When Juan Suarez-Rivas was 17, he volunteered to join a CIA-sponsored group of Cuban exiles who wanted to overthrow Fidel Castro from power. He had only been living five months in Miami before flying to Guatemala in the spring of 1961 to train in the shadow of a volcano. They were preparing for what would later be known as the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Things didn’t go as planned. During the invasion, Suarez-Rivas was captured by Castro’s army and imprisoned with 214 others on an island off the coast of Havana. There were two toilets for all of them, the showers barely worked, and he slept on the floor. After negotiations between the United States and Cuba, which culminated in the U.S. giving up $53 million in baby food and supplies, Suarez-Rivas was on a plane to America on Christmas Eve, 1962, after a year in captivity.
Now, he lives in Miami, and he’s part of the 31 percent of Florida’s Latinx voters who are standing by President Trump and who plan to vote for him in November. “What you see is what you get,” Suarez-Rivas said of Trump.
It may seem hard for some to imagine that Hispanic voters would be willing to vote for Trump this fall. Trump launched his 2016 campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. As president, he has ordered ICE to separate immigrant families and lock children in cages. He has tried get rid of the DACA program. He has begun the process of wasting billions in tax-payer dollars to build a Southern border wall.
Still, a substantial percentage of eligible Latinx voters nationwide hold a favorable view of him. According to a June poll conducted by Latino Decisions, which surveys the political opinions of the Latinx community in the U.S., 42 percent of Latinx voters across six swing states approve of the job Trump has done as president, including Arizona, Florida, Texas, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. At this point four years ago, Trump’s favorability was 12 percentage points lower than it is now, per polling conducted by Latino Decisions.
That could prove to be significant in key states that Biden will need to win to clinch the Electoral College—most obviously, in Florida and Pennsylvania, where Hispanic voters make up 20.5 percent and 5.3 percent of voters, respectively. Luckily, there are also plenty of Hispanic voters who can still be persuaded: 11 percent of the Latinx community does not know who they will vote for in November, according to new polling.
In other words, Biden and the Democrats have more work to do with turning Latinx voters than perhaps even they realize. The bigger problem is that some activists and Biden allies worry that, with only three months to go before the election, the campaign doesn’t have a strategy—or the organization in place—to get started.
Last month, Biden field organizers wrote an internal letter that leaked to the Miami Herald that argued there wasn’t a coordinated plan for reaching the state’s Hispanic voters. They cited examples of Spanish-speaking organizers being assigned to the predominantly non-Spanish speaking parts Northern Florida.
The letter also described a toxic work environment in the campaign, including the mistreatment of field organizers and the recruitment of volunteers but leaving them stranded. “It is necessary to emphasize that despite this lack of preparedness by leadership, existing productive work was halted and the little strategy that was shared is ill-suited for the new dynamics of remote organizing,” the signatories wrote in the letter.
Of course, any attempt to reach out to the Latinx community—or any community, for that matter—is hindered by the pandemic. But COVID-19 itself should be a major vulnerability for Trump with Hispanic Americans, who are disproportionally impacted, making up 32 percent of positive cases throughout the country. That helps explain why healthcare has been polled as a top concern among Latinx voters: 40 percent in battleground states cite it as their single biggest reason for voting in 2020.
Thus far, the Biden campaign’s strategy has mostly entailed coordinating virtual community chats with local leaders throughout the country. But Latino advocacy groups say that he will have to do far more to make inroads with undecided Hispanic voters, and those who are Trump supporters but could defect.
Voto Latino, a non-profit organization that works to increase Latinx turnout, has endorsed Biden and steered online organizing to support his presidential bid. “There is a huge population of Latinx voters that has been untapped and there needs to be more outreach and investment from our political parties,” the group’s campaign coordinator, Dulce Rojas, told me.
One of the biggest things the party needs to do, she said, is ramp up its campaign to educate voters about their vote by mail options and ensure ballots are accessible in Spanish. That’s where she hopes Voto Latino can come in. It has already built a young grassroots outreach effort to Hispanic voters, including through their peer-to-peer text campaign. That has so far proven successful vis-à-vis voter registration—Voto Latino says it has already registered 218,000 voters in the 2020 cycle—but now they are also focusing on expanding vote by mail access and persuading GOP Hispanic voters to switch over to Biden.
Dr. Stephen Nuño-Perez, Senior Analyst and Communications Director at Latino Decisions, which is now working in collaboration with the Biden campaign, said the Republican Party’s grip on Latinx voters has been decades in the making.
“Whatever their appeal to Latinos are, it’s been on the same appeals that it is based on for other Republicans and that is a value system that prioritizes patriarchal power,” said Nuño-Perez. “A value system that is utterly, in one sense, individualistic, but in another sense, communal, and in terms of its defense of white males.”
That goes all the way back to the 1960s, as Cecilia Muñoz wrote in the most recent issue of the Washington Monthly. The GOP was able to capitalize on the anti-communist and religious sentiments held in the Cuban-American and Mexican-American diaspora during President Nixon’s administration, which fostered strong relationships with community leaders to create a solid base. Those efforts paid off dividends in years to come. Hispanic Republicans in Texas helped President Reagan win a majority in a state Carter had won four years earlier.
Reagan was also the first president Juan Suarez-Rivas voted for as an American citizen. He has continued to only vote for Republican presidential candidates every election since then. Suarez-Rivas told me he likes Trump, in part, because he relaxed business regulations and represents a population of upper-class Hispanic Americans who think the Republican Party’s interpretation of capitalism will serve them best.
That said, there’s still a reason for Democrats to be optimistic: a large enough share of Latinx Americans remain undecided.
Latino political organizers and analysts argue that the way for Biden to make inroads is to have a comprehensive outreach strategy that crafts a tailored messaging for these communities in each state. “We are not a monolith,” said Grecia Lima, National Political Director at Community of Change, a non-profit involved in grassroots organizing. “We will see differences in terms of support and in terms of engagement for Trump or against Trump in the different communities.”
To the Biden campaign’s credit, they have already released ads in Spanish in different states, with accents that correlate with the predominant communities that live there; with a Mexican accent for one in Phoenix and a Puerto Rican accent in Orlando. This is part of an effort to micro-target Latinx communities.
But television advertising can only do so much. If the Biden campaign really wants to disrupt Trump’s surprising hold on a third of Latinx voters, it will have to prioritize winning these communities over by crafting a specific strategy for the key swing states. Otherwise, Trump could win in November by getting enough votes from the constituency he has spent his entire political career attacking.