If it's true that no Democratic candidate can win the presidential nomination in 2020 without significant support from African American and Latino voters, then South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg might as well stop running.
Much has been written about Buttigieg’s difficulty gaining more African American support, but now his campaign has recently turned its attention to courting Latino voters — predicted to be the largest ethnic electorate of the next cycle. In the last two weeks, Team Buttigieg rolled out a “El Pueblo Unido/A People United: A New Era for Latinos” policy brief and an immigration plan. Both moves came at a time when Democrats were debating and campaigning in the Los Angeles area — home of the U.S. county with the highest Latino population — and as candidates turned their attention to the Nevada caucus, the third Democratic contest and where some estimates say more than 400,000 Latinos over the age of 18 are eligible to vote.
Buttigieg had to do something big, considering how poorly he is polling nationally among Latinos. A November Telemundo poll had the South Bend mayor at just 2 percent among that demographic, way behind former Vice President Joe Biden’s 26 percent and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with 18 percent. In a more recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, Buttigieg got 3 percent of Latino voters, while Sanders got 27 percent and Biden got 15.
So could his December focus on Latino voters get him more votes in primaries such as Nevada, California, Colorado and even Arizona? The answer is a very likely no.
Part of the issue is that Biden owns the "traditional Democratic voter" lane among Latinos. Just like he has done with African American voters, the former vice president’s campaign has done a strong job in getting the Democratic Party’s Latino establishment to support him. Before Christmas, endorsements from Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus only confirmed that the Biden campaign will continue to do well with Democratic Latino voters who are older, lean more moderate and have a history of supporting establishment candidates.
That’s a problem for Buttigieg: If he can’t pull Latino support from Biden — and so far there is no real indication that such a shift will happen — Buttigieg has to appeal to new (and younger) Latino voters who don’t necessarily support his more moderate positions.
But Sanders seemingly already owns that new voter lane. In California, for example, Sanders has the highest favorability with Latino millennials. Last weekend in Nevada, his campaign featured Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and held a town hall entirely in Spanish, even before it held a major rally post-debate in Los Angeles. The Sanders team has also invested in outreach in the key Western state primary of California, with its significant Latino population. A recent analysis of ActBlue donations also showed that Sanders has the largest share of Latino fundraising among Democratic candidates.
The Sanders campaign is clearly making a new and focused play to bring in new voters, who tend to be more progressive than their older counterparts and don’t get turned off by the idea of “socialism” — and even understand that Sanders is more akin to a European Social Democrat than a Latin American socialist. Younger Latinos also have a greater understanding of news coming out of Latin America (there’s a reason why Sanders made sure to call recent events in Bolivia “a coup”) and think that the Democratic establishment has failed them (which is why the Sanders campaign has now called for a moratorium on deportations).
The Sanders stranglehold on young progressives is the environment into which Buttigieg's Latino policy and immigration plans came out before Christmas — and neither goes far enough to peel progressives away from the more established candidate.
So with Biden doing well with moderate Latinos and Sanders energizing younger Latinos, Buttigieg has seemingly missed his mark with his Latino-focused policies — and the release came far too late. His immigration plan, for instance, was one of the last shared by any major presidential candidate, and feels a lot like Biden’s immigration plan. But Biden already has strong support from Latino moderates, so it’s doubtful that Buttigieg will move the needle there.
By comparison, another mayor, Julián Castro, released his immigration plan in April and helped shape the immigration positions of the other Democratic candidates, to the point that Democrats had to examine their own failures on this issue.
As for the Buttigieg Latino policy plan, it felt to many Latinos like just another example of a candidate playing last-minute catch-up with an electorate that will play a crucial role in key primaries and the general election. Candidates like Sanders have made winning new Latino support a central part of their overall primary strategy — the same can be said for Elizabeth Warren — while the Buttigieg campaign is seemingly now waking up to the fact that primaries such as Nevada, California and even Puerto Rico are just as important as states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
In addition, by keeping his Latino policy plan fairly moderate and safe by mostly emphasizing broad topics like small business ownership, education and Latinos’ place in U.S. society, Buttigieg lost a huge political opportunity to win over new and younger Latino voters. If the Buttigieg campaign had focused more on issues of strategic importance to Latinos, like U.S.-Mexico relations and the historic political events happening in Latin America, instead of rehashing middle-of-the-road talking points about economic prosperity that Latino voters have been hearing from establishment candidates on both sides of the aisle for years, he could've stood out from the Democratic crowd rather than fading into the background of it.
Keeping to what he sees as the safe center on immigration and Latino issues and refusing to lean more progressive is why Buttigieg will keep polling poorly with Latino voters. And if he can’t win over Latino voters in 2020, he simply won’t win the Democratic nomination.
- Julio Ricardo Varela is the co-host of the Webby-nominated In The Thick podcast and founder of LatinoRebels.com, now part of Futuro Media.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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