“Joe Biden is well-known, but not sharply defined,” said Valencia, a former aide to President Barack Obama. And with early voting already underway in some states, “the window is narrowing for Joe Biden to introduce himself.”
The risk, she says, is not so much that undecided Latino voters will end up supporting Trump. It’s that they won’t vote, period — potentially plunging Democrats into a version of their 2016 debacle, when lower-than-expected turnout among Black voters helped tilt swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin into the Trump column.
“That is one of the challenges I am most concerned about: that the Democrats and Biden haven’t done the work again to increase support among Latino voters,” said Valencia. “If the work has not been done to increase support among Latino voters in this last push, and white swing voters regress to the mean in any way … we are in a position where either the election is a lot closer than it should be — when there could have been greater margins — or we’ve lost the election on the margins.”
Valencia is encouraged by a new sense of urgency she has seen from the Biden campaign in recent weeks, including substantial investments in ads in Spanish-language media. “They’re not just translating their ads for the general electorate into Spanish — which is what you often see — or Google Translating ad copy and putting it up on the website,” said Valencia.
One point that concerns Valencia is where messaging intersects with a very real gender gap. Latina women support Biden over Trump by massive margins, but they vote at lower levels than white women or Black women. Combine that with the reality of campaigns — “you often end up focusing on the people we know are definitely going to vote [and] nonvoters get kind of stuck in a cycle of not being communicated with” — and Democrats are leaving potentially millions for Biden off the table.
As the presidential campaigns descend on swing states, Valencia spoke with POLITICO on Wednesday to sort through the complexities of the Latino vote — including the notion that there is such a thing. A transcript of that conversation is below, condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Zack Stanton: We have less than seven weeks until the election. What is the state of the presidential race when it comes to Latino voters?
Stephanie Valencia: All paths to 270 [Electoral College votes] lead through the Latino electorate. Whether that path includes Arizona and Florida, or the upper-Midwest states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, every single path requires reaching and engaging Latino voters. There’s a very clear path forward for what needs to get done in the last 48 days, where the opportunity and the challenges still lie.
Historically, what we’ve seen happen is that maybe we get a poll or two of Latinos if a presidential campaign hires a pollster in time — and it may or may not be very robust. Otherwise, we’re kind of left with what we saw a couple of weeks ago out of the NBC/Marist poll in Florida, which kicked off a bunch of the panic we’ve seen over the last few weeks. But in that poll, the sample size of Hispanic likely voters was only 138.
Joe Biden, it’s no secret, didn’t win the Latino vote in the primary. There were some unique issues that Bernie Sanders was able to tap into that really related to the everyday lives of Latinos in this country, including universal access to quality health care, free community college and getting advanced degrees without acquiring a lot of debt, and immigration. And what our latest polling shows is that Joe Biden has been able to recoup and to consolidate a lot of that support, but there are obviously places where he needs to continue to do more.
Stanton: You mentioned the recent polls that are freaking out Democrats. Comparing Trump in polls now to 2016, he seems to be doing better among Latino voters. Why is that?
Valencia: You have to look state by state to really understand what’s driving that. When you look at a place like Florida, where a lot of the alarm was raised over the last week, by our measure, Biden is doing fairly well among Latinos: 53-37 head-to-head against Trump. That’s been a relatively stable marker.
We tend to look at Latino voters in Florida in a very binary way: If we’re not talking about Cubans, then we’re talking about Puerto Ricans. But only a third of the Latino electorate in Florida is actually Cuban-American — it’s very important, but it is only a third. More than one-third is actually not Cuban or Puerto Rican. They’re Mexican. They’re Colombian. They’re Peruvian. They’re Ecuadorian. Combined with the Puerto Rican community, they’re much more similar to each other than not.
Among that [non-Cuban Latino] community, I think the numbers are closer to 60-31 in favor of Biden. When you take Cuban-Americans out of the equation, there’s a much different picture in place in Florida, and a lot of room to have a conversation with a set of voters that campaigns don’t really talk about or think about communicating with — that non-Cuban, non-Puerto Rican population.
What’s interesting about the Cuban-American vote is that really since the Obama era, you have seen a lot of investment [by Republicans] in communicating the “socialism” message [about Democrats]. That has helped bring a lot of Cuban-Americans who may have voted for Obama home to the Republican Party. But fundamentally, there are still many chunks of that Cuban-American population that are persuadable and still gettable for Democrats.
That said, I don’t think Democrats should have a hand-to-hand combat message war over “socialism.” Where Trump has an Achilles’ heel — where he is weakest, even in a place like Florida with Cuban-Americans — is on health care, his handling of Covid and the current state of the economy. That’s really the proactive messaging that Biden and Democrats should be communicating.
