On Sept. 15, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Latino Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin invited Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha, former senior advisor to Bernie Sanders and architect of the campaign’s success with Latinos, to speak on his perspective and experience coordinating outreach to Latino voters. Rocha’s conversation with Dr. Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, LBJ School Dean for Civic Engagement, highlighted important considerations about Latino voter engagement in this year’s elections. A recording of Rocha’s full interview with Soto can be found here and a recap of the conversation is available here.
To dig further into Rocha’s experience and expertise with Latino voters, Baines Report editor Joseph Flores spoke with Rocha about some of the latest events in the Presidential campaign, how issues such as healthcare and childcare remain the most pressing concerns for Latinos this election cycle, and what to look for in a campaign seeking to activate Latinos.
Exclusive Interview with Chuck Rocha
You’ve described a lack of outreach and information going out to the Latino community as the primary reason for the low turnout. Can you talk about the way this turns into a cyclical process, with low turnout being used as a reason not to reach out to Latinos and thus keeping that turnout low?
Most campaigns target voters who have some kind of a voting history. Most consultants and strategists will tell a campaign, “We’re going to focus on this group of voters” that vote with us and vote every time and this other group of voters who vote Republican or Democrat every time and try to persuade them because those are the voters who participate. Latinos have been deemed a universe of people who don’t show up at the same rate as white people or African Americans.
The reason for this is a number of things. One is that the Latino demographic is younger than most—way younger than white people and younger than Black people. And because Latinos are younger, they don’t have a long voting history.
So there are more Latinos coming of age than any other demographic as a proportion of the population, but they’re not regular voters, because they haven’t had the opportunity to vote. As a result, Latinos are not targeted by many campaigns. Then one problem leads into the other: Why do Latinos not vote? Because campaigns don’t ask them to. Why don’t campaigns ask them to vote? Because they don’t vote at the same rates as others.
Something must break this cycle. That’s why I wrote the book Tío Bernie, because I proved in a real time case study that if campaigns invest in a Latino voter as if they were a white woman in the suburbs they can get the same level of participation and win Latino voters by high margins.
You mentioned a few times the importance of music to Latino communities and as a potential avenue for connecting with voters. I don’t want to give too much importance to gaffs, but Joe Biden recently had his fumble with playing Despacito, which was critiqued as thoughtless, at least by many young people I know.
Can you talk about the difference between things that might be seen as pandering versus effectively connecting with Latino and other minority voters?
I don’t think that Joe Biden meant any disrespect by playing Despacito, and people should remember, but it did land very flat. Every time I consult for a white candidate who wants to use the few Spanish words they know while campaigning, I advise against it because it’s never lands correctly. A candidate has never convinced one Latino to vote for them because they know a couple of Spanish words.
Music is something very powerful because it makes us happy, and Biden campaign capitalizes on this by using music by Bad Bunny, an artists who is very culturally important to the Latino community, especially young people. Older Mexican people are less likely to know who Bad Bunny is, but young, multicultural Latinos and Latinx communities all know Bad Bunny, so the effectiveness of his music depends on how you use it.
However, music create an opportunity for candidates to make grave mistake if they don’t have cultural competency or people around them from the community. You can’t roll into San Antonio playing Cuban music, and you can’t show up in Miami playing mariachis. You must know the different cultures of music, but there is a great opportunity when playing music from people’s home country, because there’s a long history of “Latino” music, which is such a big tent. That is one of the pillars of the Latino identity that I mentioned in the discussion.
Getting to some policy, you mentioned that healthcare and COVID-19 were the two biggest issues of the election for Latinos before and after the pandemic. Latinos are the most uninsured group, which is one of the major contributing factors for the destruction caused by COVID-19 in Latino communities.
Do you see this as a connection that Latino voters are thinking about, or is there an opportunity for campaigns to draw that connection if not?
I think the big connection is between COVID-19 and loss of jobs. Just think about how many Latinos work in the back end of restaurants as chefs, sous chefs and line cooks, and how much devastation the service sector has seen. Latinos have taken the brunt of this.
When you lose your jobs, you’ve also lost your healthcare, so that opens this up from both angles. I think people see a correlation between the three: COVID-19, health care and jobs. I think politicians would be wise to use that connection. I’m using it right now in my messaging from NuestroPAC.
The majority of Latinos don’t like Donald Trump by big margins, but they don’t know exactly what Donald Trump might do to make their lives better versus what Joe Biden will do. That’s why I think that having those conversations and identifying exactly who Joe Biden is and what he stands for is a big deal.
I’m glad that you made the connection to the economy. Another factor contributing to COVID-19’s impact on the Latino community is the labor and employment landscape for Latinos, from those working in service sector jobs to high-risk sectors like meat processing. What are you hearing from Latinos in terms of economic support, from unemployment benefits to stimulus checks?
A lot of it is tied around their children. It’s hard to leave a child at home when they should be at school, but you don’t want them to die. So there’s questions about how to work when children aren’t in school.
Even more, there is the unfairness of our government to not give financial aid to people who come from mixed-status families who may have a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient in their family or a Temporary Protected Status recipient or other status. For Latinos, I think children and the quality of child care are very important.
As a Democratic strategist, how do you see the split in the Democratic party between the younger, more progressive and diverse wing of the party, particularly in the House, and the establishment? Where do Latinos fit into this, especially given your note that Latinos are a younger demographic.
There’s a fight over 30 percent of Latinos in America. Twenty percent of Latinos, most of which are Cuban, are rock-solid Republicans. There’s another 50 percent of Latinos who are rock-solid Democrats. The fight is over the other 30 percent. If messaged correctly to Latinos, Democrats could get 80 percent of the Latino vote, but in the past Democrats been happy with just 60 percent of the vote because they don’t have nuanced policy positions that are delivered directly to Latinos and democrats have not engaged younger Latinos.
For people looking ahead to how the Latino vote is going, what are some key things to look out for? From what you’ve said, media and outreach spending might be a good indicator for success. Is that so, and is there anything else?
Spending is a good indicator. It’s also a good indicator if there’s a Latino or a person of color in a budgetary authority position, or somebody in a position to make sure our voices are heard at the highest levels of the campaign. That was the real reason Bernie Sanders did so well, because we had integrated Latinos into every aspect.
It’s important to ask these questions: How many Latino-owned consulting firms do you have working for your candidacy? Are you running Latino outreach by. buying TV commercials, mail pieces and digital ads, or are white consultants just google translating your content? How many Latinos do you have on your staff, and how many of them are in positions to do hiring and firing? How many Latino staff members have an approved budget with authority to spend?
These are questions that people should ask every day to their campaigns to find out if their candidate is trying make a real difference. That’s how you really find out how good a campaign is doing with the Latino vote.