Joe Biden is struggling to reach Latinos. The coronavirus crisis isn’t helping

by Janet Hook, LA Times

Joe Biden is trying to build bridges to Latino voters, but the coronavirus crisis is getting in the way.

Early in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden lost the Latino vote to rival Sen. Bernie Sanders in many states, and had just begun to reverse that trend when the coronavirus crisis froze the campaign in place.

A new poll suggests that, in the shadow of the public health emergency, Latino support for Biden is softening and their interest in the election is waning.

The survey released Friday by Latino Decisions, a Democratic firm, found that 59% of Latino registered voters supported Biden or were leaning toward him, while 22% favored Trump — a lead for Biden that is narrower than the 67%-22% margin he scored in a mid-February survey by the same firm.

Latinos voters, who could be crucial in such battleground states as Arizona, Nevada and Florida, will be the largest minority voting bloc in 2020 for the first time.

Biden’s relations with the Latino community have been strained, in part, because of criticism and anger at the aggressive deportation policies of the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.

While most Latino voters are opposed to Trump and infuriated by his anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, the new poll provides a warning that it may not translate into the high turnout Democrats need to win in the fall: Just 60% of Latinos said they were certain to vote in November, compared with 73% in the February survey.

Matt Barreto, a co-founder of Latino Decisions who oversaw the poll, said the results reflected how hard it has been for Biden to get his message to Latino voters when they are preoccupied with a public health emergency and Trump has been dominating the news.

“The media cycle is not their fault, but there is a deficit of information from Biden and the Democrats,” said Barreto. “Because of TV news coverage, Latino voters are only hearing from Trump. They are also hearing negative things about him, but it’s all about Trump.”

Biden faces the same challenge reaching other voters.

The latest national poll by Morning Consult found just 13% of registered voters had read, seen or heard a lot about Biden in the previous week, compared with 60% for Trump and 40% for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has garnered widespread praise for his coronavirus briefings.

“Everything in the last month has been focused on coronavirus,” said Henry Muñoz, a Biden supporter and former finance chair of the Democratic National Committee.

“As the vice president — I hope, I think — begins to speak to us directly, his numbers will go back up,” said Muñoz, who is founder of Somos Community Care, a New York-area network of health professionals that commissioned the Latino poll.

It found that most of the 59% who favored Biden said they will vote for him, while 10% were undecided but leaning toward him.

Biden’s eclipse likely will pass once the contagion eases and more traditional campaigning resumes.

But his inability to get his message out could hurt him most among Latinos, who tend to be younger, less familiar with Biden and more likely to have supported Sanders than other voting blocs.

“The consequences of a moratorium on campaigning is more pronounced in the Latino community, where you need more regular and repeated contact because there are so many first-time voters who are new to politics,” said Barreto.

Biden officials voice confidence that, regardless of polling swings, Trump’s handling of the crisis will hurt him among Latinos.

“President Trump is failing to give Americans the leadership they demand to solve the dual public health and economic crises that we are facing — which are hitting communities of color especially hard — and this poll shows that Latinos are paying attention,” said Cristóbal Alex, a senior Biden advisor.

Even though Trump has overseen a far more draconian immigration policy, Biden’s relationship with Latinos has been strained because of the Obama administration’s record of deporting nearly 3 million people who were in the U.S. illegally. Obama was tagged “deporter-in-chief” by his critics.

Biden was confronted with protesters at rallies last year and two Democratic debates were interrupted over the issue. He angrily responded to one protester, “You should vote for Trump.”

Biden eventually repudiated the Obama policy as a “big mistake” a week before Nevada’s caucuses on Feb. 22 and promised to impose a moratorium on deportations in the first 100 days of his administration if he is elected.

“Vice President Biden has a lot of work to do to regain the trust of the Latino community and to increase enthusiasm among the electorate,” said Cristina Jiménez, executive director of United We Dream Action, an immigrant-rights group that endorsed Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Jiménez and other activists said that Biden should embrace the model for organizing Latino voters that brought Sanders success in many Democratic primaries — a major investment in Latino campaign staff, Spanish-language communications and grassroots outreach.

Sanders won Latinos by big margins in California, Nevada and other early primaries. As Biden gathered momentum, he narrowed Sanders margin of victory among Latinos in Texas and tied him in Arizona.

Then Biden won decisively in Florida, which has a more heterogeneous Latino population, including Cuban Americans, many of whom were alienated by Sanders’ comments praising Fidel Castro.

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he understood why, despite pleas from Latino allies, Biden did not invest more in outreach earlier in the campaign when he was on shaky financial footing.

Now that more resources are available, Cardenas said, “We are anticipating they are going to make the right moves. If they don’t make those moves, there is going to be tremendous disappointment.”

One potential source of help: Chuck Rocha, who oversaw the Sanders Latino outreach strategy, has established a new Super PAC to mobilize Latino voters to vote for Biden and other Democrats, especially in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Rocha aims to raise and spend $22 million on television, cable and digital ads to push anti-Trump messages into the Latino community.

The coronavirus crisis makes it harder to replicate a key feature of the Sanders approach: A hands-on presence in Latino communities, via door-to-door canvassing and in-person campaign events.

Making do in virtual space, the Biden campaign is holding ‘’Todos con Biden” conference calls with Latino supporters every two weeks. They are trying to book more appearances for Biden on media outlets that reach black and brown audiences, and to keep the campaign message on their economic and health concerns.

“What this virus has laid bare is the fact that your generation and those younger than you have taken a gigantic hit over the last 15 years,” he said on “Desus & Mero,” a late-night show on Showtime that draws young minority viewers.

A central part of Biden’s message has been that Trump has grossly mishandled the coronavirus crisis and has not been telling the truth. But the new Latino poll suggests that message is not getting through clearly to Latinos.

Nearly half — 47% — of Latinos said they believed Trump was putting out clear and helpful information on the coronavirus and 45% approved of his handing of the crisis.

The poll, which was conducted April 7-12 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points among 837 registered voters, gave one big clue to how Biden could win over more Latino voters: Nearly three-quarters said they would be more likely to turn out and vote if Biden selected a Latina running mate.

“There goes your enthusiasm gap,” said Muñoz. “If he chose to make history, he’d be making a tremendous statement about the future of the U.S. to a lot of young people.”

Janet Hook covers national politics for the Los Angeles Times. @hookjan

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