Latino voters in Texas will be heading to the polls as a pandemic continues to disproportionately affect their communities. That means Latinos could be more distracted than usual – but they also have more to lose.
Experts say this dynamic has made it difficult to predict what kind of impact the voting bloc will have.
Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, assistant dean for civic engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, said COVID-19 has been a huge weight on most of these voters.
“We are the community that is hardest hit in terms of infection rate, in terms of death toll, in terms of economic hit,” she said. “Latinas have the highest unemployment rate. So, Latinos have a whole bunch going on right now.”
The late summer months are usually a time when campaigns introduce themselves to voters, DeFrancesco Soto said, but the pandemic has been taking attention away from the election.
“In a pandemic world, the Democrats aren’t doing that on-the-ground mobilization,” she said.
Republicans, of course, have an incumbent president who has had four years to engage these voters. Experts say that’s one reason polling has so far shown Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s support among Latinos to be weaker than that of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
While a lot has been made of these national polls, some say the concern is overblown. Emmy Ruiz, a Democratic strategist and partner at NEWCO Strategies, said she wouldn’t put that much stock in most polling of Latino voters, anyway.
“Latinos are notoriously underpolled and underrepresented in polls,” she said, “so I would really not read that much into it.”
This underrepresentation has been a perennial problem, said Juan Carlos Huerta, a political science professor at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. There continues to be a “sampling” problem in most national polls of Latinos, he said.
“It seems like every year we go through the same routine where these national samples are done with maybe 800 voters, or maybe they have been done in one state with 4- or 500 voters,” Huerta said. “And then we start trying to extrapolate what that means for subgroups.”
That’s just not helpful, he said, plus there’s a big problem with looking at Latino voters nationwide as one group.
“That aggregates so much,” Huera said, “because we know that there are national origin differences. There is state-by-state differences. So it can be real tricky to try to do that.”
If you look specifically at Texas and its Latino population, it’s not surprising to see support for Republicans. DeFrancesco Soto said Republicans have been reaching out to conservative Latinos, which could move the needle here.
“We see this base of Latino conservatism that has been here for a long time,” she said. “And so Trump is spending quite a bit of time over the last couple of years in Texas, has been cultivating that vote, has been reaching out to them.”
And while Democrats and Biden’s campaign are starting to spend more money on targeting groups like Latino voters, most of the organizing by Republicans has been happening for years.
Julieta Garibay was an activist for 15 years in Texas and now supports community groups through philanthropy. She said late-in-the-game outreach from Democrats just won’t be as effective as those existing relationships.
“People are connected to their local organizations that have been doing grassroots organizing, that have been organizing with them, that know them by name,” she said. “So, a lot of these organizations have the headway of being able to engage with voters.”
Yvonne Gutierrez with the voter mobilization group Supermajority said many Latinos understand the stakes of this election and plan to vote.
“What we have heard is that people do understand – Latinas in particular – that this the most important election of their lifetime,” she said.
Gutierrez said polls that show Latinos are not as enthusiastic about voting for the Democratic presidential candidate don’t show whether these voters will ultimately cast ballots.
Whether someone is enthusiastic about a candidate and whether they know they should vote are two different questions, Gutierrez said. “And I think when they go to the polls, I think they will vote for Joe Biden.”