Biden adds staff to shore up wavering support among Latino voters

Former VP viewed with scepticism by some Latinos for his ties to deportation policies during the Obama administration.

    Jennifer Hernandez waits, clipboard in hand, to register people to vote in front of a Latino supermarket in Las Vegas, Nevada, the United States [File: John Locher/AP Photo]
    Jennifer Hernandez waits, clipboard in hand, to register people to vote in front of a Latino supermarket in Las Vegas, Nevada, the United States [File: John Locher/AP Photo]

    Joe Biden's campaign for president of the United States is bringing on the granddaughter of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez as a senior adviser to help with Latino outreach, the campaign announced on Tuesday - a move that follows criticism from Latino leaders who say the Democrat is not doing enough to embrace a key demographic group.

    The new adviser, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, previously worked as national political codirector on California Senator Kamala Harris's presidential campaign and was her California state director before that. She still works as a consultant to Harris.

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    She joins Cristobal Alex, a former president of the Latino Victory Fund, who serves as Biden's senior adviser for issues involving Hispanic voters.

    Biden is viewed with scepticism by some Latinos for his ties to deportation policies during the Obama administration. He struggled with Latino outreach throughout the Democratic presidential primary, facing pro-immigration protesters, and last November his most senior Latina aide quit the campaign after reportedly raising concerns that the campaign hadn't focused enough on Latino voters.

    Indeed, Latino voters strongly sided with former candidate Senator Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary.

    Fault Lines: America's Divided Democrats/Jeremy Young
    A Biden supporter with a sign from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers at Biden's celebration in Columbia, South Carolina in February [Jeremy Young/Al Jazeera]

    'Small and scrappy'

    National polls by Reuters/Ipsos suggest that only about a quarter of Hispanics would choose current US President Donald Trump in a matchup with Biden. But the number supporting Biden dipped to 46 percent from 51 percent from February to April while Trump's numbers held steady.

    Former President Barack Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic support in 2012 with Biden as his running mate, according to the Pew Research Center. Democrat Hillary Clinton won 66 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2016.

    Democrats and Latino strategists say the Biden campaign needs to show more urgency - both in its messaging and ground game - to win over what is expected to be the largest non-white voting bloc in the 2020 presidential election.

    "Just saying negative things about President Trump is not going to be enough to get people excited to vote for anybody," said Javier Cuebas, a political consultant who worked on Democratic presidential campaigns for Al Gore and John Kerry.

    Biden campaign officials say they are expanding outreach to Hispanic voters after a "small and scrappy" operation during the Democratic presidential contest that effectively ended last month.

    They are targeting major Hispanic populations in states like Florida and Arizona, as well as smaller but potentially decisive communities in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which have larger Latino populations than Trump's 2016 margin of victory in those crucial states.

    "We haven't turned on the ignition yet," said senior Biden adviser Cristobal Alex. "What you're going to see once we do is a very substantial increase in support for Vice President Biden."

    Latinos voting
    Volunteer Bea Nevarez talks with a potential voter during door-to-door canvassing in Tucson, Arizona [File: Caitlin O'Hara/Reuters]

    Coronavirus complications

    Turning on the ignition has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited Biden to holding virtual events from his home. The campaign must quickly find new ways to make the person-to-person contacts needed to turn out Latino voters, campaign officials admit, a task made more difficult by the voting bloc's diverse interests.

    In Florida, for example, the state's 1.1 million Puerto Ricans - many of them displaced by Hurricane Maria - mostly vote for Democrats, while the 1.5 million Cuban Americans are traditionally Republican thanks to the party's hardline policies towards the Communist-run Cuban government.

    Many Latinos also are part of evangelical congregations drawn to the Republican Party's opposition to abortion and gay rights.

    Many Hispanic voters oppose Trump's drive to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and his aggressive deportation practices. But the Obama administration's record of deporting large numbers of people has also left some Latinos wary of Biden.

    US primaries: Biden, Sanders battle for the Hispanic vote (2:41)

    Biden has said he would put a moratorium on deportations, except for violent offenders, reverse Trump's executive orders on immigration, and introduce an immigration reform bill on his first day in the White House.

    The Biden campaign has hosted virtual events this month under the "Todos con Biden" (All with Biden) banner, and the candidate's wife, Jill Biden, held a video call with Latino leaders in Arizona last week and continues to hold weekly calls with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who are lobbying her husband to appoint a Latina as his vice presidential candidate in a show of commitment to Hispanic voters.

    Among the Latina candidates being considered are New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who told allies in recent days that Biden's campaign has begun vetting her for vice president, and Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who is being championed by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of that state.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies