What Democrats, and Everyone Else, Are Getting Wrong About Latino Voters

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Worried about his support among America’s Latino voters, a bloc potentially 32 million strong, Joe Biden’s campaign has sunk money into ads in Spanish-language media.

“God bless them,” María Teresa Kumar said of the Biden campaign. But, she says, they’re getting it wrong. “There’s very much this misunderstanding that the majority of Latinos are Spanish-dominant when it’s actually the inverse.”

Kumar, 48, is the CEO of Voto Latino, the voter registration group she co-founded with actress Rosario Dawson in 2004. This year, the group says it has registered 500,000 Latino voters and broken fundraising records by raising $32 million, the largest war chest of any single Latino organization in the 2020 election cycle.

In surveys, polls and other research, Voto Latino has crafted a snapshot of America’s big, diverse Latino community that might contain some surprises for politicians trying to reach these voters. A growing number of Latino voters speak English and get their information in English. It’s a young population—the median age of a U.S.-born Latino is 19. And though the knock on Gen Z is that young voters are less engaged, in the Latino community, it’s often those young-adult family members who can matter most as the “purveyors of information” for the rest of the family, Kumar says.

It might be easy to assume Latinos are single-issue voters focused on immigration, but Kumar’s group has found something else. “Everything is about health care in the Latino community,” she said. Latinos are often part of the “sandwich generation” at a much younger age than the average American, responsible for caring for older parents and younger kids. And with Covid hitting Latino Americans hard, health care is especially important in 2020. (That idea seems to have gotten through to one campaign: Biden’s Latino-voter page mentions health care before any other issue; Trump’s doesn’t mention it.)

With Latino voters in everyone’s sights, what motivates this wide-ranging group to turn out? Can it even be treated as a single chunk? In two conversations this fall with political reporter Tara Palmeri, Kumar laid out her group’s theory of the case. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tara Palmeri: Latinos are often called the “sleeping giant” of politics because they’re the fastest growing voting bloc, but low propensity voters. Even your own August poll showed that less than 60 percent of Latino voters even plan to vote, and 12 percent are still undecided. Why?

María Teresa Kumar: I think that the challenge is that some of them are tuned out. They’re not even tuned in to be undecided. As of two weeks ago, Latino Decisions came out with a poll that found that 50 percent of registered Latino voters had not been contacted by a campaign or political party. Why are we pressing the gas at Voto Latino at identifying and registering low propensity voters? It’s because no one is talking to low propensity voters.

Palmeri: Is there something specific that’s stopping them from getting to the polls?

Kumar: The biggest, honestly, is that no one talks to them.

Palmeri: Even when they watch television, they feel like the candidates don’t speak to them either?

Kumar: They don’t watch television. I’ll break it down. You have roughly 32 million who are eligible to vote. You have 60 million Latinos living in this country. Sixty percent of Latinos are under the age of 33. Right, so if you are 18 years old, you’re not really watching television. If you’re 32 years old you’re not watching television.

Palmeri: So what is the state of the race when it comes to Latinos?

Kumar: I think that in Florida it’s going to be neck and neck, but I think Biden is leading with the Latino community. In Texas, Houston has been flooding, and there are droughts all over. These are things that are very aligned with the progressive agenda. And I can share with you that Beto O’Rourke is about to release some numbers: He and four other organizations have collectively registered 145,000 folks. Voto Latino by itself has registered over 201,000 folks in Texas. [In 2018,] O’Rourke lost by less than 210,000 votes. And collectively, we will have registered more than 340,000 new voters. Together, we have exceeded his margin of loss. The Texas state House itself is very close to flipping this year. And if it flips—with the implications for redistricting—Texas would no longer be an artificially red state.

Palmeri: In 2016, exit polls showed that Trump won 28 percent of the Latino vote, and recent polls show him winning 30 percent in 2020. How is that Trump is doing better with Latinos this cycle?

Kumar: I don’t know if he is. I think a lot of the polling that’s been coming has not been necessarily statistically significant. And a lot of the polling has been concentrated in Florida but not across the other states. You don’t see headlines that say Trump is doing well in Arizona. It’s very much focused on Florida. I would say he has made inroads in Florida, or maintained it in Florida, because he never stopped communicating with Latinos in Florida. He was communicating with them in 2017, 2018, 2019. And the Democrats need to figure out how to use social communication, such as WhatsApp, Facebook messenger and Facebook, to push the progressive message, because people don’t know it.

Palmeri: What about Pennsylvania?

Kumar: Biden is winning the Latino vote. For Trump, Florida has been the petri dish of experimentation of messages that move Latinos and he’s starting to export it to other pockets of the Latino community. Will it work? We don’t know. I think Trump was going into Arizona, and now he’s pulled out of Arizona, but he was doing the same type of messaging in Arizona as he was doing in Florida, and it just didn’t stick. We’re seeing the messaging in Texas, and that’s sticking a little bit better among older Latino men specifically.

