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Why Democrats Can't Take Latino Voters For Granted

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's sample the Democratic Party's debate over the Latino vote. Democrats, as usual, won big in that voter group as they captured the presidency and the Senate in 2020. Yet Ruy Teixeira sees a reason for Democrats to worry about the future.

RUY TEIXEIRA: There's no political coalition and no political majority that's secure.

INSKEEP: Latinos are a huge part of the Democratic coalition, and their 2020 turnout was way up. Yet that giant group broke a little less toward Democrats than expected - just a few percentage points, but...

TEIXEIRA: But that's absolutely millions and millions of votes.

INSKEEP: Which is why Teixeira is concerned.

TEIXEIRA: Hillary Clinton did not nearly as well in 2016 as they thought she would, given the incredibly high profile of the immigration issue and Donald Trump's, you know, sort of evident racism and, you know, sort of direct hostility against immigrants. They thought they'd carry the Hispanic population by 50 points. It didn't happen. So that should've been concerning back then. And I think these results from 2020 really underscore the extent to which the Hispanic constituency is in play between the Republican and Democratic Party.

INSKEEP: Latinos gave Democrats a decisive edge in some places but less support elsewhere. So we called Democrats familiar with one of the places where the party was disappointed, South Florida. Jose Parra is a Democratic consultant in Miami and says Democrats were slow to campaign.

JOSE PARRA: Hillary Clinton, you know, won by 30 points in Miami-Dade County, whereas Joe Biden only won by seven points in Miami-Dade County.

INSKEEP: How did the Trump campaign approach Miami-Dade and the rest of South Florida?

PARRA: Well, they were basically here for the past four years, Donald Trump and Pence had a personal presence here in South Florida. They made sure to exploit any policy decision that they made that remotely affected South Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Venezuela was the wealthiest nation by far in South America.

INSKEEP: When President Trump criticized Venezuela or Cuba, it resonated among people who fled those socialist regimes and now live in areas known as Little Havana or Little Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: ...The tyrannical socialist government...

INSKEEP: When Trump then labeled Joe Biden a socialist, it resonated, even though he's not.

PARRA: That was especially successful for Republicans here because you have a basic community that has a historical trauma that they have to deal with.

INSKEEP: Trump campaign ads tried to label the Black Lives Matter movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: What do you hear there, Mr. Parra?

PARRA: They equate the Democratic Party with the BLM protests, and they had already tagged BLM as being a socialist Marxist movement. And the Trump campaign also exploited their - some anti-Black bias that does run through the community.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED RADIO SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

PARRA: There was a radio host here who was saying openly on air that Black Lives Matter was associated with witchcraft. And that sort of messaging penetrated into the community.

INSKEEP: People who missed that baseless conspiracy theory on the radio got messages on their phones. Many immigrant communities share political news on the encrypted social media platform WhatsApp. It's a habit some brought from repressive home countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: Democrats finally responded with ads like this in October, which flipped the immigrant community's experience against Trump.

PARRA: Basically, you have a Venezuelan American voter describing the reasons why she left Venezuela, why she left the authoritarian regime behind and that she is faced now with the prospect of an authoritarian prolonging his stay in office.

INSKEEP: But it was too late for Democrats, who lost Florida and two South Florida congressional seats. Analyst Ruy Teixeira contends that Republican efforts worked in some places because some Latino voters are liberal on economic issues but skeptical of social justice movements.

TEIXEIRA: Almost half of Hispanic voters had an unfavorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement. And then, perhaps just as important, if not more so - you look at the more radical demands that became associated with the Black Lives Matter movement over time and that the Democratic Party never completely succeeded in dissociating themselves with. They're very opposed to defunding the police. They're very opposed to the idea you should have less police officers in communities.

INSKEEP: So how could Democrats protect their dominance among Latino voters? Tom Perez was chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2012 election.

TOM PEREZ: One of the most important things you need to know when you organize Latino voters is, what is their country of origin?

INSKEEP: Perez says Democrats track that voter information and also track relevant news, like the hurricane that struck the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 2017.

PEREZ: We did very well with Puerto Rican voters in Florida. They remember paper towels and Donald Trump's abject failure in the aftermath of that hurricane. And because we had that data, we could target Puerto Rican voters.

INSKEEP: Were there other groups in South Florida you had trouble getting to?

PEREZ: The Cuban American vote, the Venezuelan American vote, the Colombian American vote - the levels of disinformation - and we were monitoring this - that we saw during that campaign were very, very significant.

INSKEEP: Perez says Democrats did much better in other states, which is a big reason that Joe Biden is president.

PEREZ: Well, in Arizona, the socialism pablum fell flat.

INSKEEP: Because many Arizona voters with ties to Mexico shared a different experience in Arizona - a 10-year battle over Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He was famous for harsh detention of immigrants until he was convicted of criminal contempt and then pardoned by Donald Trump.

PEREZ: And out of those moments where Latino residents were being demonized grew a movement. And what grew out of it was an organizing ecosystem.

INSKEEP: Faith groups and nonprofits on the ground countered Republican messages. And Arizona voted for a Democrat for president for the first time in a quarter century.

PEREZ: What we have to do is make sure that the work that was done in places like Arizona to build those relationships year round is replicated elsewhere.

INSKEEP: It was a 10-year project in Arizona. Is that about how long it takes to build political relations with a community that are really valuable?

PEREZ: It took a long time.

INSKEEP: Perez says if Democrats invest, they can recover in Florida when places like Texas and cement their party's majority. But if Republicans gain even some ground, elections could look very different. In recent times, the Republican presidential candidate who did best among Latino voters was George W. Bush in 2004. He's also the only Republican in recent times to win the national popular vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "MOON ROCKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.