The Neglect of Latino Voters

The stakes have never been higher for millions of Latinos devastated by the pandemic and the economic crisis. That doesn’t mean they’ll vote.

Latino students in Denver at a Voto Latino event in 2016
Latino students in Denver at a Voto Latino event in 2016 (Mark Felix / AFP via Getty)

The coronavirus pandemic has hit Latino communities hard, destroying their wealth and devastating their families. More than 25,000 Latinos have already died. More than 3 million are unemployed. Four in 10 Latino families with kids are going hungry, and 44 percent of Latino renters are unsure if they’ll be able to pay their bills.

But as campaigning for the general election ramps up, another casualty of the virus’s relentless attack is becoming clear: The pandemic may stunt Latino political power. On top of lackluster outreach from the presidential candidates, COVID-19 may depress voter interest in an election that seems disconnected from many communities’ dire situations, organizers told me, even as Latinos become the country’s largest minority voting bloc, with the potential to deliver a massive electoral bounty to whichever party mobilizes them.

A record 32 million Latinos living in the U.S.—roughly half their population—will be eligible to cast a ballot in November. Polling over the last seven months shows Latinos’ interest in the election fluctuating with the pandemic, and though a majority now say they plan to vote, historically more than half have sat out presidential elections. They don’t seem as enthusiastic about this presidential matchup as they were in 2012 or 2016. Over the next two decades, Latinos’ share of the electorate will swell considerably, with a million young voters turning 18 every single year. With these numbers, the bloc will have the potential to reshape the country’s political dynamics, in part by shifting power to a new cohort of younger voters. But without stronger and more consistent efforts to mobilize these Americans, Latinos will not soon become the political force they are poised to be. The result? The major political parties could once again dismiss Latino voters as a “sleeping giant” too unreliable to vote.

Latinos are “literally under attack,” Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders and the founder of the progressive Nuestro PAC, told me. And instead of hearing a motivating message to encourage them to vote, many Latinos aren’t hearing anything at all.

It’s difficult to describe the sense of despair that’s present in many Latino communities, but consider this statistic: In May, when the polling firm Latino Decisions surveyed communities after the peak of the first national COVID-19 surge, one in four Latinos said they knew of a family member or friend who was sick with the coronavirus. Now nearly half say that.

Much of this suffering can be traced to Latinos’ labor and living conditions. Latinos overwhelmingly work in jobs that are considered essential services or in roles where social distancing is nearly impossible. Many of these jobs pay low wages, and scores of Latino workers could not afford to stay home when the first surge of coronavirus infections hit the country. Even now Latinos make up nearly 31 percent of U.S. COVID-19 cases (for which race is known), though they only make up about 18 percent of the population. Latinos are three times as likely to be infected by the coronavirus as white Americans, and they’re twice as likely to die from the disease. Nearly a quarter of Latinos lack health insurance or access to reliable care, and Latinos have higher rates of diabetes and other preexisting conditions than white Americans—factors that compound the effect of COVID-19.

“Nothing has exposed our disparities and income inequality as much as COVID has, because the people who could shelter in place had a choice,” says María Teresa Kumar, the president of the political organization Voto Latino, which recently threw its support behind Joe Biden in its first-ever presidential endorsement. “I bet you that those mothers [going out to work], if they had a choice, they too would stay home to take care of their children and not get sick and not expose themselves and their families.”

The pandemic’s resulting economic crisis has only deepened the pain. The Hispanic unemployment rate at the height of the pandemic’s first surge hit a peak of 18.9 percent, the worst rate among demographic groups, before trickling down to 10.5 percent. And Latinos remain pessimistic about the future: A strong majority believe the worst of the pandemic’s economic stress is yet to come, a mood that matches economists’ predictions about the slow recovery ahead for the Latino workforce. Latinos overwhelmingly staff the service sector, which has been particularly hard hit by the recession: They make up about half of maids, housekeepers, and construction workers, and more than a third of cooks and restaurant employees, according to the Department of Labor.

