Elizabeth Warren needs to connect with Latino voters. Does she have a plan for that?

by Melanie Mason and Matt Pearce

Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a rally at Waterfront Park in San Diego.

The signs at Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s San Diego rally had a familiar look — bold capital letters on a trademark “liberty green” background — but with a twist. “Soñar en grande,” they blared, “Luchar con todo” — a Spanish translation of her campaign slogan “Dream Big, Fight Hard.”

It was a subtle nod to the border town’s seamless bilingualism. But it also reflected a necessity for Warren’s surging campaign. Her steady climb in presidential primary polls has placed her firmly at the front of the Democratic pack. But among Latino voters, her ascent has been more sluggish than soaring.

Warren has consistently lagged in polls behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with Latino voters, even as she has pulled even or at times surpassed her better-known rivals among voters overall.

Now the Massachusetts senator is playing catch-up, not only in increasing her familiarity among Latinos, but also in building a campaign apparatus to court them. Winning over this constituency will be vital for her success in the early-voting state of Nevada, as well as delegate troves such as California and Texas, which will vote on March 3.

“She began her campaign with a deficit among Latino voters, and she is truly an unknown to the Latino electorate,” said Arturo Vargas, chief executive of NALEO Educational Fund, a nonprofit that promotes civic engagement among the community.

Warren needs a “robust effort” to “really introduce her to the Latino electorate, first as a candidate who understands Latinos,” Vargas said. “That’s the first step that the campaign needs to do, even before getting into policy proposals.… I’d love to see her plan for really engaging the Latino electorate.”

To nurture that relationship, Warren’s campaign is following the strategy it used to successfully court other key voter blocs. Once seen solely as the preferred candidate of college-educated white voters, she has improved her standing among black voters. She has paired campaign appearances in minority-rich locales and meetings with influential community leaders to build word-of-mouth buzz.

A Warren visit to Los Angeles recently is emblematic of that dual-pronged approach: a public appearance at a union-sponsored summit downtown coupled with a private meeting with members of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, a local advocacy group known as CHIRLA.

Recent polls show the work still to be done. Two California surveys — one by the Public Policy Institute of California and another conducted for the Los Angeles Times by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies — show Warren leading or effectively tied for first with Biden among voters overall, but trailing Biden and Sanders by double digits among Latino voters. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll in Nevada showed the same dynamic.

“She goes from being a top-tier candidate to a second-tier candidate among Latinos,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC’s president

In one sense, that’s an improvement.

“If you think she doesn’t look good now, you should’ve looked six months ago,” said Matt Barreto, a pollster whose firm specializes in the Latino electorate.

National polling conducted by Barreto’s firm, Latino Decisions, found in mid-September that 15% of Latino Democratic primary voters intended to vote for Warren, up from 7% in June.

Latino voters are notoriously difficult for politicians to woo, in part because they take their time to tune in as campaigns unfold. The PPIC poll found that 32% of Latinos said they were “very closely” following news about the 2020 campaign, compared with 40% of white voters and 42% of voters from other minority groups.

That dynamic tends to favor candidates who have well-established reputations, such as Biden, whose vice presidential tenure built on decades in the public eye as a U.S. senator, and Sanders, who rocketed to national prominence with his 2016 presidential bid.

Latino backers of Warren say her policy-heavy platform — making “I’ve got a plan for that” a de facto campaign slogan — aligns well with the desires of their community.

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who chairs the state Latino Legislative Caucus, said Warren’s economic message resonates with the aspirations of Latinos who want better opportunity for their children.

“My kids deserve to live in Elizabeth Warren’s America,” said Gonzalez, who endorsed the senator before the San Diego rally Thursday night.

The campaign points to Warren’s proposals to boost universal child care, assist entrepreneurs of color and stabilize Puerto Rico as particularly appealing to Latino voters.

Rebecca Saldaña, who arrived at the senator’s oceanfront rally in San Diego hours before it began, said she has been a Warren supporter “since Day One,” in part because of Warren’s plan to reform Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus more on contraband and trafficking instead of deportation raids. The 57-year-old middle school teacher from Oceanside kept a screenshot of the plan’s details on her phone for reference.

Saldaña said she knew a lot of other Latinos who had initially sided with Biden. But she was optimistic that Warren was making gains.

“The tide is changing little by little,” she said. “It’s a current shift in real time.”

An emphasis on immigration is a necessity for politicking in places like California and Nevada, advocates said.

“People and place matter,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of CHIRLA. “Here in Southern California, you cannot not talk about immigration when 47% of the population is either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. It feels like somehow you’re negating the very people who are in the place that you are.”

Salas pointedly noted that Warren did not attend her group’s immigration forum in May, even though it was planned to coincide with the California Democratic Party’s state convention, ensuring candidates would be in the state. Sanders, California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (who has since dropped out of the race) all attended.

“This is about how much you prioritize us,” Salas said of candidates appearing at the event.

Salas said her group has been pushing for a meeting with Warren since the spring, a request that finally came to fruition with their private meeting on Friday.

“We had been asking her for a long time,” she said.

Activists in the Latino community say there are signs that Warren is stepping up her efforts, though she still falls behind some of her competitors. Most contenders had a national Latino outreach director from the outset of their campaigns, but Warren only filled that position within the last month, tapping Jonathan Jayes-Green, a respected organizer of Panamanian descent, for the job.

“I wish she had hired a Latino outreach person sooner, but I’m glad that she did,” said Natalia Salgado, national political director for Center for Popular Democracy Action, a progressive advocacy group.

In Nevada, Warren’s team has set up shop in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of East Las Vegas, staffed by a majority of organizers who speak Spanish. Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, a longtime advocacy group in Nevada, credited the campaign with establishing a presence “in basically the barrio, the heart of the Latino community.”

Romero saw it as a good sign for Warren campaign’s outreach that it had opened an office there. But he saw it as a bad sign that he — and probably many other Latino voters in Las Vegas — didn’t know the office existed.

In a meeting with a Warren campaign surrogate last week, Romero offered a warning: “It’s a well-kept secret, and you better start reaching out.”

But others in Warren’s camp said they’re confident Latinos will come on board once they begin to seriously engage in the presidential race.

“We’re notoriously late to the party,” Gonzalez said. “But we’ll get there.”

Melanie Mason is a reporter for the LA Times covering the 2020 presidential campaign.

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