Latino voters: ‘Do we have your attention now?’
Imagine a nation where candidates and parties approached winning over Latino voters the same way they did white voters. Picture the nuanced and tailored messages to different factions within the community. Now think about how campaigns historically have engaged Latinos and ask yourself if you recall this kind of attention being given to winning over the nation’s second-largest population group.
If your answer was yes, I would not believe you. However, something seems to be changing.
During the last election cycle and the years leading up to it, the campaigns for president shifted their approach to Latino voter engagement. By election night and the following week, even the most casual observer of politics would have noticed the lightbulb moments happening with political pundits on both sides of the aisle.
The 2020 election saw strategically targeted Latino engagement, much of which included Latinos who had not voted in previous elections. Subsequently, there was an uptick in Latino voter turnout. And while no one group of voters decided the election, Latino voters were indeed consequential to the outcome.
Latinos proved how massively important their votes are and how when people in the community are treated with the dignity of assumed individuality, they respond by voting. Go figure.
This is not a particularly novel idea. Organizations such as NALEO Educational Fund have been saying this for years — only to be met with a cyclical subjection of Latino voters to boilerplate politicking.
In 2020, from the primaries to the general election, some on both sides took an interest in adding more diversity to campaign staff. And when campaigns adopt more inclusive hiring for leadership positions, they can increase their success — something we saw from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) campaign in Nevada during the primaries.
We also know that both sides went into 2020 carrying their respective shares of baggage with Latino voters. From former President Trump’s border wall policies and rhetoric around Mexican immigrants to then-candidate Joe Biden’s association with the Obama administration’s complicated deportation record, both campaigns had significant work to do.
While neither campaign nor party entered the general election with a clean slate on all the issues important to Latino voters, both sides launched a surge of strategic engagement. In many ways, these efforts reckoned with the reality that securing 270 electoral votes meant both diversifying staff and changing how campaigns engage with Latinos.
For all that has been written about Trump understanding these dynamics and improving with Latino voters, we also know that some of the engagement we saw in 2020 was rooted in cynical politics. Latinos, like any other group, can be influenced by fake news and appeals to problematic nostalgia. Like everybody else, we have our own hopes and dreams, fears and desires, the latter of which may be the foundation of populist appeals to any community, for better or worse.
While it is clear that our nation’s politics need to improve, if we put the negative realities of 2020 aside, it is also clear that in many parts of the country, Latino voters still experienced meaningful engagement.
Campaign visits to South Florida can help seal the deal in tight contests. Engaging Latinos in states such as Georgia can help catalyze electoral upsets. Post-election engagement, such as having both a sitting president and vice president address the nation’s largest gathering of Latino policymakers, is significant.
By the eve of the election, more than 8.2 million Latino voters had cast their ballots and were on pace to surpass initial projections of Latino turnout, shattering 2016 levels. Yes, COVID-19 created extremely distinct circumstances around voting, with 55 percent of Latinos saying the pandemic was the most important issue to them, but nearly two-thirds of Latinos said they had been directly contacted by a political party, campaign or other organization.
On top of this, 70 percent of Latinos said they were more enthusiastic about voting in 2020 than they were in 2016. What led to these numbers?
We know that the Trump campaign began courting Latino voters in Florida years before 2020. On a more localized level, the Trump campaign’s Latino engagement around jobs and the economy was followed by a fascinating Latino tilt toward him in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.
We also know that after years of Latino groups engaging voters in Arizona, the Biden campaign invested a heavy $125 million in Latino voter outreach in the Grand Canyon State alone. Additionally, Michigan, which was considered critical for Biden to win, delivered for him — with the number of Latino voters more than doubling in the state.
The takeaway from all of this is simple: Engagement of Latino voters must be sustained, and there is no single way to do it.
Latinos are incredibly diverse. Latinos are white, Black, Brown, younger, older, liberal and conservative. Latinos work in various sectors, such as the oil and gas industry, academia, the food service industry, and others. Latinos are Democrats, Republicans, independents. Latinos care about health and economic issues, as well as racism and immigration reform. The point is, there is no world in which a single Latino voter captures the essence of the entire community.
There is a lot of work to do. While we saw incredible Latino voter turnout in 2020, only slightly more than half of eligible Latino voters cast their ballots. And as we head into the 2022 midterm elections, the candidates and parties have their work cut out for them — but so do elections officials and public institutions. More needs to be done to provide Latinos with basic information about the mechanics of voting. Additionally, philanthropy needs to play a critical role in supporting non-partisan voter engagement efforts year-round and between election cycles.
Going forward, sustained engagement that expands the Latino electorate within and beyond battleground states should be a priority. The campaigns and parties that decide to start this work early are the ones that will see support from Latinos at the ballot box. Like everyone else, our votes must be earned, and engagement with our community must be constant, not seasonal.
Ultimately, this is not a gilded revelation of political advice for any particular side — it is common sense. It is not rocket science. All it requires is that campaigns see us and that they make an effort. The current political landscape is here to stay, and so are we. Our votes matter.
Arturo Vargas is executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. Follow him on Twitter @ArturoNALEO.