‘This Is a Moment’: U.S. Latino Vote Matters Like Never Before

President Donald Trump and Joe Biden are spending more time and attention on Latino voters in the 2020 campaign and with good reason: For the first time, Latinos outnumber African Americans among eligible voters, and a large turnout could make them the most influential voting bloc in the country.

But it’s not just their numbers. They are participating in early- and absentee voting at rates 2.5 times their participation in the 2016 election and states with heavy Hispanic populations -- Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Florida -- are all key battlegrounds.

That’s why Trump and Biden have spent more time in those states than they might have in another campaign year, and have spent $16 million on Spanish-language television ads.

‘This Is a Moment’: U.S. Latino Vote Matters Like Never Before

Latinos now comprise about 13.5% of the national electorate, while African Americans account for about 12.5%, according to the Pew Research Center.

Nationally, about two-thirds of Latino voters have broken for Democrats in recent presidential elections, and it doesn’t look much better for Trump in 2020 among Latino voters outside of Florida.

The Latino Decisions poll, which specializes in polling Hispanic voters and conducts its interviews in English and Spanish, shows Biden leading 68% to 25% among Hispanic likely voters nationally. The poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

Exit polls in 2016 showed Hillary Clinton with about 66% support among Hispanic voters.

State polls show that among all voters, Biden leads Trump by 2.4 points in Arizona, which ranks fourth in number of Hispanic registered voters, and 5.2 points in Nevada, which ranks sixth.

Trump leads in Texas, which ranks third in the number of registered Hispanic voters, most of whom are Mexican-American. In Florida, the two candidates are essentially tied and Trump’s repeated false claims that Biden is a socialist may be having an impact among some Cuban and Venezuelan immigrants, many of whom fled socialist regimes.

“This is a moment. There is something different in this election,” said Adrian Pantoja, a pollster with Latino Decisions.

‘This Is a Moment’: U.S. Latino Vote Matters Like Never Before

Delfina Olivarez, 58, is a Mexican-American business broker and independent voter who lives in Phoenix. A Biden supporter, she said her vote this year is influenced by her upbringing and Catholic faith.

Olivarez said she was shocked and disheartened by the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families, the push to build a border wall impacting tribal land, and other issues over the last four years.

“In my culture, we are brought up to have respect, or at least I was brought up that way,” Olivarez said.

Trump Latino Support Up a Little

Trump’s 25% support among Latinos is an improvement from 2016, when pre-election polls put his Latino support below 20%. Trump’s re-election campaign has focused far less on immigration and related issues than in 2016. That first campaign was marked by his reference to Mexican border-crossers as “criminals and rapists” and his questioning a Mexican-American judge’s ability to rule on a case fairly after Trump made those statements.

His 2020 campaign has focused instead on law-and-order after a summer of racial unrest and on painting Biden as a socialist who will raise taxes.

Yet the greater support among Latinos he now enjoys is less than winning Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, who each got more than 30% Hispanic support.

‘This Is a Moment’: U.S. Latino Vote Matters Like Never Before

Latino voter participation has trailed those of other ethnic groups for decades -- it’s one reason Texas has remained so reliably Republican despite 28% of its voters being Latino -- but there are some encouraging signs in 2020.

Latino voters this year have more than quadrupled their participation in early and absentee balloting this year compared to 2016, a 224% increase. That compares to to a 165% increase in early and absentee ballots for voters overall, according to the political data firm TargetSmart.

Florida has seen 475,000 new Hispanic voter registrations since 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, and Democratic registrations now outnumber Republicans in the state by 308,000.

Both sides are courting Latino voters more than four years ago, according to the Latino Decisions poll. By this time in 2016, 44% of Latino voters had been contacted by a political party or campaign asking them to register or vote. This year, it’s 56%.

‘This Is a Moment’: U.S. Latino Vote Matters Like Never Before

Pollsters Miss Latino First-Time Voters

Still, traditional pollsters often miss these voters because most surveys are conducted only in English. And about one quarter of the Latino electorate is first-time voters, meaning it’s difficult to predict whether they’ll show up.

But they’re also up for grabs. “It’s a population that doesn’t really have a lot of experience with the political process given its youthfulness, so these are people who are persuadable,” Pantoja said.

Take Andrea Roman, a 25-year-old art student whose family moved to South Florida from Venezuela about 17 years ago. She’s voting for president for the second time.

“I’m voting reluctantly,” she said. “I don’t think Biden’s competent, but he’s a better option than Trump, so I’m going with the lesser of two evils.”

Neither candidate has done a good job speaking to younger voters, she said. “These candidates are speaking to their own generation. They’re speaking to people who are their age, which makes sense since young people don’t vote as much, but I’m disillusioned with the two-party system and the political establishment.”

‘This Is a Moment’: U.S. Latino Vote Matters Like Never Before

The Biden campaign has outspent Trump two-to-one on Spanish-language ads, and has targeted smaller Hispanic communities in places like Charlotte, North Carolina and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Biden campaign has employed native Spanish speakers to craft their own ads steeped in cultural references and even the regional accents that resonate with diverse Hispanic audiences. Different ads are targeted to Cuban Americans in South Florida, Puerto Ricans in central Florida, and Mexican Americans in Nevada and Arizona, where Olivarez said she has noticed Biden’s Spanish ads.

He has three Spanish-language ads in circulation. Two of them describe Hispanic diversity -- “We may not all look or sound the same,” the narrator says before highlighting the importance of community. Another one, whose narrator speaks with a Caribbean accent, offers the same message but in relation to rebuilding Puerto Rico after a hurricane.

Miami has seen twice as many Trump ads as any other market. A new ad this week features a campaign jingle from the salsa band Los 3 de La Habana singing, “I’m going to vote for Donald Trump” with video of Trump dancing at rallies.

“Trump got a month and a half head start on Spanish TV,” said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who worked on Bernie Sanders’ campaign and now runs Nuestro PAC, which is supporting Biden with ads targeted to Latino voters. “Biden definitely has the better message, but Trump is not stupid.”

Trump was the first candidate to air Spanish-language ads in battleground states, defining Biden as feeble, as supporting socialist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, and as opposed to police and charter schools.

Cuban-Americans have been a loyal Republican voting bloc for decades. Noel Garcia, a 49-year-old home remodeling contractor in Miami, began looking up to Trump in the 1990s when he developed large swaths of swampland in West Palm Beach, near the president’s Mar-a-Largo resort.

“Trump is the best option we have. He’s a businessman, a man who can see what prosperity looks like, a man who helps the people if they need help,” he said in Spanish as he cast an early ballot for Trump Monday. “Politicians, at the end, all have dirty laundry. There’s no need to bring it to light.”

Voters like Garcia are one reason why Trump is holding his ground among Latinos — the gender gap is higher among Hispanic men and women than among White and Black voters.

“The Trump campaign understands that its fiscal and economic message is compelling to Hispanics. To be more specific, Latino breadwinners with a focus on men,” said Danny Diaz, a Republican strategist who worked on George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. “They look at the president and they see someone who’s excelled in the business sphere and someone to aspire to from a success standpoint.”

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