“We are mostly working-class families. We’re the most vulnerable workers in the nation and we are the most exposed,” says Héctor Sánchez Barba, the president of the political advocacy group Mi Familia Vota. “Undocumented workers—80 percent of them are essential workers, and it’s a similar story for Latinos in general.” The pandemic and its financial effects are the defining issues in voters’ minds right now when organizers reach out, Sánchez told me, echoing other advocates and Latino leaders I spoke with. But for many Latinos, these struggles alone aren’t motivating them to vote, because the presidential election seems unrelated to their daily lives. They’re more worried about making it to the end of the month than about voting in November.

The disconnect many Latinos feel between elections and their own material conditions is partly the product of lax voter outreach and education from the major political parties, organizers told me, though they don’t assign Democrats and Republicans equal blame. Nuestro PAC’s Chuck Rocha argued that Democrats’ key problem is their outdated mode of thinking about Latino voters, viewing them as “low-propensity” voters not worthy of major early investments in outreach. The Trump-led GOP, meanwhile, has pursued an agenda so hostile to many communities, he said, that it risks alienating voters from the Republican Party and depressing voter interest. (Although Latino voter interest took a hit in public surveys spanning February to June, more recent polling from mid-August and early September shows a sharp uptick. But organizers and activists I interviewed say those findings don’t reflect everything they’re hearing from voters on the ground.)

“Is it a virus that’s killing us at three times the level as other people? Or is it unemployment? Is it family members that are in limbo because of immigration statuses right now?” Rocha said. “I’m worried about the turnout in November of people that are unemployed, who are trying to feed their family, and we’re trying to get them to go vote.”

Historically, both parties have tended to rev up their Latino outreach efforts only in the home stretch of the election season, with last-minute Spanish-language ads and door knocking in Latino neighborhoods to get out the vote. As of August, many Latino voters hadn’t heard from a political party at all this year. In June, majorities in Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Texas reported that they hadn’t yet been contacted by a candidate, campaign, or other political organization. In the early-September national poll of Latino voters, only 40 percent said they’d been contacted.

Months of polling show Biden and Trump pulling lower levels of Latino support compared with Hillary Clinton’s and Trump’s standing at similar points in 2016, and the candidates are also underperforming Latino turnout in the 2018 midterms. These numbers are especially worrisome for Biden, given that Latinos are typically a Democratic-leaning bloc and compose a substantial share of the population in key Sun Belt swing states. Although recent polling shows that Latinos feel that the GOP is “more hostile” to their interests than Democrats, that doesn’t mean Biden and his down-ballot allies will automatically win their vote: Throughout the campaign, Latinos have seemed less enthusiastic about the Democratic Party than they did in 2016.

“You’re asking people to vote in the middle of a crisis, when they don’t have a job, when they’re getting kicked out of their home, when their family members are getting deported,” Tania Unzueta, the political director of the progressive organizing network Mijente, told me. “The challenge [for Democrats] is to make people see the connection between that and President Trump and his agenda, and understanding that [voting] is part of how we change those material conditions.”

Outside groups—most of them nonpartisan or liberal, like Mijente—have tried to fill the voter-outreach void. Organizers described their registration and mobilization pushes to me as unprecedented, but they face unprecedented challenges, too. Most voter contact has to be done remotely, and get-out-the-vote efforts are complicated by the fact that Latinos are not as familiar with mail-in voting as white Americans, activists told me. The pandemic has stalled efforts to motivate what the researcher Stephanie Valencia calls ambivalent Latinos—voters who are paying attention to an election but feel that their vote won’t make a difference or believe that they’ll cast an uninformed vote. Such voters make up pluralities of Latinos in battleground states and require tailored messaging to convince them that their votes matter. Organizers and campaigns also risk leaving millions of Latinos out if they only focus on the swingiest swing states: Nearly half of Latino voters live in California, Texas, and New York.

During the Democratic primary, Latino groups praised the Sanders campaign’s outreach strategy as a model for other candidates. Early in the campaign, Sanders’s team placed staff and poured historic amounts of cash into California, Nevada, and Texas, in an attempt to show the campaign’s cultural competency and commitment to Latino communities. But Biden’s campaign has repeated some of the same mistakes as past presidential candidates, ramping up its outreach only in the past three months after Latino leaders scathingly criticized its primary strategy. The Biden campaign has hired new staff, rolled out its agenda for the Latino community, and announced new ad buys in key states that will “micro-target” Latinos based on ethnicity (and even music taste). The campaign has also tried to capitalize on Kamala Harris’s support among Latinos in California, debuting a Spanish-language ad highlighting Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate. Harris won majorities of Latinos during her state attorney-general runs, and won about half of them in her 2016 Senate bid against former Representative Loretta Sanchez.

