When Jill Biden toured Texas this month in support of her husband’s presidential bid, her first stop was in El Paso, a more than 80% Hispanic city. She spoke there in front of a sign that read, “Vota Ahora,” or Vote Now.
"For the first time in a long time, winning Texas is possible,” she said.
The setting seemed to be a nod to a political reality that most Democrats in the state acknowledge: If they are going to turn Texas blue this year, they need the help of Latino voters.
This election, Latinos will be the nation’s largest racial or ethnic minority voting group with 32 million projected to be able to vote — 13.3% of all eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center. In Texas, they make up 30% of eligible voters. Projections indicate Hispanics could become the largest population group in Texas as soon as mid-2021.
Democrats have long cited the state’s shifting demographics as evidence that its future is blue. But attempts to take full advantage have so far fallen short. Latino voter turnout has traditionally been low in the state. The party has often seen President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about immigration and people of color as an opening to win over and motivate more Latino voters to come support its candidates at the polls. But since the March presidential primary in Texas, Biden has struggled to make gains with those voters. And Republicans in the state have long argued that the state’s Latino population is less liberal than many Democrats believe.
A Dallas Morning News poll found in August that Biden was leading against Trump among registered Latino voters in Texas by about 9.5 percentage points — a margin much narrower than the 27-point margin Hillary Clinton had with those voters in Texas in 2016, according to exit polls. In October, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll showed Biden with a 17-point lead among Latino voters in Texas.
Biden lost the Latino vote to Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Still, many in the party see hope for this November. Despite a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Hispanic and Latino communities in Texas, a University of Houston and Univision poll found that 90% of Texas Latino voters will or will probably vote in the 2020 presidential election. And 79% responded that it is more important to vote in this election than it was to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
The outreach is coming from all areas: Democratic candidates up and down the ballot, groups devoted specifically to reaching Latino voters and even the party itself. Abhi Rahman, communications director for Texas Democrats, said the state party has registered 1.5 million voters in Texas since 2016. He said of those new voters, many are young Latinos. A national Telemundo-Buzzfeed News survey of Latino voters found that 60% of Latino voters between the ages of 18 and 34 planned to vote for Biden.
Jolt Action, a voter advocacy group, has been trying to increase voter turnout among young Latino voters in Texas. According to a study it co-conducted, an annual average of nearly 210,000 Latinos already living in Texas will turn the eligible voting age of 18 each year from 2018 to 2028. Antonio Arellano, interim director for the group, said the 214,000 votes Democrat Beto O’Rourke needed to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 can now be found in the young Latino constituency.
“The Latino electorate is young, so if you win them over, you don’t just win them just for one election cycle, you win them for generations to come,” Arellano said.
Jason Villalba, a former Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives and president of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, said if Biden is able to replicate O’Rourke’s success in turning out young Latino voters, he may have a chance of flipping the state. He said that much of the relative weakness Biden has shown with regard to Latino voters in Texas can be blamed on outreach and lack of name recognition in Texas compared with Clinton in 2016.
And he said Sanders won the demographic in the March primary because he employed much of the same engagement and infrastructure of O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign with young Latino voters.
Right before Super Tuesday, a poll from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that 70% of Texas Latino voters between the ages of 18 and 29 said they had not been contacted by a campaign during the 2020 primaries.
“Historically, the fact that Latinos haven’t voted is not their fault,” Arellano said. “It’s that nobody has cared enough in activating them and speaking directly to them and mobilizing them.”
Organizations like Jolt and MOVE Texas, a nonpartisan nonprofit that aims to empower underrepresented young people in Texas to engage in politics and advocacy, are trying to make up for what many campaigns haven’t done in the past, like knocking on doors in underrepresented communities and mailing voter registration forms to young Black and brown voters.
“First-time voters need support. They need to know what are the registration rules and when are the deadlines and what is on the ballot, you know, just kind of bread and butter things,” said Charlie Bonner, communications director for MOVE Texas. “Many first-time voters need to be empowered with that information to actually take them from getting registered to voting, and campaigns aren't doing that again and again and again.”
But while reaching new voters and getting them to the polls is always a challenge, it has become even more difficult during the pandemic. Groups like MOVE and Jolt say they are adjusting their strategies accordingly. Arellano said Jolt is mailing out literature on candidates, text banking, phone banking and pushing out targeted ads — all to make sure that young Latino voters know that their community is “under attack” by the Trump administration.
