With the presidential election less than two months away, former Vice President Joe Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris are lagging in polls of Latino voters in the battleground state of Florida.
Latino advocates say that's because the Democratic party isn’t doing enough to court this key demographic.
"In many ways this is a wakeup call for Democrats, there has been consistently under-outreach to Latino voters including in battleground states," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, deputy vice president of policy and advocacy at UnidosUS, the country’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization. "I think many times not only are they taken for granted, but they’re expected to come out and support Democratic candidates even if there’s very little outreach. We keep saying that’s a failing strategy and I think we’re seeing some of that right now."
The Pew Research Center projects that Latinos will be the largest group of non-white eligible voters in 2020, but recent polling shows Biden losing ground with Latino communities in Florida, where there are approximately 3.1 million eligible Latino voters from diverse backgrounds and countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. In a state that’s historically won by thin margins, Biden’s pull with Latinos there could mean the difference between Florida going for Trump or Biden.
Political ads have saturated the airwaves and digital spaces in the Sunshine State, and although Biden seems to be slightly outspending Trump in Spanish-language ads, advocates say it’s unclear if that’s working to sway the vote in his direction.
An NBC News/Marist poll, released on Sept. 8 is the latest to show Trump gaining ground with Latinos in the state, with 50% of Latinos showing support for the president over Biden’s 46%. A Quinnipiac poll released on July 23 showed Biden with 50% and Trump at 33% percent of support among Latinos in the state.
Advocates say that although polls can fluctuate as the election nears, when compared with the last presidential election, Biden is underperforming with Latinos in Florida. Clinton lost Florida to Trump by 1% in 2016 but defeated him among Latinos there 62% to 35%, according to exit polls.
"Trump may not need to win an overwhelming majority of Latino voters in Arizona or Florida, but he needs to be competitive and try to diminish the Biden lead in those two places. The flip side of that is that Biden needs to match or probably best the level of support that Clinton achieved," said Martinez de Castro.
Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders Chuck Rocha says the Biden campaign and outside Democratic Super PACs are not spending enough money to reach Latinos in Spanish.
The Biden campaign started airing Spanish-language ads across the country as early as March this year, but a more aggressive ad campaign targeting Latino voters began in June, when the campaign started airing ads on Spanish-language stations like Univision and Telemundo.
Since June, the Biden campaign has spent $62.3 million on ads in Florida with roughly $3.6 million going to Spanish-language stations. In comparison, the Trump campaign has spent a total of $63.1 million on television ads in Florida. Of that, $3.3 million has gone to running ads on Spanish-language stations like Univision and Telemundo.
"The outside Democratic super PACs have spent $500 million talking to white voters and over that same time period, there’s only been $5 million given to Latino super PACs," said Rocha who founded Nuestro PAC. "So why would we be performing at the same level as white voters when the Democratic establishment and donors are only giving money to Super PACs that are only focused on white voters?"
Rocha also says the Biden campaign should take a cue from Sanders’ victory in the Nevada primary, which was largely credited for the turnout of Latino voters -- 51% of Latinos in the state supported the Vermont senator. Rocha says the campaign invested $15 million in Spanish communication throughout the early voting states at least half a year before the primaries.
On a call with reporters last week, the Biden campaign noted that its strategy to win the White House relied on what was described as the "Biden Coalition" which consists of young people, Latinos, African Americans and women.
A source with knowledge of the Biden campaign’s Florida strategy says it "‘realized very early on before the Florida presidential primary that it can’t treat the Hispanic community -- whether it’s messaging, whether it’s outreach, whether it’s coalition-building -- as a monolith."
The campaign has launched several "diaspora organizing groups" such as Dominicanos Con Biden, Venezolanos Con Biden and others to "purposefully give a degree of empowerment and buy-in to Latino supporters," according to the source.
To reach Latino voters, the Biden campaign has run bilingual TV, digital and radio ads in several key battleground states. The campaign has hired multiple Latino state directors and 11 Latino vote directors -- all from Florida -- while also running daily bilingual phone banks.
"So, whether we're talking about our Latino engagement strategy, Black American, young, senior we have across every channel that we communicate as a campaign, customized specific programming to each of these audiences," said Biden Campaign Manager Jen O’Malley Dillion on a call with reporters.
But the president’s "Latinos for Trump" coalition has lobbed attacks against Biden in Spanish-Language ads that try to paint him as a socialist.
One Spanish-language ad juxtaposes excerpts from a Biden speech saying he’s "going to go down as one of the most progressive presidents in American history, showing a montage of images of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and former Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro claiming to be progressive. The ad ends with the words "progresista=socialista" on the screen.
Republican strategist Andres Malave says that messaging has been resonating with Latino voters and is one of the reasons the NBC News/Marist poll shows the president with a lead among Latinos in Florida.
"I think when you have growing communities in California and Arizona of Nicaraguans, in particular, that message certainly resonates. The idea of more government and the intrusion of government is something that our community is mindful of when you look at the success we’ve had under a President Trump administration that has allowed us to really reach heights that historically have been record-breaking in unemployment and business creation," Malave said.
The Trump campaign says the polls show the president is "growing his diverse coalition."
"There are important policy and cultural factors driving this trend that are often missed by simplistic media narratives that reduce Hispanics to single-issue voters. That said, we are taking nothing for granted and will be working hard to earn the support of even more Hispanic Americans," said Giancarlo Sopo, director of Rapid Response for Spanish-language Media for the president's reelection campaign.
Arturo Vargas, CEO of NALEO Educational Fund, a national nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that empowers Latinos to participate in the American political process, agrees that some of the president’s messaging against his opponent may strike a nerve with descendants of countries where socialism and communism may equate with political persecution and economic strife.
"For a certain generation of Cuban-Americans, having a strong policy with regard to Cuba that is anti-communist or anti-socialist resonates. I would think that with some other exiles who are living in Florida and other parts of the state whether they're from Venezuela and Nicaragua, those messages will resonate as well," he said. "This is certainly one where I think Trump can cultivate a portion of the electorate, and where Biden's going to have to explain what his position is."
On that front, the Biden campaign has been trying. One ad appears to target Latinos who are supporters of the president with the help of Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny. His song "Pero Ya No", which means "but not anymore" plays over images from Trump rallies that cut to footage of migrants in detention and the president throwing paper towels in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane María.
Harris joined a virtual roundtable with Latino business owners in Miami last week as part of the campaign's latest initiative "Nuestros Negocios, Nuestro Futuro," which focused on uplifting Latino entrepreneurship and encouraging business owners to mobilize voters in their community.
In a visit to Florida this week, the senator also spoke to Miami-based Univision station and hit back at some of the president’s accusations.
"I speak for myself and I speak for Joe Biden. We are not socialists. And we believe in protecting freedom. We believe in protecting liberty. We believe in protecting democracy and fighting for the rights of people, so that they can live in a place where they will not be fearful of their government," Harris said.