Biden’s investment comes as the Trump campaign more aggressively courts conservative Latino support with digital and TV advertising that paints Biden as incompetent, radical, and antibusiness. Trump has also promoted this message during official White House functions, including using the Mexican president’s visit in July to campaign on his immigration record, and speaking at events where Hispanic business leaders praise his economic record, as when the CEO of Goya Foods said the country was “truly blessed” by Trump. The Republican National Convention tried to promote a conservative Hispanic identity, featuring a Cuban American immigrant talking about the threat of communism, and testimonials from Latina business owners. In Florida, a crucial swing state where one in five voters are Latino, the message seems to be working, with Trump occasionally overperforming in polls thanks, in part, to support from the state’s more conservative Cuban American communities.

The Democratic convention also spotlighted Latinos, leaning into America’s growing racial diversity in its messaging. But community leaders criticized the number of Latinos given speaking roles during the four-day affair: Julian Castro, the only Latino to run in the Democratic presidential primary, was absent, as were Representatives Joaquin Castro of Texas (Julian’s brother) and Tony Cardenas of California, who lead the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and its political arm, respectively.

Cristóbal Alex, a Biden senior adviser, told me he recognizes some of the early concerns with the campaign’s outreach, but is confident that recent investments are beginning to pay off. “This is a full-court press now to Election Day competing for every single Latino voter, not just in places like Arizona and Florida, but also in Texas … and in places like Wisconsin, where we have a very fast-growing Latino population,” Alex said. “You’re going to hear a lot more from the vice president speaking directly to the community.”

Arturo Vargas hates calling any one election the most important election in a lifetime; he thinks that tired framing can encourage Latinos to think of voting as a one-and-done deal that only leaves them disappointed when politicians fail to fulfill their big promises.

But this time is different, and it matters that Latinos turn out in overwhelming numbers, says Vargas, the CEO of the NALEO Educational Fund, the activist arm of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Republican and Democratic politicians alike should want to see the country’s largest minority population represented in the political process, because of their sheer numbers and because of their key role in the American economy, culture, and wider society. The country is on track to be majority-minority by 2045, with Latinos making up a major chunk of that younger, browner America, and the racial and ethnic tensions visible today may only increase. Elections are one obvious way Latinos can solidify their standing in a changing country. Through voting, Latinos can hold Democrats accountable as the party that’s long claimed to speak for their community, and they can reward Republicans who embrace a more inclusive vision of immigrants and nonwhite Americans.

“This presidency has created significant change in the lives of the community, and I’m hoping that one of the things that Latinos are learning is that your vote does matter and elections do have consequences,” Vargas told me.

Voto Latino’s María Teresa Kumar said her organization has already registered more than 245,000 Latino voters across the country, while Héctor Sánchez told me that Mi Familia Vota is angling to directly reach 1 million Latinos through phone calls and text messages. Organizers are working on congressional races, too. In 2018, a record number of Latinos were elected to Congress, but representation still remains low. BOLD PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s political arm, has endorsed Democratic Latino candidates and invested in outreach.

“We are entering the most aggressive and most important months in electoral organizing—the candidate has to do that [outreach], the campaigns have to do that, and we do that ourselves,” says Lorella Praeli, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Latino-vote director and the president of the political organization Community Change Action.

The activists I spoke with are hopeful that their efforts will result in record turnout. They are sure that because of their work, enough Latinos will recognize the cost of sitting out an election when their community is suffering. But a massive Latino political force must show up in November if voters want to claim a stake in either party’s agenda. “It’s critical to expand the base to make sure that democracy is accessible to people, to make sure that our community turns out and defines the mandate for a future administration,” Praeli told me. “The question is who gets to claim America, and what does it mean to be a full citizen of this country. That, ultimately, is what is on the line.”