Palmeri: What is that messaging?

Kumar: The messaging is democratic socialism. He’s targeting small businesses. What I remind people is that Trump is promising to remove a payroll tax, and in doing so he’s gutting Social Security and Medicare. And for most immigrant communities, including small business, Medicare is your health care when you retire and Social Security is your retirement plan. People seem to understand that but you have to get really granular with them.

Palmeri: How are the Trump ads on the economy and criminal justice reform playing to Latinos?

Kumar: Not well. When we polled our audience back in June after the whole horrific death of George Floyd, the top three issues for Latinos were health care, jobs and racial inequities, specifically connecting it to policing. Latinos are in a very interesting intersection, where 68 percent of them really support the police but 63 percent of them simultaneously are very afraid of the police. It sounds incongruous, but it’s in fact what is happening. His “law and order” is a big dog whistle: “If you’re brown in this country, you will be more vulnerable.” When you look at people under 29, it’s tied to health care.

Palmeri: Is Biden talking enough about health care?

Kumar: I think that’s his strength and he’s been talking about it. The challenge for any candidate is in this scenario, Biden has been responsible and has been holding small rallies, so you don’t see pictures of the candidate. His message needs to penetrate across the board so that’s really hard. So he’s really depending on surrogates and a lot of online Zoom calls, like we’re doing. That’s not the masses.

Most young people are not going to Zoom for a candidate. Especially if you’re not used to this whole process. This is very insider. What we’ve been trying to do is invite the vice president to speak to our audience and we’re hoping that he can before the election. We’re reaching 15 million people who won’t tune into a Zoom but will tune into an IG [Instagram].

Palmeri: What’s coming up in focus groups when Latinos talk about Biden and Trump?

Kumar: With Biden, they’re getting to know him. When we added the question of Kamala and Biden, people really like her, they identify with her, not just as a woman, a woman of color but because of her immigrant roots and her ability to surpass so many things. And believe it or not, her close relationship with her mother. That is really something that really resonates in the Latino community and it’s something that they find relatable.

Palmeri: What about her police record?

Kumar: There’s a swath of them that are skeptical. What we communicate at Voto Latino is that our job is to get people registered and make sure that they’re participating. And then we get someone in office who is listening, someone we can negotiate with. Right now, we cannot negotiate with this president. Trump has no interest in reform.

Palmeri: What’s coming up about Trump?

Kumar: It’s more that they don’t trust him, more than anything. In these surveys, it’s the very first time that racial inequity has hit the top 10, let alone No. 3, and I’ve been doing this for 15 years. This is the first time that this is top of mind. Quite frankly, because under Trump, the level of anxiety even among children as young as 3 in the Latino community is through the roof.

I did a talk last year in Dallas to 3,700 mental health professionals about the public school systems in Texas. And there were two things that they flagged for me. One is that the No. 1 health issue that parents have for their young children is mental health in the Latino community. They also said that since Trump started running for our office, anxiety and depression identified in preschoolers and 3-year-olds is through the roof.

Palmeri: Has the Democratic Party worked enough on communicating with Latino men?

Kumar: I think the Democratic Party has to come up with a strategy in which they are communicating with the Latino bloc as a whole. They can’t just be focused on Spanish language media because that’s just a swath of who we are. My cousins who are all in their 30s barely speak Spanish and absolutely don’t consume their information in Spanish. It’s an older audience. Sixty percent of Latinos are under the age of 33 and 40 percent of voters are under the age of 29. Telemundo serves my grandmother and my mother.

Palmeri: Can you explain this gender gap on Trump between Latino men and Latino women?

Kumar: Latino men, and we see it more among older men, are more conservative and more business-oriented. That’s why the socialism message is hitting. They’re even more conservative when it comes to choice [abortion], and many of them are veterans, so it’s kind of like the perfect trifecta.

Back in 2014, I was on the board of Planned Parenthood and we did a poll among Latinas and it was cross-generational, and even then, 68 percent of them people believed choice was a conversation to have between your priest and your God. No one was to judge. There was support for choice without judgment.

The No. 1 reason young Latinas went out and voted against Mitt Romney was that there was some sort of choice on the ballot in their local states. It makes sense when the average white American is 47 years old and the average Latina is 27 years old. If you’re a young woman, and someone is telling you what to do with your body, you do not want someone to regulate that. That fired them up to vote against Romney, more than what was happening with Obama. It was all at the local level. It was all with the states that were having some sort of restrictions on the local and state level.

Palmeri: Why do Latinas vote at lower levels than Black women and white women?

