Joe Biden would have to do more than select a Latina running mate to win over Hispanics whose support could be crucial to winning the presidency, according to activists who are warning the presumptive Democratic nominee not to take their community for granted.
Biden is viewed with skepticism among some Latinos for his ties to deportation policies during the Obama administration. Hispanics also strongly sided with Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary.
That presents a challenging dynamic for Biden, who is trying to build a multiracial, multigenerational coalition to take on President Donald Trump. He’s promised to pick a female vice president, and many African Americans say he could lock in the black vote if he chooses a black running mate. But some Latino leaders say Biden will have to go further to win their backing.
“I’m more interested in knowing if Latinos are rooted in their campaign strategy,” said Stephanie Valencia, who runs EquisLabs, a polling and data operation analyzing Latino politics.
Biden has established a committee to lead the vetting of a potential running mate that includes Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose family has ancestral roots in Mexico. His short list of possible candidates is believed to feature two Latinas, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
Neither has the national profile of two black women thought to be among the finalists, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia. They’re also less well known nationally than Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who are white.
Mayra Macías, executive director of the political advocacy group Latino Victory, said Grisham and Cortez Masto, as well as other highly qualified Hispanics, have largely been overlooked in the speculation around Biden’s choice.
“For us, it was a glaring omission to not see Latinas included in the conversation from the onset,” said Macías, whose group endorsed the Democratic primary’s lone Hispanic candidate, former Obama administration housing chief Julián Castro, before eventually switching to Biden.
Macías said Hispanic candidates bring a cultural sensitivity and expertise that result in better mobilization of the community’s voters. And that means their perspective shouldn’t be ignored by Biden advisers, regardless of the running mate pick.
“It’s a matter of respect for our community,” Macías said.
Trump, who has recently escalated his hard-line immigration rhetoric, isn’t expected to win much Latino support in November. Still, Biden needs Hispanics to turn out for him, not stay home.
“If the calculus is which vice president helps us with which community, then you have to dig deeper and farther than an approach that may land as pandering,” said Lorella Praeli, the Latino outreach director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
In 2016, Clinton considered Castro as a running mate but ultimately opted for a more traditional choice in Sen. Tim Kaine, a white man from Virginia. Domingo Garcia, head of the civil rights activist group the League of United Latin American Citizens, said beyond the vice presidential pick, Biden “has to avoid the trap that Hillary Clinton fell into.”
“She just assumed everybody was against Trump and that would be enough,” Garcia said, adding that Clinton “did not address her policies to stir Latino turnout and did not invest enough.”
Hispanic activists say they have been speaking quietly to Biden’s campaign. But those efforts have been less public than the open lobbying of some of their African American counterparts, especially amid the vice presidential search.
Some cultural hurdles may be at work.
While no voting bloc is a monolith, Hispanic Americans’ wide array of backgrounds makes consensus more difficult. A Mexican American voter in Texas often has different political motivations than someone with Cuban roots in Florida or a person from Puerto Rico who now lives in Pennsylvania.
“All the issues that are important to all Americans are also important to Latinos,” said Veronica Escobar, a first-term congresswoman from El Paso, on the Texas-Mexico border. During a “Todos Con Biden” virtual outreach event, she ticked off health care, jobs and the environment, as well as immigration.
That’s true for African Americans, too. But House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s endorsement in South Carolina was widely credited with mobilizing Southern black voters, triggering Biden’s Democratic primary resurgence. Sanders used strong Latino support to win in places like Nevada and California — though Biden cutting into that lead with Latinos helped the former vice president in Florida and Arizona.
Still, no Hispanic leader helped secure Biden’s comeback as much as Clyburn.
Biden also doesn’t have the deep personal ties with the Hispanic community that he does with African Americans. His home state of Delaware is nearly a quarter black compared to about 10 percent Hispanic. His outrage at discrimination against African Americans in the city of Wilmington helped launch his public service career, and he frequently notes his tenure as the vice president to Barack Obama, the first black president.
More than 32 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote on Election Day — surpassing black voters as the nation’s largest nonwhite bloc. But while 90 percent of African Americans voted Democratic in 2018, only 66 percent of Hispanics supported the party, according to AP VoteCast, a wide-ranging survey of voters.
Latino voters could be critical in battleground states such as Florida and Arizona. Still, African Americans and whites tend to vote in greater numbers. And black voters may prove pivotal in a broader swath of states this year ranging from Georgia and North Carolina to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Matt Barreto, co-founder of the Democratic-aligned polling firm Latino Decisions, noted that Sanders, who like Biden is a white man in his late 70s, was able to excite Latino voters not because of his race but because of his progressive positions. Vice presidential picks with a more populist approach could win similar support among Latinos, Barreto said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you had someone like Abrams come out swinging on immigration, and Latinos might go ‘yeah, I like that,'” Barreto said.