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Biden’s Case to Latino Voters Comes Late. Will They Listen?

On August 29th, Kamala Harris addressed the Latino community for the first time as Joe Biden’s running mate. The senator from California headlined the launch of Nuestros Negocios, Nuestro Futuro, a new campaign initiative designed for Latino business owners. Held via Zoom, the event centered on Florida, a crucial battleground state where Biden needs to reverse an ominous sign for Democrats. According to recent polls, Biden leads Donald Trump among Latinos by a smaller margin than that of Hillary Clinton, who won two-thirds of their votes in 2016 and still lost the state. Many audience members had tuned in to the event searching for answers, or, at the very least, a measure of comfort. When the coronavirus began spreading across the country, the unemployment rate among Latinos nearly quadrupled and their businesses shuttered. Harris listened to the woes of business owners intently, and described an economic plan meant to provide much-needed relief. She cast Biden’s Presidency as an imperative. Her message felt overly scripted at times, but convincing enough to end with an ask of her listeners. “Years from now, our children, our grandchildren, will look in our eyes and they’re going to ask us, ‘Where were you at that moment? And what did you do?’ ” Harris said, tilting slightly to the camera. “We will start by telling them, ‘I voted.’ ”

In this year’s general election, Latinos will make up the largest minority group in the electorate and play a decisive role in four states that could give Trump an Electoral College victory: Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. During the primaries, Bernie Sanders beat Biden by wide margins among Latino voters in key states with large Hispanic populations, including Nevada, Texas, and California. But, over the summer, the former Vice-President rolled out a more robust strategy to secure support from Latino voters, and Harris’s presence on the ticket has given him new momentum. Leaders in the community nevertheless warn that the Biden-Harris effort may be overdue. National polls show that Trump has the support of roughly a third of Latinos and is trailing behind Biden by about twenty points—a far narrower gap than the thirty-eight-point lead that Clinton had over him. One cohort of voters, in particular, could boost Biden’s candidacy: young Latinos. Approximately forty per cent of eligible Latino voters are between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five—nearly four million of them have become eligible to vote since 2016. Trump is highly unpopular with the group, yet polls also show that young Latinos, in particular men, are deeply cynical about politicians.

To win in Florida and other battleground states, Biden and Harris must focus both on inspiring young and old generations and countering a plethora of false information meant to convince them to sit out in November. “They have failed to articulate a message that can convince our people that they matter and that their votes can be decisive,” José La Luz, a Puerto Rican labor activist who served as a surrogate for Sanders in the primaries, told me. Harris will, no doubt, be central to that effort. Born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, the former attorney general of California can relate to the experiences of immigrant families through her own. She has a track record—on housing, health care, and even criminal-justice reform—that could resonate with Latinos. In California, Latino voters have already shown a remarkable degree of confidence in her leadership. During the 2016 Senate primary, she defeated a Latina candidate, and, as attorney general, earned a majority of support from Latinos in two consecutive elections. So when Biden announced his Vice-Presidential pick, Dolores Huerta, the civil-rights icon, described Biden’s decision as “historic and wonderful,” and the former Democratic Presidential candidate Julián Castro praised Harris as a “groundbreaking leader.” Within days, the Biden campaign released its first bilingual ad featuring Harris as a champion of Latino voters. The video opens with a famous Spanish proverb, “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres”—“Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

During the Nuestros Negocios, Nuestro Futuro virtual event, many business owners appeared drawn to Harris. Pilar Guzman, the owner of a Miami empanadas business that had closed a third of its locations owing to the pandemic, asked Harris for advice. “You’ve been the first woman to secure many of the positions in your career,” Guzman said. “What do you say to a woman like me?” Harris responded that her mother often told her, “You may be the first to do many things. Make sure you’re not the last.” That piece of advice, Harris added, drove her to “lift up the people from our communities and let them know that they belong.” Cecilia Tavera-Webman, one of the attendees, said that seeing Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the first South American to serve in Congress, moderate the event along with Harris created a unique sense of accomplishment. “It’s the American dream,” Tavera-Webman, who was born in Peru, said. For her, the event was as much a preview of what a future without Trump would bring as an ode to the country’s diversity. Asked about her takeaways, Tavera-Webman offered an unequivocal response: “That there is hope.”

One would think that the notion of hope could serve the former Vice-President well with voters these days. But Biden and Harris’s message to Latinos comes at a time when the pandemic has fundamentally upended political outreach. María Elena López, a member of the group Cubanos con Biden and a vice-chair of the Democratic Party in Miami-Dade, said there was a “disconnect” between the expectations of voters and the campaign’s limited bandwidth. López, who was born in Havana and was a registered Republican until Barack Obama’s reëlection, explained that people were eager to engage with Biden in person. “One of the complaints that I hear, and I understand where it’s coming from, is ‘Oh, we never see the Vice-President in person,’ ” López said. She feared people would lose interest in the election now that most, if not all, campaign activities are held virtually. She also questioned Biden’s alacrity. “Biden is a gentleman,” López observed. “On the one hand, that is a hundred per cent a great quality. But, on the other hand, he does not have something that, let’s say, excites people.” Next to Donald Trump, López argued, the Vice-President’s manner could be perceived as dull. “I’ve heard comments such as, ‘Well, you know, he’s just, like, boring.’ And I’m, like, ‘Boring is good!’ ”

Recent polls have only brought the limits of campaigning remotely to the fore. In early August, a nationwide survey by the polling firm Latino Decisions found that most Latinos had not heard from a single campaign this year about voting in November. An earlier poll by the same firm in six battleground states found that fewer than sixty per cent of respondents were definitely planning to vote in the general election. Latino Decisions is now advising the Biden campaign, and the firm’s co-founder, Matt Barreto, told me that as a result of the pandemic Latino voters were only now focussing on the race. “The high intensity of coronavirus in our community made it more difficult to have the election be a top-of-mind issue for us,” he said. Latinos have suffered disproportionately—they are twice as likely to die from the coronavirus as whites. “At the beginning it was just a matter of survival, frankly,” Barreto said. “Now, the longer it goes on, many people are connecting this ongoing pandemic to our failed political leadership.”

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