Kumar: When people actually do these conversions, it’s all done with the totalities of eligibility. For example, when someone says only 49 percent of Latinas voted, they are looking at the totality of the eligible 32 million. The challenge in the Latino community is that only half us are actually registered. Latinas outvote men all of the time. In the last two election cycles, when you look at both genders, of the 16 million of the registered voters, 79 percent go out and vote. But when you look at the total eligibility, they’ll say only 49 percent went out and voted. It’s the wrong question. That’s why we do the work that we do. We aim to close the voter registration gap because when you have 15 million people eligible to vote but are unregistered, that actually doesn’t give you the total of what’s possible. And most of them young. Of the 15 million unregistered, 10 million are under the age of 33, and 4 million of that 10 million just turned 18 in the past four years.

Palmeri: Why aren’t they registering?

Kumar: No one talks to them. Most of them are first generation. In the United States, only eight out of 50 states require civic education to graduate from high school. When you have close to 25 percent of the classrooms on the low end across the country that are Latino, where are they learning it?

There’s a trend that we’re seeing that there’s so much backlash in being Latino in this country that people are not identifying. Either they’re not identifying as Latino or they’re just not filling out the box. It’s because of the stigma that comes with that. The problem with that is that by not identifying you’re not getting the resources in the community that are needed. This started back in 2014, we started looking at the numbers and we said, “Oh we’re not registering as many Latinos as we thought.” And then we went back and we started doing surname matches and through the surname matches, we were identifying 20 percent that had decided not to.

Palmeri: Do you think turnout in the Latino community will be low this year?

Kumar: Not if I can help it! In the places where were in the 2018 election, we identified six congressional districts that we thought we could flip because young Latinos aged into it. We were very modest, what can we do with six? We helped flip five of them. We know that it was us because these candidates won with 5 percent or less of voters. The one we lost was Texas-23 and she lost by less than 1 percent. And that’s when we registered 200,000 and targeted half a million. We are now targeting 3.7 million.

Palmeri: How do you build political power in the Latino community when it’s so diverse?

Kumar: We talk about our commonalities on the grand scheme of it, and then we’ll go local. In Arizona, we’ll talk about water issues, we’ll talk about immigration and we’ll talk about health care. In Florida, we’ll talk about small business and we’ll talk about health care. In Texas, we’ll talk about health care. Everything is about health care in the Latino community. Even though we reach young Latinas disproportionately, we know that Latinas care so much about health care. They know that if their parents get sick at 54, they have to make life decisions. Normally, the 54-year-old white woman is the sandwich generation. They have to take care of their kids and they have to take care of their parents. In the young Latina community, they have to take care of their parents regardless. If their parents are sick, they’re on the hook to make sure they’re OK.

Palmeri: You were talking about the importance of younger voters. How do you reach them?

Kumar: We have historically always spoken in code at Voto Latino. The evolution of how we use celebrities has changed. When we first started, there was a reggaeton artist, Tego Calderón, and his PSA was “Register to Vote, because I can’t.”

Palmeri: Because I can’t?

Kumar: Yeah, because I can’t. Every Latino kid would get why he can’t. Either he was undocumented or he was a resident and couldn’t vote but they understood that our messaging was saying I can’t so that means you have the responsibility for all of the people in your family who can’t register to vote. You’re the purveyor of information. We center our work around young females, young Latinas because we worked very closely with a Colorado shop, the Latino Institute, and they did very minimal research but found out that young Latino men and women are the highest purveyors of information and decision-making for their whole family. And not just for themselves but for their parents, for their grandparents and very much for their siblings.

Palmeri: Given everything we’ve been talking about, is there even such a thing as the “Latino vote”?

Kumar: Yes, and I say this because it is those margins of the Latino vote that changed Colorado into a solidly swing state. Virginia is a swing state. Arizona is a swing state. Nevada is a swing state. In some cases, they are more blue than they are red and it’s all because of the aging-in of the Latino population. Texas is going to turn blue ideally in this election and it’s because of the aging-in of the Latinos.

Florida is a completely different beast. In Florida, you have two sets of waves of Latinos that fled. The first wave are the more wealthy Latinos more on the conservative end. They were the business leaders, business owners. And then you have the second wave that were more solidly working class. For the people who fled on the conservative end, they will continue fighting for the system. That second wave, if you were anti-government there, then you’ll be anti-government here. Even the most liberal in Florida, they may not vote. I’m thinking of the Colombians, the Venezualans, the Argentines and the Chileans. But if you go into the Mexican American communities, Salvadoran communities, Puerto Rican communities, many of them are first generation and they will fight for governance. In the Mexican American community, it’s even more nuanced. Some of them have been here generations. In some cases, they are being politicized for the first time.

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