MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Cesar Hernandez says he has made thousands of phone calls since June urging Latinos in the battleground state of Wisconsin to support Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
It’s a tough sell, admits Hernandez, especially where he lives on the South Side of Milwaukee, the heart of Wisconsin’s Latino community. He said Biden’s Spanish-language ads on Hulu and Facebook aren’t connecting with the neighborhood’s voters, many of whom would prefer a more personal touch.
“Latinos have seen almost nothing from Biden here,” said Hernandez, 25, who works for the Progressive Turnout Project, a national group working to mobilize Democratic voters. “There is very little enthusiasm for him.”
As the race to the Nov. 3 election enters the home stretch, appeals to Latino voters have taken on new urgency for Biden and incumbent Republican President Donald Trump. Both campaigns are pouring resources into the battleground states of Florida and Arizona, as well as increasingly competitive Nevada, whose large Latino populations could determine the outcome in those states.
Even in Wisconsin, where 87% of the population is white, the state’s 230,000 eligible Latino voters could prove critical. Trump won the state by just 22,000 votes in 2016.
A string of recent polls show Biden ahead in Wisconsin. The polling aggregation website RealClearPolitics has Biden leading Trump by an average of 5.5 percentage points from six polls conducted in September.
Trump has visited the state five times this year. His campaign has opened an office on Milwaukee’s South Side, where authentic taco outlets jostle with bilingual tax preparers and a Puerto Rican barber shop. The windows of the campaign storefront are plastered with Trump signs and its shelves bear merchandise such as “Latinos for Trump” hats.
The Biden campaign said in statements to Reuters that its outreach efforts to Latinos in Wisconsin and nationally were unprecedented in scale.
It said it had a full-time Latino outreach director in Wisconsin and dozens of staff organizing in predominantly Latino communities. It is running Spanish-language phone and text banks and has ads on multiple platforms, including Spanish-language radio and Spanish-language mailers. Dozens of virtual roundtables, rallies and other events targeting the Latino community have been held, the Biden campaign said.
“The campaign has communicated with tens of thousands of Latino voters about the clear choice in this year’s election,” said Jen Molina, Biden’s national Latino media director.
But Reuters interviews with 30 Latino residents and activists on Milwaukee’s South Side suggest those efforts may be falling short, reflecting what some call an “enthusiasm gap” for Biden among Latinos nationwide that has been noted by pollsters and analysts.
Several residents interviewed said the only contact they’ve had with the Biden campaign are phone texts in English soliciting donations. Fifteen of 24 Latino voters interviewed said they would vote for Biden, albeit with little fervor. Some said he was too old and seemed more focused on Black voters and their concerns about social justice.
“It’s like he’s not listening to us,” Hernandez said, adding that many feel Biden is taking them for granted. “We’re not being heard.”
Others blamed the novel coronavirus pandemic. With cases surging in Wisconsin, Biden’s team has stuck to a mostly virtual campaign; plans for a campaign office in Milwaukee’s South Side were scrapped, said Darryl Morin, a Biden campaign volunteer focused on turning out Latino voters.
Trump’s Wisconsin team, meanwhile, has continued door-to-door campaigning and in-person outreach, a strategy that Morin said resonates with Latino voters.
“I completely get why people feel there has been a lack of presence” from Biden’s campaign, Morin said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating the degree we are having to limit the operations. Only one side is continuing to go out in person - the Trump campaign.”
BATTLEGROUND STATE WORRIES
Nationally, Biden leads Trump among registered voters who identify as Hispanics: 53% said they would back the Democrat, while 30% said they would vote for Trump, slightly more than backed the Republican in 2016, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling in September.
But Biden’s 23-point advantage is smaller than the 39-point lead Clinton had over Trump among Hispanic voters on Election Day four years ago.
If his campaign fails to make up that ground, it could prove “disastrous” for Biden in closely contested states with significant Latino populations, said Jaime Regalado, an expert on Latino voters at California State University in Los Angeles.
Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and harsh rhetoric about migrants are widely unpopular with Latinos. Yet polls show many trust him on the economy. In Florida, a must-win state for Trump, he has made inroads with conservative Cuban-Americans with the false claim that Biden and the Democrats are “socialists.” In battleground Arizona, Trump held a “Latinos for Trump” roundtable with voters in Phoenix last month.
The Biden campaign says its virtual events in Wisconsin focused on the Latino community have involved high-profile officials, including Michelle Lujan Grisham, the first Latina Democratic governor of New Mexico. Last month, a virtual bus tour with Democratic members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus held an event in Wisconsin.
Biden’s running mate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, met last month with representatives of Voces de la Frontera, Wisconsin’s biggest immigrant-rights group, which has endorsed the Democratic ticket. Voces says it has staff and volunteers working across the state to register 23,000 new voters by Election Day.
SOUTH SIDE MICROCOSM
The South Side of Milwaukee is a microcosm of Biden’s broader struggles.
Jose Vasquez, 71, a community leader, said it didn’t matter how many text messages, virtual events or phone calls the Biden campaign said it has made.
“You can hand out a thousand fliers, but if you’re not knocking on a single door or talking face-to-face with a single person, you have little impact,” he said in an interview.
Vasquez, a retired school principal, said he wants to see more from Biden on issues Latinos care about, such as a visit to Puerto Rico, which still needs massive aid after a 2017 hurricane, or a trip to the southern border with Mexico to discuss immigration reform.
Democrats had planned to hold Biden’s nominating convention in Milwaukee this summer but were forced to host the four-day event virtually because of the pandemic.
SWITCHING TO TRUMP
A third of the two dozen Latino residents interviewed by Reuters in Milwaukee were enthusiastic Trump supporters.
Among them is Mayra Gomez, 41, a lifelong Democrat. The Puerto Rico native said she began looking at the president after receiving an unsolicited Facebook message from a conservative group urging Latinos to break away from the Democratic Party.
Gomez said she was attracted to Trump’s law-and-order message and his economic policies. She said she’ll vote for him in November, and is urging family and friends to do the same.
“Remember, Trump’s not a politician. He’s a businessman,” Gomez said. “What he says may sound funny, but he’s actually speaking the truth.”
The Biden campaign says it is ramping up efforts as the election nears.
On Sept. 26, Todos con Biden, a national coalition of Latino organizers and volunteers working to elect Biden, held its first outdoor event in Wisconsin. At a park on Milwaukee’s South Side, it handed out 500 campaign yard signs.
Reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles and Dan Simmons in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Chris Kahn in New York. Editing by Ross Colvin and Marla Dickerson
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