxious optimism about how Biden’s campaign, and Democratic candidates in general, will approach their Latino voter operations this year. The recent hire of Julie Chávez Rodríguez as Biden’s 2024 campaign manager is one sign that the Biden campaign is learning from 2020. Chávez Rodríguez is a White House aide, former Kamala Harris and Biden 2020 campaign staffer, and granddaughter of the labor icon Cesar Chavez, and she is largely credited for reviving the 2020 campaign’s Latino voter efforts.
“In 2020 and 2022, Latinos were critical to Democratic wins, and that requires real, sustained investment in the community,” Kevin Munoz, spokesperson for the Biden-Harris campaign, told Vox. Munoz also touted the wins the Biden administration has delivered, including near-historic low levels of unemployment for Latinos. “We won’t take any support for granted. The campaign will build on the progress that’s been made to earn Latinos’ votes and expand our winning coalition,” he said.
But after two election cycles’ worth of missteps and challenges, Biden and Democrats have time to correct past mistakes and 2020 should give them all the lessons they need.
Mistakes from the 2020 cycle
Though the GOP gains with Latino voters shocked experts in 2020 and did not dissipate during midterm elections last year, Democrats have still held on to solid Latino majorities, including in key swing states. That voter breakdown depends on what states you examine, but the challenge Biden will face this time remains the same: start your outreach early, fine tune an economic message, and remind voters of your accomplishments.
His campaign struggled with these tasks in 2020. During the 2020 primary, for example, Biden’s Latino outreach operation was overshadowed by Bernie Sanders’s in states like California, Nevada, and Texas, largely due to scarcity of staffing and funding during that ultra-competitive contest. Meanwhile in the general election, staffing struggles, the coronavirus pandemic, and leadership changes meant the campaign couldn’t get out in front of voters themselves until later in the race, contributing to losses in Florida and Texas (which, at the time, were considered to be in play).
“The lessons have been out there for way longer than the last two cycles — candidates matter, positions matter, and critical outreach is essential,” Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the vice president of the Latino Vote Initiative at the civil rights group Unidos US, told me. “Generally speaking, we continue to see low and late outreach to Hispanic voters, when and if it happens.”
Biden and Democrats faced tremendous criticism throughout the 2020 Democratic primary and into the general election for the state of their Latino voter outreach operations. Martinez de Castro was one of those voices, calling it “political malpractice” for candidates to wait until the last minute to engage them during the primary season. She, like other experts I spoke with, told me that politicians of both parties have no excuses now after the 2020 and 2022 wake-up calls to get serious about persuading these new swing voters.
Martinez de Castro said that Democrats had fallen particularly short in messaging to Latinos about kitchen-table issues. “[Democrats] need to actually reach out to and win over these voters and engage more on economic issues, which continue to be the top of mind issues for the Latino community as they have been for at least a couple of decades,” she said.
The predominance of economic concerns in the minds of Latino voters isn’t new — inflation and the state of the economy were frequently the top issues for Latinos in polling throughout the 2020 and 2022 elections. But in both cycles, Democrats had fallback issues that gave them an edge over Republicans: the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the future of abortion rights. On both issues, Latino voters preferred Democrats by about 11 points on abortion and 10 points on the pandemic, according to exit polls. But with inflation still high, rising interest rates, and the looming specter of a recession, it’s clear that Biden will have to talk about the economy in a more nuanced way, Latino strategists told me.
That nuance means Democrats need to remind Latinos just how bad the situation Biden inherited was, address fears of inflation and a recession directly, and cast Latino voters as “protagonists” who Biden helped, Kristian Ramos, a Latino political consultant for various Democratic groups and former communications director for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told me. The economic message Latino voters are hearing should include that “We know the play,” Ramos said, “At this point, are we going to be able to take that head on and be able to say, ‘Listen, Democrats, actually, when you were down, we gave you the child tax credit to make sure that your kid was able to thrive, that you could buy groceries, to send your kids to school, and we tried to give you student loan relief but the Republicans tried to get rid of that,’” Ramos said.
Better ground operations and messaging
Part of that tightrope act will also require Biden to build a better ground operation to understand the diversity of the country’s Latino communities and craft messages suited for those places. For example, the Democratic National Committee has a new starting point for this: During the midterms, they developed a program to train local Latino organizers to serve as surrogates for Democratic candidates.
