A slew of Democratic presidential contenders are scheduled to talk Friday to the nation’s largest association of Latino officials, but there’s one notable absence: Joe Biden.
Biden’s decision to skip the Miami forum has unleashed new criticism that the former vice president and front-runner is taking a pivotal constituency for granted in a primary where the Latino vote could swing the outcome in several key early contests.
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“This is one of the first real national platforms for candidates to speak to Latino voters and its leadership, and to be a no-show is a significant risk,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the group, known as NALEO.
Biden’s absence at NALEO isn’t an isolated incident, according to operatives and organizers focused on mobilizing Latinos on the ground in key states. His campaign has offered almost no direct outreach or verbal acknowledgment of the rapidly growing Latino electorate, they say, and has made little if any inroads with the Latino community in critical swing states like Nevada or Florida.
The former vice president has not used the terms “Latinos,” or “Hispanics,” in any of his remarks in 20 fundraisers and speeches since the campaign’s launch, according to pool reports and speech transcripts from the events. In the few instances where he made inexplicit references to the Latino community, his remarks were exclusively about immigration or border security.
The approach is indicative of a campaign that’s employing general election messaging to win the Democratic nomination — and refraining from overt appeals to the racial and ethnic groups that make up the diverse Democratic coalition and who could be difference makers in the general. Latinos are on pace to be the largest nonwhite eligible voting bloc — 32 million — in 2020.
Leo Murrieta, Nevada director of Make the Road Action, said it’s “disheartening” that eight months away from the Nevada caucuses — in which Latinos will make up nearly 1 in 5 voters — Biden’s campaign has not sat down with grassroots organizations or spent more time on the ground.
“The fact that he leaves us out of speeches is a really sorely missed opportunity,” Murrieta said. “And it’s unacceptable.”
“That’s the wrong formula,” Murrieta added. “But I’ll tell you what formula that is — that’s the Democratic establishment, political white elites’ playbook to how to win elections.”
Biden’s campaign defended its Latino outreach efforts by pointing to its Spanish-language website, bilingual ads and Biden’s talk of immigration reform in tweets and speeches — including at the recent Poor People’s Forum in Washington, D.C., earlier this week.
They also cited Biden’s stop in Nevada with the Dreamer Astrid Silva — a connection that has become a preliminary signal for candidates to say they are making inroads with the community. His campaign posted a video clip of the meeting on Twitter and on Wednesday he tweeted his opposition to President Trump’s announcement that he wanted mass deportations of undocumented immigrants.
One of the Biden campaign’s top Latino surrogates, Florida state Rep. Amy Mercado, said the candidate “has engaged the Latino community early like myself. He has made Latinos some of his earliest hires,” including Cristóbal Alex, former president of the influential Latino Victory Fund and Vanessa Cárdenas, former national outreach director of EMILY’s List.
The campaign, like most of its rivals, also has a Hispanic media press secretary, Isabel Aldunate.
Mercado said that she understands the concerns about Latino outreach considering low Hispanic turnout in Florida cost Hillary Clinton in 2016, as well as gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018.
“But I don’t think we should be running around with our hair on fire,” Mercado said.
The campaign plans to ramp up its operations in Florida and its Latino outreach in Nevada and other states as well, according to a source involved with the campaign’s Latino strategy. Biden is also expected to release a policy platform on immigration and roll out the endorsement of one of the Florida Democratic Party’s rising stars, state Sen. José Javier Rodriguez, on Thursday, when the campaign plans to hold an event with Latino officials tied to the NALEO conference in Miami.
Biden has four staffers on the ground in Nevada as of earlier this month and, his campaign notes, nine of its 14 senior officials are nonwhite.
Still, Latinos from Florida to Nevada to Arizona are questioning whether Biden’s campaign understands that talking about immigration isn’t enough. Not all Latinos are immigrants — and most care more about seeing themselves reflected in health care, education and economic policies, according to strategists.
"Biden’s not courting Latinos. He doesn’t see us," said Natalia Salgado, national political director for the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a progressive activist group. "We’re more complicated than just immigration, we’re not a one-trick pony. Our community is having issues around police brutality and access to health care."
Biden’s inability to talk about the Latino electorate in his speeches, Salgado said, "is a denial of the unique experience of being Latino in this country and the complexities and struggles that go with that identity."
Biden isn’t the only Democratic hopeful who is bypassing NALEO — California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker aren’t attending either. Instead, all three are heading to South Carolina, the first-in-the-South primary state, for House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry.”
Harris and Booker, however, are getting more of a pass by Latino officials and activists, who point out that the two senators are running “inclusive” campaigns and have consistently been outspoken about hardships incurred by minorities and immigration reform. And because both are African American, they are perceived as better-equipped to speak to the needs of nonwhite communities than Biden is.
“The nomination will be decided far more by people of color than white liberals,” said Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton. “I wasn’t in that scheduling meeting, but if you’re running in Democratic primary in 2020 and anything is focused on people of color, you’re going to want to make it a priority.”
For Biden, the criticism comes at an especially inopportune time — one day after he drew fire from Booker, Harris and other candidates for what they said were insensitively worded remarks concerning his long-ago working relationship with Dixiecrat segregationists when he served in the U.S. Senate.
And the frustration over Biden’s absence from NALEO is surfacing as President Donald Trump prepares to launch his own Latino outreach campaign Tuesday in Miami led, in part, by Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez.
Though Trump’s approval rating with Hispanic voters is abysmal, a survey of Florida Hispanics showed he’s getting about the same amount of support, 35 percent, that he received in 2016 when he carried the state.
The Trump campaign believes the president has room to grow with Hispanic voters in the state, by increasing the margins with Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans and reaching out to voters with family roots in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia who opposed leftist governments in those countries.
By contrast, when Biden came to Miami in May for two fundraising trips, he said nothing beyond his standard stump speech.
“When he was in Miami, he seemed out of touch with South Florida Latino communities, not mentioning Cuba or Venezuela,” said Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority, a progressive grassroots group that is registering black and brown voters earlier than ever.
“On the heels of former Vice President Biden making insensitive remarks about segregationists around Juneteenth, him not attending NALEO when almost all the other presidential hopefuls are making a point to stop by and show their support of the Latino community is disappointing and concerning, while not shocking,” she said.
Biden’s campaign notes he did tweet about Venezuela on April 30 when he condemned the Maduro regime and discussed the country’s dire situation when reporters asked about it at the time.
But tweets, web ads and a smattering of talk about immigration isn’t going to pass as effective outreach in the Latino community, according to community leaders. Vargas, the chief executive of NALEO, said it’s about talking about issues in depth that affect the community — and showing up early and often.
“The fact he’s not coming suggests he’s taking the Latino vote for granted or the Latino electorate for granted,” Vargas said. “We have more than 1,000 people in the room. But we represent millions and millions of Latinos across the nation.”