Joe Biden has won with black voters, he’s won in white suburbs, and he’s won with noncollege-educated white voters so far in the Democratic primary.
But Biden hasn’t yet demonstrated similar strength among Latinos — and he’ll need to solve that problem to build on his Arizona primary win and grab the first-in-a-generation chance Democrats have to flip the state this fall.
The longtime Republican bastion suddenly looks like a top Democratic target in 2020, after electing a Democratic senator for the first time in decades during the midterms and becoming a symbol of the suburban shift toward Democrats during the Trump era. Biden’s ability to turn out white suburbanites will play a critical role if he hopes to edge out President Donald Trump for Arizona’s nine electoral votes, which could be decisive in a close 2020 race.
While most of the focus on the 2020 electoral map has gone to Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three Midwestern states Trump flipped in 2016, opening up another battleground in the Southwest would give Biden more paths to victory in the Electoral College. Though Biden has improved among Latino Democrats, battling Bernie Sanders to a draw in Arizona, according to exit polls, Sanders has won the demographic in most primaries and caucuses with exit poll data so far. The numbers show that his campaign has work to do to put together a coalition to flip Arizona.
“Biden shouldn’t make the same mistakes that the Hillary campaign did,” said Eduardo Sainz, Arizona state director of Mi Familia Vota. “It is not enough just to think that because [Latinos] want to get Trump out of office that individuals would automatically assume that Biden is better.”
A recent Univision poll of Arizona voters showed that 72 percent of Latinos there disapprove of how Trump has handled the presidency. And only 21 percent of Arizona Latinos said they’d vote to reelect Trump in a December poll conducted by Stephanie Valencia, co-founder and president of Equis Labs, which polls Latinos in battleground states across the country.
Though Biden swept nearly every county in the Arizona and Florida primaries Tuesday night, Democratic operatives and Latinos in Arizona said the former vice president needs to amp up his persuasion efforts targeting Latinos ahead of November.
By LAURA BARRÓN-LÓPEZ and MARC CAPUTO
Registered Latino voters who don’t turn out — and nonregistered voters who are eligible — vastly outnumber the share of Latinos who do vote in Arizona, Valencia said. That means Biden “has to have a strategy” that “aggressively” engages Latinos, she said, tapping into the activist infrastructure on the ground to spur turnout.
“He can’t win the election without [Latinos], without motivating each of those sectors,” Valencia said.
Winning Arizona for a Democrat is a delicate balancing act relying on promoting high Latino turnout and support without alienating suburban whites who can be turned off by the positions advocated by progressive immigration activists.
“A lot of their theories about how you win here are wrong,” said Roy Herrera, an adviser to Democrat Mark Kelly’s Senate campaign, which echoes the moderate messaging of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and, to a lesser extent, Biden.
Herrera, who was not speaking on behalf of Kelly’s campaign, said Latinos are winnable with a moderate message about health care, education and pragmatism. He notes that Sinema, criticized by progressive activists for running a moderate campaign that emphasized border security, won Latinos and the state in 2018. But at the same time, fellow Democrat David Garcia lost Latinos by 12 points on his way to a defeat at the hands of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
“Garcia ran essentially a Bernie Sanders-type campaign. He ran very far left with the whole ‘Abolish ICE’ thing,” Herrera said. “That is not a position to take here.”
Republican Kirk Adams, a former state House speaker who passed the bill, SB 1070, that gave local authorities the ability to detain anyone without a warrant if they were believed to have committed a deportable offense, agreed that Biden has the chance to paint Arizona blue.
“When you look at the dynamics of the 2018 election, at the Ducey-Sinema voter, there clearly is a pathway for Biden at the top of the ticket for Democrats to win the presidential and possibly even do better in down-ballot races than they have in the past,” said Adams, who also served as Ducey’s chief of staff.
But like Herrera, Adams said Biden could lose his opportunity in the state if he tacks too far left on immigration. And Trump’s campaign quickly seized on Biden’s immigration policies after the most recent Democratic debate, tagging Biden as a supporter of “open borders” in an attempt to promote the false impression that he wants to undo all immigration restrictions. Biden does not support decriminalizing border crossings, but he has said he would focus his policies on the reunification of families and reverse many of Trump’s draconian policies, including the effective halt on asylum-seekers.
Like most of the Democrats who ran for president in this primary, Biden has embraced providing health care to undocumented immigrants, and said his administration would implement a 100-day moratorium on all deportations to evaluate the sweeping changes Trump’s made on the immigration system. After the 100-day halt, Biden would focus on deporting undocumented immigrants who have committed felonies.
Cristobal Alex, a senior adviser to Biden, said Arizona was “ground zero” for many of the policies Trump later adopted nationally. Biden’s campaign will highlight Trump’s decision to “pardon America’s most famous racial profiler” former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was charged with criminal contempt for defying a judge’s order to stop racially profiled Latinos during patrols.
And the Biden campaign will remind Latinos of the “scare tactics” Trump uses frequently, including his pre-midterm gambit in 2018 when he “talked about a caravan of migrants approaching the border in an attempt to pit Americans against each other and create fear,” Alex said.
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Trump’s campaign has spent roughly $5.7 million on Facebook ads about immigration, his so-called wall and the border in 2019 and 2020, according to researchers at the Online Political Transparency Project at New York University.
A Monmouth poll released Monday backed up the notion of Arizona as a budding battleground. Biden led Trump by 3 points in the poll, 46 to 43 percent.
“As the Republican Party in Arizona has become more characterized by people like Arpaio than by people like John McCain, that has created a fissure,” Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said. That fissure has driven college-educated white voters toward Democrats. Combine that with an expanding Latino population activated by battles with Arpaio and the bills like SB 1070, and Arizona is “in play.”
Murray added that it would be “insane” for Democrats not to heavily invest in flipping the state at the presidential level. But he said Democrats “need strong Latino support across the board” to make it happen, and Latino Democrats in the West have favored Sanders so far in the Democratic primary.
“The question is do they shift and their enthusiasm carry over into the general election with Biden as the nominee?” Murray said. “We don’t know that yet.”
Chuck Coughlin, a Republican consultant, said Arizona is winnable for a candidate like Biden because of Trump. Pointing to Sinema’s successful campaign and Kelly’s surging Democratic campaign for Senate, Coughlin said moderate Democrats have shown they can win Arizona.
And in a state with a history of electing women, Coughlin said, Biden could give himself an edge just by virtue of making good on his campaign promise to pick a woman for a running mate.
“Picking a Kamala Harris or an Amy Klobuchar would probably help out here,” Coughlin said. “He could do well.”