Stanton: There’s typically this idea from pundits that Latino voters will recoil at the mention of “socialism.” Perhaps that’s true of Cuban-Americans in Florida. But what we saw from Bernie Sanders was quite the opposite — he had strong support from Latino voters. Why was that, and what did pundits get wrong?
Valencia: There are a couple really interesting takeaways from our research. One is the gender divide. Over the course of the last year, we’ve seen some pretty historic gaps between Hispanic men and Hispanic women. What’s interesting — relating back to Bernie — is that a lot of his support was not driven by young Hispanic men; it was actually driven by young Hispanic women. In the broader electorate, there was this picture of “Bernie Bros.” In the Latino community, it was actually young Latinas — often, non-college-educated single women — who, quite frankly, are a huge opportunity for Joe Biden. It’s one of the universes that we saw in this last round of research that really needs that nudge to vote for Biden.
Another big piece is a disassociation with labels. Many Latinos supported Bernie because of his policies — though I think there was also something about his persona and about the movement and “not me, us” that contributed to the deep support that he had. When we polled about labels, Latino voters didn’t really associate themselves with “Democrat” or “Republican,” “progressive” or “conservative.” They described themselves as independents. And that should be a signal to both Democrats and Republicans about how to communicate to and court this vote: There seems to be a resistance to those labels, even though on the merits of the policy, they’re progressives.
A third big piece is just the notion of Latino identity. As the Latino population grows in size and its share of the electorate, how Latinos relate to their identity — being “Latino” — and how that relates to politics and building power as a group is going to be interesting. We don’t necessarily share the same language. We don’t necessarily have a shared immigrant experience. We don’t have a shared country of origin. We are all shades of the rainbow. And so there is an interesting question we will have to grapple with: On the one hand, we say we’re not a monolith; on the other hand, we try to categorize ourselves as a monolith as one way to build political power.
Stanton: You mentioned the gender divide. In your Arizona poll this month, you had Latina women going for Biden over Trump, 69-19. Among Latino men, it was 55-40 in favor of Biden. And in particular, Trump was performing really well among young Latino men.
Stanton: What’s behind that gender gap? And, in particular, what makes Trump appealing to young Latino men?
Valencia: Let me just speak to Latinas first, and then I’ll get to the young men. Latinas, because of their sheer size — especially younger Latinas — will play an outsized role in this election because they just represent a larger share of the electorate in a lot of the key battleground states. They are deeply, deeply anti-Trump. A lot of these women are non-college-educated women who may or may not be trying to access community colleges. Many are single. They are experiencing the world in a very different way right now than men are.
I wouldn’t overplay how deep Trump’s support is among young Hispanic men. I think there is a “Trump intrigue” driving some of it. That support is relatively soft. That “Trump intrigue” is driven by Trump’s perceived strength on the economy, especially pre-Covid. I think the numbers also reflect the perception of Trump as a strong businessman and self-made millionaire. And then third, I think there’s a cult of personality element. They see how he, you know, takes no prisoners, how he just speaks his mind, and there is something there in terms of what they aspire to.
But getting back to the softness of that support, of the 40 percent of Hispanic men who say that they might support Trump today, only 26 percent say they think they will actually vote for him. There’s a big drop-off between those who have “Trump intrigue” versus those who will actually go in and vote for him.
Stanton: Turnout among Latina registered voters has gone up pretty drastically over the last 16 years. In 2004, the turnout was something like 25 percent. In 2008, it jumped to the mid-30s. In 2012, it was around 40. In 2016, it was in the mid-to-high 50s. What’s behind that? It’s pretty astonishing.
Valencia: Well, I would say I still think that we’re punching beneath our weight as it relates to Latina turnout. Turnout that’s 10–15 percentage points behind white and Black women is pretty stark. While it has increased over time, it’s still not on par with either of those other groups.
One of our partners, the Topos Research Partnership, did research trying to understand why Latina voters aren’t turning out at the same rates as other women. One reason is that they don’t think their votes will count or that their lives will fundamentally change as a result. Another is that they don’t want to mess up. And I think we can change both of those perceptions and create more confidence around the process of voting, and reminding women: One, you have the opportunity to be a decider in this election. You can play a critical role. Two, you already have all you need. Like, you don’t need a Ph.D. in political science or a college degree to vote.
I have family members — in fact, my cousin is a nurse in New Mexico. She got a college degree. And she says, “I leave politics to you, Stephanie. It’s too complicated. I don’t need to get involved in that.” People think there’s this class of people who participate in politics and who vote, and that for everybody else, it doesn’t really matter. Getting over that confidence gap is what it will take to reach the levels of turnout that will compare to Black women and white women.