“The reason that you see Latinos discriminated against and targeted by this administration is because we’re the biggest threat to the status quo,” Arellano said. “We have now, in our hands, the opportunity to not just transform Texas, but with 38 electoral votes, to transform America.”
During the 2016 election, Trump attacked unauthorized immigrants who crossed the border from Mexico to Texas, calling them “rapists” and “animals” at his rallies and in his speeches. The chant “build that wall” was shouted at nearly every one of his events, and his supporters feared that immigrants were going to take away American jobs, as Trump would tell them.
Among his actions in office, Trump has implemented a “zero tolerance” policy to require the arrest of any illegal immigrant crossing the border, which caused the separation of children from their families. He also expanded the size of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its "enforcement priorities" for deportation and attempted to end President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Henry R. Muñoz III, founder of the Latino Victory Fund and former national finance chair for the Democratic National Committee, said these "attacks" will be the reason why Latinos will turn out in big numbers for Democrats this year despite the pandemic.
“There’s a lot happening in Texas, and it is all trending away from anyone who would call you names, doesn’t have your best interest at heart, would separate your families from each other, call you things like a liar or a rapist,” Muñoz said.
But Villalba said Democrats shouldn’t be so sure that Latinos in Texas are going to mobilize or vote for Biden because of that and should be careful in assuming that a majority of them will vote for Democratic candidates.
Each weekend in the Rio Grande Valley, over 500 cars parade around neighborhoods with “Latinos for Trump” and “Make America Great Again” signs and flags, registering people to vote and encouraging others to show their support for the president. Organizer Eva America Arechia said she came up with the idea after attending the Trump boat parade on Lake Travis.
“We’re pro-law and pro-God. We want law and order, and we want God in our country,” Arechia said of her Latino community. “We’re conservative people. We are going to have traditional values.”
In 2018 — a midterm election that many across the country saw as a backlash against Trump — Republicans in Texas managed to win over a significant share of Latino voters. Thirty-five percent voted for Cruz, and 42% voted for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Ivan Andarza, a member of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas PAC board, believes Latinos are the reason Texas will remain red for years to come, since the Democratic party is moving in a more liberal direction.
“They know that here, no matter where you’re from or what your background is, you can make it if you work hard, and that message resonates, especially with Hispanics,” Andarza said. “We [Republicans] always hammer hard on that because that is how we are going to progress, through work, education — very important, education is a great equalizer — so that is very important to us. And in particular, this year, law and order is a big deal.”
But Democrats say Republicans shouldn’t be so sure that younger Latinos hold the same beliefs as their parents or grandparents.
South Texas, for instance, is home to several moderate Democratic elected officials. But two of the most prominent felt real pressure in the March primary. Progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros opposed U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, in the Democratic primary. Cuellar describes himself as a “moderate centrist” and is pro-gun, anti-abortion and anti-union.
“The fact that we came up with 48.2% of the vote as a first-time 26-year-old candidate says a lot about where South Texas is heading,” Cisneros said of her narrow loss to Cuellar, who won 51.84% of the vote.
Like Cuellar, longtime Texas state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, who is an anti-abortion Democrat, faced a competitive primary in South Texas against progressive Sara Stapleton-Barrera. He won with 54% of the vote.
Seeing untapped potential in that region, Rahman said the Texas Democratic Party is investing in television ads targeting Latino communities in South Texas, running them in both English and Spanish. It also hired a Spanish press secretary on the ground there.
“If we were to actually increase the voter turnout by 15[%] or 20%, kind of like in the last election cycle when Beto ran for Senate, he probably would have won if we turned out South Texas in even higher numbers,” Cisneros said. “And I think that was one of the messages from the last cycle that a lot of people are taking to heart, to make sure that we are investing in this area because I think one of the things, again, that we showed in our campaign was that voters are out there waiting to be engaged and be brought into the political process.”
If Texas flips blue for Biden, Michelle Tremillo, executive director and co-founder of the Texas Organizing Project, said credit should be given to the organizations that have been mobilizing and reaching out to underrepresented communities despite his campaign’s recent efforts in the state. Her organization, working in coalition with other organizations, has contacted 1.4 million voters in Harris County, Fort Bend County, Dallas County and Bexar County — all counties crucial to the outcome of how Texas may decide the fate of the presidential election.
“Texas will not have flipped overnight,” Tremillo said. “This is a decade worth of hard work on the behalf of several progressive organizations.”
Disclosure: MOVE Texas, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.