Absent Appeals to the Left, Biden Faces Challenge to Win Over Latinx Voters

Though she couldn’t vote in past elections, Lucia Allain has spent over a decade in direct-action politics, advocating for immigrants and Latinxs. In November, Allain, who was born in Peru, will vote for the first time since becoming a United States citizen. The communications manager for the influential immigrant-rights organization The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), Allain is as passionate about politics as anyone in this country; she’s serious about removing President Donald Trump from office. But in anticipation of marking former Vice President Joe Biden’s name on her first-ever ballot, she’s had trouble suppressing a thought:

“Am I really going to waste my vote on this guy?” Allain says.

Biden’s lack of enthusiasm among Latinx voters has been noted ever since he won the Democratic nomination over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). During the primary, Latinx voters supported Sanders over Biden by sometimes enormous margins: In Nevada, Sanders won a shocking three times as many Latinx votes as Biden — 53 percent compared to Biden’s 17 percent. It was the same story in California, where 49 percent of Latinxs voted for Sanders compared to the 16 percent who voted for Biden, and in Texas, where Sanders’s 39 percent beat out Biden’s 26 percent. There was hope that Biden’s vice-presidential pick might help Biden recoup some of the Latinx vote. However, the boost Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) has given the former vice president among people of color might not be enough to re-invigorate Latinx’s enthusiasm — for instance, Allain said that even though “she’s the first woman of color on a presidential ticket, and that’s amazing,” she “can’t really feel that excited” due to Harris’s history as a prosecutor and her historic support of both police and prisons.

It’s noticeable that with just two months until the general election, some Latinxs who have otherwise been passionate about politics are nonetheless lukewarm on Biden. In February, the leading polling firm surverying Latinx voters, Latino Decisions, found that 73 percent of Latinxs said they were “certain” to vote in November. However, once Biden won the nomination, that number decreased significantly — all the way down to 60 percent in April. (Luckily for Biden, there are some indications that that number is rebounding.)

Victoria Ramos is one of the voters who has felt a personal loss of enthusiasm. During the 2018 midterms, Rios says she volunteered over 150 hours, writing postcards, text-banking, and helping people find rides to polling places. “But I’m so far pretty blah about this election,” she said over email. “I’ve been wrestling with how much time I want to spend volunteering this year.”

Since spring, polling has found that Biden is doing worse among Latinxs than either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in their respective elections. Given Trump’s frequently hostile stance toward Latinx immigrants, some analysts have been confused about Biden’s lack of support. However, when it comes to the 2020 election, some Latinxs say they feel stuck between two unacceptable options.

“As a Latina, this election makes me feel like I have no choice,” says Andrea Flores, a fellow at the immigration advocacy organization America’s Voice. “There is no way I’d ever vote for racist xenophobic, sexist Donald Trump, but how do I also justify voting for Joe Biden, when he also has a track record of dismissing people of color and making women feel uncomfortable and unsafe?”

Nevertheless, numerous mainstream Latinx groups and politial leaders have mobilized in support of Biden, including United Farmworkers, UnidosUS and Voto Latino, as well as former San Antonio Mayor Julían Castro, and the iconic labor activist Dolores Huerta.

August polling data from Latino Decisions suggests that the Biden-Harris ticket currently has the support of 66 percent of Latinxs polled, compared to Trump’s 24 percent. If that number holds steady until Election Day, Biden will perform about as well as Clinton did among Latinxs in 2016, but worse than Obama did in 2012.

Real differences exist between Trump and Biden both in the realm of rhetoric and in the realm of policy. For example, Biden has declared he will undo many of Trump’s attacks on the refugee system, including Trump’s successive asylum bans and the controversial “Remain in Mexico” plan (officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols).

Despite her skepticism of Biden’s personal record, Flores expressed positivity about some of Biden’s stances such as his moves to re-establish asylum and to make immigration easier for family members.

“[Like Trump], Biden also doesn’t understand the Latino community,” says Flores. “But after seeing his stance on immigration, it is clear that he is advised by the right people.”

Besides Biden’s more liberal approach to immigration, other aspects of Biden’s platform also align more closely with priorities of the Latinx community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to August polling from Latino Decisions, most Latinxs dissapprove of Trump’s response. The same poll found that 77 percent of Latinxs support a national mask mandate and continued quarantine.

