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Op-ed: Joe Biden has a Latino voter problem. Here’s how he can fix it

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about his plans to combat racial inequality at a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., July 28, 2020.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Latinos are one of the largest growing demographics in the country, and their support is essential to ensuring a win that cannot be challenged or litigated – especially in key battleground states like Arizona, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

However, according to a new survey conducted by the Voter Participation Center in partnership with Voto Latino and Latino Decisions, less than 60 percent of eligible Latino voters say they definitely plan to cast a ballot in 2020 and demonstrate a low enthusiasm about the candidacy of Vice President Joe Biden.

Even though Donald Trump has no viable path to gain majority Latino support as he makes anti-immigration a foundation of his re-election, Biden’s approval among young Latinos is waning.

Today, Biden’s support is down seven points from 67 percent back in February. By comparison, during this time in 2016, Hillary Clinton enjoyed 73 percent support among Latinos.

A big issue is outreach. Most Latinos say they haven’t even heard from Joe Biden’s campaign nor the Democratic party. Just 32 percent of low-propensity Latino voters say the Democrats are doing a good job of outreach while only 27 percent of Latinos ages 18-29 agree.

On the contrary, Latino Republicans report higher levels of connectivity with their party than Democrats, with 53 percent of self-identified Republican respondents saying they were contacted by someone, compared to 43 percent of Democrats.

The split widens among those expressing a specific candidate preference, with 59 percent of Trump supporters and just 41 percent of Biden backers reporting being contacted by a political party, campaign or organization so far this year.

In the context of a president who targets Latinos and other communities of color, these numbers are alarming.

Latino Republicans report higher levels of connectivity with their party than Democrats, with 53 percent of self-identified Republican respondents saying they were contacted by someone, compared to 43 percent of Democrats.

Latinos require sustained outreach from campaigns and organizations to speak to them, understand their lives, their fears and aspirations in order to motivate them to vote for their candidate.

The survey found this enthusiasm gap most pronounced among Latinos under 30, with only 46 percent expressing an intent to vote in November, and with undecided Latino voters, with just 37 percent saying they will definitely vote. These numbers determine elections, not just for president, but for every candidate up and down the ballot. 

So, what does Biden need to do to turn this apathy into excitement and then into votes?

To fully realize the potential of support among Latinos, the Biden campaign must have active, regular communication with Latinos, especially younger ones. The reasoning is that younger Latinos play an outsize role in their households, in a sense “navigating” America for their families and mobilizing their aunts, uncles and grandparents to the polls. A powerful force, to be sure, but just 43 percent of Latino youth are enthusiastic about Biden right now.

On August 4, the Biden campaign announced “Todos con Biden,” its agenda with the Latino community, focused on affordable healthcare, access to quality education, immigration reform and what they’re calling a Small Business Opportunity Initiative. While this specificity is welcome, the Vice President and his team can do much more.

There are other areas where the vice president may find an opportunity to build support among Latinos. Our survey found Latinos exhibit strong support for Black Lives Matter, with 76 percent saying they support or strongly support the movement. And police reform has captured Latino attention, so much so that while 3 percent of respondents to an April 2020 national survey said that police reform was an important issue, now 19 percent do.

In the midst of the pandemic where jobs and healthcare are both uncertain and insecure for the majority of the Latino community, decoupling healthcare from employers would go a long way. The future market points to gig economies – how workers will navigate that new brave world will depend on the government creating the rules for business to play by.

More practically, Latinos’ experience and familiarity with vote-by-mail is limited, with two-thirds admitting they are unfamiliar with how to vote by mail in their state. Immediate investment in online outreach on digital platforms, Latino radio and direct mail voter education will be critical, as will outreach and on-the-ground training for local community leaders trusted among Latino communities and seniors who might not be so digitally savvy.

These findings should be sobering. Because while Trump will not assume his path to victory will be with majority support among Latinos, he will surely exploit any weakness to undercut the vice president and other candidates. 

To ignite Latino tepid enthusiasm, Biden and the party need to continue engaging and meeting the community where they are. The Vice President’s Latino Agenda is an opportunity to turbocharge this must needed conversation in order to sweep the November elections.

 Maria Teresa Kumar is the founding president and CEO of Voto Latino, a grassroots political organization focused on educating and empowering Latinx voters.

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