Where Joe Biden Is Underperforming Hillary Clinton

The Democratic nominee has a Latino-voter problem.

Joe Biden
Chris Lee / VII / Redux

Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by a solid margin—about 7 percentage points nationally, as of this writing. He’s built his advantage by improving on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 success with suburban voters, seniors, and college-educated white Americans.

But when it comes to Latinos, Biden may have a problem. Although he’s dramatically outpacing Trump among Latinos overall, he’s falling behind Clinton’s pace, including in the key state of Florida. An analysis by Harry Enten at CNN found that Biden’s average lead among Latinos is 9 points lower than Clinton’s around this time four years ago. If Biden can’t close the deal with this crucial constituency, it could spell trouble for him across the country.

That Trump’s standing among the Latino community could have improved at all over the past few years might strike many people as utterly shocking. Since he descended that escalator in 2015, Trump has disparaged immigrants as “rapists,” made up horror stories about northbound caravans set on invading the country, locked up immigrant children in despicable conditions, lashed out at Puerto Rico after a hurricane demolished the island, and empowered ICE to do a variety of ghastly things, including separating families and reportedly assaulting detainees in camera blindspots. What’s more, his administration bungled the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed Latinos at a disproportionate rate.

Still, a variety of polls show Trump narrowing the Democrats’ historic advantage among Latino voters and possibly pulling even with Biden in Florida. What’s going on?

If you ask a pollster, a demographic researcher, or a Latino advocate to explain Biden’s Latino-voter problem—and I’ve asked several—they’ll start with the caveats.

Many polls that supposedly show Biden’s weakness have small sample sizes for specific ethnic groups that leave huge margins of error. Latinos have historically been late deciders in elections, which might deflate Biden’s apparent support. Some surveys, such as the Quinnipiac University Poll, are conducted in English only and fail to measure the Spanish-speakers who tend to be left-leaning. And the pandemic has delayed some face-to-face Democratic voter outreach, which means that many Latino voters are hearing from the Biden campaign later than they normally would.

Everybody I spoke with agreed that Biden has work to do to bring late-deciding Latinos to the ballot box (or to the mailbox). “I would say that any lack of enthusiasm for Biden is due both to early investment from the Trump campaign to raise its standing among Latinos and to a lack of investment in Latinos from the Biden campaign,” Sindy Benavides, the chief executive officer of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told me.

Biden’s issues go back to the Democratic primary, where Bernie Sanders dominated the Latino vote in western states. In California, Sanders won 71 percent of Latinos under the age of 30, according to exit polls. Benavides said Biden should take a page from Bernie Sanders’s successful efforts to mobilize young Latinos early in the Democratic primary. “Bernie was successful among young Latinos because the structure and strategy of the campaign included the Latino community,” she said. “For a lot of Latinos who are focused on surviving this pandemic, who can’t see beyond the next week, or beyond the next day, Biden needs to speak to their urgent concerns.” (A representative from the Biden campaign emphasized that, although the pandemic has made it harder to hold large events with Latino voters, the campaign is planning more direct Latino outreach in the closing weeks to shore up support in Florida and across the country.)

“There is a lot of disinformation that is directly targeting the Latino community, including misleading messages about voting by mail and threats that ICE will be lurking at various polling stations,” Benavides said. Biden’s most important challenge in the final weeks is to replace that disinformation with his own story—and a plan for November. Stephanie Valencia, the co-founder of Equis Research, told Politico that Biden remains an unknown among many Latinos, whose support for Biden increases when they learn more about his platform.

But Biden can’t resolve his problems simply with get-out-the-vote efforts and PSA campaigns. The most sophisticated Latino pollsters have identified several trouble spots.

In Florida, the historically conservative Cuban American cohort has lurched toward Trump in the past few years. After roughly splitting their votes between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012, Florida’s Cuban Americans are breaking for Trump by about 20 points, according to a recent poll by Equis. (Biden leads non-Cuban Latinos in the state by about 30 points, according to the same poll.) “Trump is clearly doing even better among Cuban Americans than some previous Republicans,” Mark Lopez, the director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center, told me. “Biden’s weakness in Florida has something to do with the president’s anti-socialist rhetoric” that equates left-wing Democrats with the Castro regime, which Cuban Americans moved north to escape.

Even more concerning for Democrats is that young Latino men born in the United States seem to be inching toward Trump, intrigued perhaps by the president’s business persona. No single group has posted a larger statistical bump for Trump than Latino men under the age of 50, according to Equis.

Unlike the Cuban American phenomenon, which is confined almost entirely to Florida, this appears to be a national phenomenon. In Arizona, for example, only half of Latino men under 50 say they will vote for Biden, far fewer than the nearly 70 percent of young Latina women. Among older Latinos in Arizona, there is practically no difference between male and female preferences, with Biden’s edge among women at just 3 percent.

The gender gap among young Latino voters is “one of the most significant new developments in the Latino vote today,” Lopez said. It reflects a broader gender gap in the U.S. electorate. As late as the 1970s, there was scarcely any difference between male and female voters. But in the past four decades, women have edged toward the Democratic Party, while men moved into the GOP. In 2016, Clinton won the popular vote by several million ballots with just 41 percent of male support. As net immigration from Mexico and Central America continues to decline, third- and fourth-generation Latino men (i.e., whose grandparents or great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S.) seem to be less likely to consider themselves “Latino” or “Hispanic” and more likely to vote like white men, the GOP’s demographic sweet spot.

There is no such thing as a singular Latino electorate. There are only Latino electorates, which vary by state, gender, generation, economic status, and their family’s nation of origin. The challenge for Biden and future Democrats is to find a message that cuts across identities. The right approach in this election is to focus on the intersection of health and economics—and, in particular, on work. Today, Latinos are more likely than the average American to work in low-wage service jobs that expose them to health risks in a pandemic. But this sort of deprivation is not unique to any ethnic group; it is endemic to the service economy and the working class, and its solutions will require working-class policies, such as universal health care and stronger labor protections. To counter Trump’s advantage among Cuban Americans and men, and to maximize turnout among Latino voters predisposed to vote Democratic, Biden needs to do more than unfurl his multi-page résumé. He needs to get specific with Latino voters on pocketbook issues and explain how their lives would improve with him in the White House. That is, he needs to explain how they, too, would win with a Biden victory.