Latino voters helped deliver the presidency to Joe Biden in 2020 by securing key victories in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But Latino voters also moved an average of 9 percentage points from Democrats to Republicans in the 2020 elections compared with 2016.
In places like Miami-Dade County in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, that swing spiked to over 20 points. What’s more, seven of the 14 House seats that switched from Democratic to Republican control were in majority-minority districts, many of which had large Latino populations.
As we now look ahead to the midterms, it’s likely that many close races will run through states and districts with large Latino populations. Democrats would do well to address their Latino vote problem if they want to keep control of the Senate and House.
To understand why Democrats lost congressional races that they should have handily won, my organization Solidarity Strategies took a deeper look at key areas of concern from the general election. We focused on Miami-Dade County and five Texas border counties where Latinos make up a majority of the population.
In Florida, Mr. Biden’s campaign, congressional candidates and Democratic super PACs set a state record for campaign spending. In the final 30 days before the general election, combined they spent over $14 million on Spanish-language radio and TV in Miami, according to Federal Election Commission reports. But by then, well over half of Latino voters in Miami had cast their ballots.
By contrast, the Trump campaign maintained a consistent line of communication with, and outreach to, the Latino community that went beyond TV advertising starting two years before the 2020 election. Its Spanish-language strategy included in-person canvassing, mail, digital advertising, newspaper ads and a network of influencers who spread disinformation and echoed Donald Trump’s talking points on digital media. The misinformation they peddled was not rebutted by the Democrats until it was too late in the election cycle to make a difference.
Many of the same patterns played out in Texas. In the last 60 days before the elections, Democratic candidates and super PACs spent nearly $2 million on advertising in the two Spanish-language media markets in the Rio Grande Valley. While Republicans spent a mere $33,000 in those markets during the same period, they went on to outperform Democrats in these densely Latino counties. This was no stroke of luck, but rather the result of a massive voter mobilization effort a decade in the making.
Since the 2000s, organizations like the Libre Initiative, a Latino conservative advocacy group within the Koch political network, have been working tirelessly to promote conservatism in Hispanic communities. Through them, the G.O.P. has built support while providing resources to the Latino community. For example, the Libre Initiative offers English courses, economic empowerment sessions and pathways to citizenship to immigrants throughout the South and Southwest. It also helps them study for driver’s license exams, citizenship tests and the G.E.D.
Come election year, Republicans coordinated an aggressive social media campaign, accompanied by canvassing programs, and hosted car parades with well over 500 cars in Texas. They didn’t need to empty their wallets in the final weeks before the elections because they had maintained a constant drumbeat of communication in the area for months.
Grass-roots organizations like Lucha did the same for Democrats in states like Arizona. It is among the network of organizations that have put in the work to turn the rising number of Latinos in the state into a force for change. For over a decade, they have campaigned, marched, protested and knocked on doors to organize voters on issues like immigration. They also helped deliver the Latino vote to Mr. Biden in the general election.
This brings us to the next problem: Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley are working middle class and rely heavily on jobs in oil and gas plants, border security and other government agencies. The narrative that Democratic candidates spun about immigration reform and eliminating fossil fuels fell flat with these voters.
There was no lack of money raised and spent on congressional races nationally. In fact, Democratic candidates, party committees and super PACs out raised and out spent Republicans in almost every race Democrats lost to Republicans in 2020. Yet it is evident that their outreach in these communities was not thoughtful. A cluster of Spanish-language TV ads late in the game will not turn out voters.
Super PACs raised and spent over $1 billion on independent expenditures by October 15, 2020. According to Federal Election Commission reports, over 99 percent of that money went through firms that are majority-white owned, and less than 2 percent of it went to Latino-led super PACs. There were few if any people in the room who could point out flaws in the messaging or imagery used in the ads these firms produced.
We need to prioritize Latino voters as we do white swing voters, and use every tool at our disposal to initiate and nurture a thoughtful conversation. Democrats then have got to get their message in front of Latinos before they cast ballots, not after. They must work to build trust now, so they can ask for their votes later.
The political consulting and campaigning industry has historically been run by white establishment consultants who don’t come from our community. That needs to change. Hiring diverse staff members and consultants to run campaigns, make budgetary decisions, develop regional messaging and flag messaging errors and inconsistencies would be a critical step forward. The Democratic Party and its super PACs should be restructured to include more Latinos in leadership and decision-making positions.
If you don’t invest in Latino voters early, don’t be surprised when they don’t show up for you.
Chuck Rocha (@ChuckRocha) is the founder of Solidarity Strategies and the president of Nuestro PAC.
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