Stanton: At the same time as there’s been that increase in turnout among Latina registered voters, turnout among Latinas who are eligible voters but not registered has been pretty stagnant — hovering between 49–51 percent in each of the last four presidential elections. Why didn’t this massive increase in turnout by Latina registered voters pair with an increase in political participation by Latina non-voters?
Valencia: You know how campaigns work: Resource-allocation priorities get made, and you often end up focusing on the people we know are definitely going to vote. Nonvoters get kind of stuck in a cycle of not being communicated with. Maybe they voted in one election; maybe they registered to vote and never voted. With Latinos, you actually want to cast a really wide net, because there is so much opportunity in that band of registered-but-nonvoting Latino voters.
One of our big messages this election cycle is that there’s a huge opportunity among the unregistered-but-eligible Latina and Latino population in this country. Especially in a place like Texas, it’s just astounding the number of people who are eligible but not registered to vote. But obviously, given the world that we’re in today, voter registration efforts aren’t happening at the scale they have in the past.
Stanton: Recent polls have shown a disproportionately high number of undecided Latino voters, and I’m curious why that is. At this point, knowing everything we do about Donald Trump — whether you support him or oppose him — what is there left to be undecided about?
Valencia: There are a couple hypotheses. One is that there are some true late-breaking deciders. One of our major findings in the last few months of our research is that Joe Biden is well-known, but not sharply defined. Many people know that he was Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years — though, in fact, some didn’t even know that; they saw a picture of him and couldn’t identify him.
We forget: There are low-information voters who aren’t watching politics every single day. The fact that they didn’t know who he was really spoke to this huge need to just do very simple messaging — not doubling down on how terrible Trump is, but really talking about Joe Biden. There is a part of that undecided electorate that is still uninformed and may again be left out of who campaigns are communicating with.
The second piece is that I truly think that there is a little bit of an element of Latino voters not wanting to share — you know, this secrecy, this privacy — who they’re going to vote for. There’s a lot of secrecy in our families. Am I going to really tell a stranger over the phone who I’m voting for?
And third, there are some people who are truly undecided and think they might sit out the election or they may not know enough about the candidates — which seems astounding, yes, given what we know about Trump.
Stanton: There’s a longtime assumption that undecided voters end up breaking in favor of the challenger over the incumbent or status quo candidate. Do you think that’s still the case? If someone has seen everything over the last four years and that hasn’t been enough for them to decide whether to vote for Biden or Trump, it’s seems like they’ve decided the status quo isn’t that bad. It’s not a leap to imagine them voting for Trump. How real is the concern that undecided Latino voters will break in favor of Trump, and what does the election look like if that happens?
Valencia: That’s a good question. Over these next seven weeks, the window is narrowing for Joe Biden to introduce himself. In my view, Trump’s strategy this entire election has been a muddying-the-waters strategy: Say enough bad things about Joe Biden, create doubt about Joe Biden in the minds of voters using both disinformation and borderline-disinformation tactics. “Beijing Biden” or “senile, creepy Joe” — you know, we saw a lot of that popping in our focus groups.
I think a lot of these late-breakers may not necessarily break for Trump, but they’ll just stay home. And that is one of the challenges I am most concerned about: that the Democrats and Biden haven’t done the work again to increase support among Latino voters. Anything can happen in the last few weeks of the election. There’s always an October surprise. In 2016, that was the [James] Comey letter, which fundamentally changed the dynamics of the last two weeks of the election. And if the work has not been done to increase support among Latino voters in this last push, and white swing voters regress to the mean in any way, Democrats and Joe Biden could be left in a position where these undecideds didn’t break for Biden or were never persuaded to vote for Biden, or just stayed home. And if that happens, we are in a position where either the election is a lot closer than it should be — when there could have been greater margins — or we’ve lost the election on the margins.
Stanton: What do you make of the Biden campaign’s outreach to Latino voters? Have they done enough? Not enough? Have they done it well? How do you think through that?
Valencia: To be fair to the Biden campaign, they’ve had to do this with one hand tied behind their back: They won the nomination, and then Covid happened. Running a campaign at this time is critically challenging. What you have seen, especially over the last several weeks, is an increased investment in Spanish-language television, in Spanish-language radio, and doing it in, quite frankly, a culturally competent way. They’re not just translating their ads for the general electorate into Spanish — which is what you often see — or Google Translating ad copy and putting it up on the website. The targeted communications that they are investing in are really competent and culturally resonant for the places they’re in.