Given these differences, the lack of active enthusiasm for Biden within many Latinx communities is striking.

Latinxs will form the second-largest eligible voting block after white voters in 2020, and the lack of enthusiasm among Latinx Democratic voters could prove dangerous for Biden’s chances come November.

Biden’s ongoing lack of popularity among Latinxs has been multifaceted. First there’s the fact that Biden was part of the administration of former President Barack Obama, which deported more people, at a faster average rate, than any other president in history, including Trump. Furthermore, Biden, unlike Sanders, also failed to commit to the end of family and child detention along the border. (Though Biden’s official platform calls for reducing the time children and families are detained, it stops short of calling for an end to either form of detention.)

However, Biden’s inability to rouse the Latinx vote goes deeper than immigration. For decades, both major political parties have neglected the priorities most important to the Latinx electorate. While often cast as a monolith, or single-issue voters with regards to immigration, Latinxs actually care about many different aspects of social democracy. (The fact that Sanders — with a platform prioritizing universal health care, higher education and historic investment in green public infrastructure — did so well among Latinxs is testament to that fact.) Polling from the Pew Research Center earlier this year found that the vast majority of Latinxs “want government to be more involved in solving the nation’s problems,” including raising the minimum wage, improving health care and establishing increased gun control. According to the poll, over 70 percent of Latinxs believe that it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure everyone has health care, and, of those respondents, over half believe that there should be a national health insurance system.

Raised by an undocumented Mexican mother, Jorge Ramos says that he “obviously” considers immigration an important issue. “But we also care about other things,” he says. “We care about the economy. We care about climate change. We care about all these issues, but Democrats see us in such a narrow-minded way. They see us as a monolith, as people who are easily swayed and manipulated.”

Ramos, a graduate student in Latin American studies at California State University, says he’s been unimpressed by elementary-level Spanish on the Democratic debate stage and the co-opting of the Chicano Rights Movement’s “Sí se puede” slogan.

Allain also says she often sees politicians’ pandering to the Latinx vote as decidedly superficial: “It’s like they’re trying to get us to come to Disneyland,” she says, explaining how both Democrats and Republicans make grand promises to Latinxs every election cycle. “But then we show up and they say ‘It’s going to cost you $300.’ Oh and also you’re not allowed in.”

With November rapidly approaching, there’s a major question Democrats may have failed to ask: Will Latinxs show up to vote for Biden? Will Trump’s general unpopularity with the community (66 percent of Latino voters supported Clinton in 2016) be enough to scrape out a win for the former vice president?

Allain and Ramos both concede that, from their perspective in the immigration advocacy world, they appreciate that Biden has made promising steps to bring progressives into his campaign and potential administration.

However, Ramos says he believes that Democrats could wake up to the fact that they’ve alienated Latinx voters if they lose yet another presidential election in November. “I think they’re underestimating the power we have,” Ramos says.

After dedicating a huge amount of energy to Sander’s primary campaign — he worked to organize voters on campus, and also in Los Angeles El Sereno and Boyle Heights neighborhoods — Ramos says he has spent a lot of time deciding whether or not to vote in November. He says he’s terrified of four more years of a Trump administration, and he has continually entertained the idea of voting for Biden simply to “put out the flames of the Trump presidency.” But lately, Ramos says he has been leaning toward not voting, even amid his acute fears about Trump. “But just because me and my friends are choosing not to vote doesn’t mean we’re giving up,” Ramos says. “We’re organizing on the streets, we’re protesting on the streets.”

“The U.S. is a nation built on slavery and the murder of indigenous people — colonization at its finest,” Ramos says. “Elections will not liberate us.”

The disaffection expressed by voters like Ramos underscores the relevance of arguments made in recent months by many Latinx political figures — including former San Antonio Mayor Julían Castro — who have warned that Democrats have risked alienating left-leaning Latinxs from the electoral process all together.

Even Allain, who says she plans to vote for Biden come November, says she is doing so not because of any particular excitement about that candidate, but rather due to her rational examination of what sort of arena a Biden administration would create for ongoing advocacy.

“I’m voting for the ticket that’s going to let us move forward,” says Allain. “With the knowledge that we’re going to really need to keep pushing hard after the election for things to be able to get better.”