We can't win on immigration alone: Latinos helped elect Biden, but Democrats can do better

Melissa Morales, Opinion contributor
·5 min read

Thousands of Latinos in places like the Rio Grande Valley and Miami-Dade voted for President Donald Trump. I don’t like it, but it’s a fact. Though it’s not the whole story.

Record-breaking Latino turnout across the country was critical to propelling President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to victory. The Latino early vote alone came in at more than 8.6 million ballots. Latino Decisions estimates that Latinos cast approximately 1.4 million votes in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. According to the firm's analysis, Biden won more than 980,000 of those votes — giving him a margin of 40 points over Trump.

Last year, Equis Labs in partnership with Somos highlighted the potential for Latinos to be the “X factor” in this election, and highlighted the stark demographic differences based on ethnicity, age and gender for how Latinos view President Trump. This turned out to be true. Latina women chose Biden by a 50-point margin over Trump, according to Latino Decisions. Approximately 1.7 million young Latinos voted early, according to TargetSmart, which represents a threefold increase over 2016.

Knock on doors and persuade Latinos

I’ve always said that the core mission of my organization, Somos PAC — a Latino voter mobilization organization — boils down to a very simple question: How do I help people like my dad to vote? The answer is voter education and investment. Just like with every other demographic. My dad was canvassed by a campaign this year apparently for the first time ever. Meaning that a man who lives in the only majority-Hispanic state Senate district in Kansas had never had his door knocked on by a candidate or campaign.

My dad called me multiple times after that to tell me about things they talked about and to ask my opinion about them. On Nov. 3, while casting his vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, my dad also voted for that candidate. Outreach to Latino voters not only works, it matters to people.

That’s why this year, Somos PAC invested more than $20 million in a national field campaign across Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Texas. This effort facilitated hundreds of thousands of direct conversations with Latino voters. Our outreach also included Spanish-language TV and radio ads, direct mail, digital advertising, and live calls and text messages.

But what does it mean to engage Latino communities going forward? It means that instead of packing up and leaving in the coming weeks, we invest in the long-term infrastructure needed to consistently and permanently embed in these communities at the grassroots. We also need to change our thinking about how we engage diverse Latino communities.

2020 election results: Why did so many Latinos vote for Donald Trump?

We’ve often said Latinos are not a monolith. What does that mean? It means that Latinos in Miami-Dade may vote differently than Latinos in Orlando or Phoenix. We are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Cuban, Dominican, Peruvian, Venezuelan and more. We share a lot in common, but we’re also very different. We need to build our voter-contact programs accordingly.

The dips we saw in places like Miami-Dade are real and should not be ignored. There are lessons to be learned here about early and sustained investment in the Latino community. We need to expand our definition of what it means to be “persuadable” — a conversation often limited to white populations — and recognize that some Latino voters fall into this category.

Finally, engaging the Latino community means we need to push the Biden-Harris administration to deliver for Latinos on issues that matter most to our communities, and then celebrate and communicate these victories around the country.

We can't win on immigration alone

Those of us who have spent our lives around and working in Latino communities knew that the inhumane and discriminatory policies pushed by Republicans in recent years would be repudiated. The disgraced former Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona and White House adviser Stephen Miller became household names for their unrelenting anti-immigrant agenda. The Trump administration’s unthinkable family separation and forced sterilization policies turned our stomachs. White nationalists threatened our lives by targeting us in the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

These are powerful motivators for Latinos, but not the only motivators.

No one will tell you immigration is not important. It matters, and ensuring that President-elect Biden delivers on immigration will be key to regaining some trust lost within the Latino community. But we can’t win by talking about immigration alone. We win by talking about affordable, accessible health care and economic opportunity.

Reality check: Republicans as a multicultural working class party? That's Trump-level delusional thinking.

It might sound like a lot of professional and arm-chair political punditry, yet the data is clear. Another Pew Research Center survey showed Latino registered voters rated the economy (80%), health care (76%) and COVID-19 (72%) as very important to their vote in the 2020 election.

The results in key battleground states confirm that Latino voters were the critical difference makers in this election. Our role will only become more decisive in future elections. This means it is imperative that our party continues to invest the time and money to listen to Latino communities in all their diversity, engage them directly and deliver what we promised in terms of representation and policy over the next four years.

Melissa Morales is executive director of Somos Votantes and president of Somos PAC, a Latino voter mobilization organization that targets battleground states. She helped lead an 11-state Latino polling effort for Equis Research ahead of the 2020 election. Follow her on Twitter: @Melissa_In_DC

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Talk to Latino voters about health care and jobs, not just immigration