You know, it’s pretty basic. It’s pretty straightforward. I’ve talked a lot to Chuck Rocha, who helped run Bernie Sanders’ campaign. He doesn’t love that I say this, but I say it anyway: What they did on Bernie’s campaign wasn’t necessarily rocket science. Yes, there was a certain element of it that was related to Bernie and the candidate himself and how he connected with Latino voters directly and personally. But the multilayered investment, the investment from the top of the campaign — those are all things that the Biden campaign started to do over the course of the summer. But again, they’ve had to go with one hand tied behind their back.
Stanton: In the long term, when we talk about Arizona or Texas going blue and Latinos playing a major role in that, are we looking at the Southwest undergoing something similar to what happened in the Northeast, where many New England Republican voters basically became Democrats? Are we seeing a similar dynamic, where Latino voters are increasing in political power in such a way that they’re fundamentally shifting the political makeup of the states?
Valencia: I don’t think it’s as straightforward as that. Prior to this last round of polling, outside of Florida, the one place where we saw Trump’s support tick up was in New Mexico, among — wait for it — young Hispanic men. You see it there. You see that in Arizona. I think there’s a broader trend that needs to be paid attention to around these younger Hispanic men, and what is it that is compelling to them about the Republican Party and Trump.
Then you see places like Nevada. Yes, Democrats have won the state the last several cycles. When I look at the West, I see: OK, New Mexico was blue first. Then it was Colorado. Now, it’s Nevada. And Nevada is kind of slowly hanging on.
It bears repeating: Hillary Clinton won Nevada by less than she lost by in Arizona. She won Nevada by 27,000 votes in 2016. Her margin of loss was a lot larger in Arizona. [Editor’s note: Clinton lost Arizona by roughly 91,000 votes.] Yet somehow, Nevada has completely fallen off the battleground radar until recently.
All that is to say, comparing it to what happened in the Northeast, I think it’s a lot more fragile. Texas — you know, we will be continuing to talk about Texas for a while. I hope in the decade of the 2020s, we will turn Texas blue. The opportunity is clearly there, but it is such an intimidatingly expensive state to make investments and feel like you can really make a difference — it’s literally like 10 states in one. I would like to be more hopeful about it. You’ve seen lots of different efforts to try to turn Texas blue — all valiant, but not well-funded enough to actually do it.
Stanton: In 2004, George W. Bush got something like 44 percent of the Latino vote nationally. Can you see a path, either under Trump or post-Trump, where the Republican Party gets back to that range of support among Latinos?
Valencia: That is a good point of comparison to the moment we’re in today, which is that Trump is totally underperforming. Everybody talks about, “Trump’s gaining support among Latinos.” And again, for some subsets, especially among Cubans, that’s true, and it totally makes sense. But that’s not about Trump; it’s about the Republican Party, and it’s about Cuba policy. Trump himself is underperforming where Republicans have been. It is possible with a candidate like George W. Bush to achieve those heights of support among Latino voters — the right candidate and the right message. And Trump has completely squandered that.
The same goes for Republicans as goes for Democrats: You have to put in the work. You have to communicate the message. You have to reach out and engage. This is very much a — I don’t want to say “sentimental” or “emotional” community, but one that relies on trust and personal validation. Having candidates they feel they can trust is important.
Immigration has always been a “gating” issue for this community: Are you a candidate that sees us as “other?” The nuance of immigration policy is obviously complicated. But writ large, it’s a litmus test for Latinos. Are you a nativist candidate who thinks we should be called rapists and murderers? Or are you a candidate who actually sees us as part of this country?
Stanton: Final question: Over the last several months, we’ve seen the Black Lives Matter movement coalescing and activating many people following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers in Minneapolis and Louisville. Why is it that the detention of children in cages, or the family-separation policy didn’t coalesce into — for lack of a better term — a similarly large “Latino Lives Matter” movement?
Valencia: We do not have that shared connection as a community that the Black community has. There is a shared experience of oppression and exclusion in this country, where African-Americans have had to experience discrimination.
With Latinos, there are elements of the population who may have been discriminated against or have had challenges coming here or experienced the broken immigration system. And then there are some families who are white-passing and do not have the recent experience of immigrating to this country. I think about families in New Mexico who have been here 13 generations, who have fair skin and think of themselves more as American than they do Hispanic.
It kind of goes back to this: How do you build a common identity? Is it possible to build a common identity among Latinos in this country? What African-Americans were able to do in that moment was flex their political muscle and say, “Enough is enough,” and show that they’re able to build alliances with other communities — including Latinos, including white people — that are helping them move forward an agenda that will advance their interests. And in order to do that, they had a shared collective identity. Whereas among our community, that’s something I think we’re still in search of.