Messaging also matters. The appeal to freedom, patriotism, and national unity that Biden previewed in his campaign launch video, for example, is well suited for some of the more conservative Mexican American and Cuban American communities along the Southern border and in Florida that have moved toward Republicans.
To frame the election around freedom, especially when talking to Latino voters, “is brilliant,” Cristóbal Alex, a former senior advisor to Biden’s campaign, told me, since it also inoculates voters against some of the references to “socialism” that Trump made central to his 2020 campaign. Reclaiming that patriotic tone, and engaging on cultural issues, can also appeal directly to those Latino voters that have drifted toward Republicans.
“Oftentimes in America, people misjudge the level of patriotism in the Latino community,” Javier Palomarez, the president of the U.S. Hispanic Business Council, told me, adding that Latinos make up a big percentage of frontline workers, military personnel, police officers, and border patrol officers. “In 2020, there was a real sense of resentment and a real sense of abandonment, and so these are the things that became ripe for the Republican Party to fill the void.”
This time around, the expectation is that void won’t exist. Chávez Rodríguez as campaign manager and Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) as a key surrogate inspired confidence in everyone who spoke with me for this story about just how serious the Biden campaign would get about Latinos, but they all reiterated that staffing is only the beginning.
“Latinas, in particular, are the most underrepresented in every space of power in the nation and in our history. So having Julie [Chávez Rodríguez] in this particular position is historical, and is great news not only for the campaign for us, but for our democracy,” Héctor Sánchez Barba, the CEO and executive director of the voter mobilization group Mi Familia Vota, told me.
The White House, also, has been ramping up the president’s and vice president’s engagement with Latino groups and media in interviews, visits, and speeches in the lead-up to the 2024 campaign launch.
How 2024 will be different
Chávez Rodríguez, experts told me, will have a big say in how and where the campaign spends its money — one of the big criticisms of Biden in his last campaign. Back in 2019, when the Democratic primary was heating up, the Biden campaign was strapped for cash, limiting the resources it could invest in Latino voter outreach, hiring, and deployment of staff. Meanwhile, Biden’s chief rival in the primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, was investing significant resources into Latino communities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, and Texas. At the time, Sanders was receiving the strongest fundraising support from Latinos of all the 2020 Democratic contenders, according to an NBC News analysis — more than $8 million of the $23 million they gave in 2019. Once the general election took off, the Sanders campaign offered Biden’s lessons, staffing, and independent advertising support, and Biden aides and advisers told me and other reporters that the campaign would redouble its efforts at reaching Latino voters with the new financial resources it had. Much of that spending came late, starting in July and ramping up after the party conventions in August, and the pandemic limited direct engagement with voters — contributing to the gains Republicans made that year.
The Biden campaign is now starting fresh. The pandemic will not limit door-knocking and field operations. He is the presumptive nominee, with the backing of the party and donors, so money shouldn’t be an issue, though the campaign will have to make a decision about just how seriously to invest in some states, like North Carolina, which has a large but neglected Latino voter population that could put the state in play, and Florida, which has drifted so much into Republican hands that a serious persuasion operation might drain the campaign of resources. Biden won’t be competing with other candidates for staffing. And his team won’t lack experience. He has the opportunity to go to conventions of Latino leaders that he skipped in 2019, like those hosted this summer by the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and avoid accusations of neglecting Latinos.
Luis A. Miranda Jr., the chair of the Democratic-aligned Latino Victory Fund, said the political action group will also be working to ensure the campaign sticks by its commitments. “We will work with the Biden campaign to engage and mobilize Latino voters, and take nothing for granted come November 2024,” he said in a statement to Vox.
Finally, he’ll also have the opportunity to avoid embarrassing gaffes — like the 2020 meme that became emblematic of his struggles with Latinos, when he played the song “Despacito” at a rally in Florida, and inspired a wave of memes. The stakes are high. Reversing the gains the GOP have made since 2020 may be crucial to Democrats’ hopes for victory in 2024, not just in swing states Biden needs, but also in the congressional races Democrats need to win back full control of Congress.
Update, May 4, 9:45 am: Updated with comment from Latino Victory Fund.