DNC features few Latinos, a key 2020 voter demographic

US Democratic convention has been criticised for not featuring enough Latino speakers in prime-time slots.

Julian Castro
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks to delegates at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina [File: Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press]

The Democratic National Convention is meant to energise the party’s base, while drawing in undecided voters or the disgruntled members of the Republican party.

But some observers of the 2020 Democratic convention have noticed a surprising absence of Latino speakers in the prime-time schedule.

While the convention has so far featured some Latino representation, particularly during segments featuring rank-and-file supporters, a cameo by labour icon Dolores Huerta, as well as within a 17-person keynote speech composed of “rising stars” in the party, the four-day convention was initially only set to feature three Latino officials during its nightly two-hour main event.

Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto spoke on Monday, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke on Tuesday, and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is set to speak on Wednesday.

Noticeably absent when the prime-time schedule was unveiled last week was Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama who delivered the keynote speech during the 2012 convention.

Castro, the only Latino candidate in the Democratic primary season, did speak early in the day on Tuesday at a convention council meeting and part of his 2012 speech was aired in a montage during Tuesday’s main event.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was officially nominated to be the party’s candidate [The Associated Press]

But Castro’s absence as a speaker in prime time, and the fact that Ocasio-Cortez was “marginalised” with a 90-second slot introducing Senator Bernie Sanders, does not send the right message to a voting bloc that has become the largest non-white demographic in the US and is considered to have untapped potential for the Democratic party, Cristina Jimenez, the co-founder of United We Dream Action, an immigrant organising group, told Al Jazeera.

Ocasio-Cortez said on Wednesday that she had been asked by the DNC to second the nomination for Sanders as part of the event – and slammed NBC news for tweeting the speech was one of the shortest, and in it she had not endorsed Biden. The organisation issued a correction, but she called it too late – that “it sparked an enormous amount of hatred and vitriol … to generate hate-clicks from a pre-recorded, routine procedural motion”.

In 2020 there will be 32 million Latino eligible voters, making up about 13.3 percent of all eligible voters in the country, according to the Pew Research Center. The demographic, however, has seen lower rates of registration than others.

Latinos were also overwhelmingly energised behind Sanders in the Democratic primary. In California, 71 percent of Latino voters under the age of 29 voted for Sanders, while just 5 percent voted for Biden.

“I think if I was in the Joe Biden campaign, I would be thinking about how to speak to Latino voters about the issues that they care about that mobilised them in big numbers during the primary, like healthcare, like stopping deportations, like financial security and jobs, and how COVID is impacting this community,” said Jimenez. “And how to leverage the voices and the influence of political figures within the Democratic Party, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, like Julian Castro and many others who can bring a lot of enthusiasm in the community.”

“(The speaker lineup) is concerning on a strategic level,” she added.

Strategically significant

In 2016, Latino voters supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump 66 percent to 28 percent and are considered a solid portion of the Democratic base, although generally less so than Black voters, who voted 89 percent for Clinton. 

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In past elections, Latinos, which are the fastest-growing racial minority in the US, have generally been viewed as being concentrated in solidly Democratic and Republican states, making the demographic less significant in Electoral College strategies, said William Frey, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

“I don’t think it’s the case any more,” he told Al Jazeera.

In Arizona, a state considered a battleground in November, he said Latinos will make up about 31.4 percent of eligible voters, a 6.4 percent increase over 2016 and in Florida, Latinos are projected to make up 22.9 percent of eligible voters, up by 3 percentage points from 2016, according to Frey’s analysis of the Current Population Survey from 2016 to 2020.

Latino voters could also make a difference in places like North Carolina and Pennsylvania if the race is close enough, he said.

“I think the party that can capture (Latinos’) attention and their long-term loyalty will have a lot to gain,” Frey said. “There’s no question about that.”

‘We need that fire’

Jeronimo Saldana, a Latino community organiser, said he had faith the Democratic Party was working to include Latinos, but said the convention’s prime-time speakers, and the omission of Castro, has left him feeling “unseen and unheard”.

While he said he was “grateful” to see some representation within the DNC, including host Eva Longoria, he added:  “Folks see the television screen and they don’t see Latinos, they don’t see themselves, they don’t see what Julian (Castro) did as a Latino running for president – that’s important and powerful.

“There has been an assumption that Latinos are going to vote for the Democrats,” he added. “But we need to see ourselves in the party. We need that fire.”

Castro, for his part, has walked a careful line as the party strives to present a unified front.

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The candidate told MSNBC he was “disappointed” by the lack of Latino speakers in the initial schedule, but later told NPR he felt the party had responded to his diversity concerns. He has in recent days repeatedly praised the Biden/Harris ticket for its Latino outreach.

However, in an interview with Axios, Castro said the campaign must “make sure that they are doing everything they can to reach out to a community that already has one of the lowest rates of voting, that needs to be brought into the fold”.

He added that Latinos are generally “invisible” or an “afterthought” in political parties and American society as a whole, while warning that Democrats could see a slide in Latino support “that will benefit the Republicans in the years to come” if the demographic is not made “a robust part of this coalition going forward”.

Source: Al Jazeera