(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Democratic 2020 presidential candidates speak at the UnidosUS Annual Conference in San Diego
By Saundra Amrhein and Simon Lewis
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) – Like many Puerto Ricans, Wilson Rivera holds President Donald Trump responsible for what he sees as the U.S. government’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria, the 2017 storm that devastated the island and forced Rivera to relocate to central Florida.
“He has to go,” he said of Trump.
But the 34-year-old school teacher is not sold on Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive Democratic challenger in the Nov. 3 election.
Rivera and other Puerto Rican voters registered in Florida told Reuters they want Biden to offer a bolder vision on issues affecting the nation and their community, including recovery from the economic blow caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
That worries Democratic strategists and Latino activists, who say the thousands of Puerto Ricans displaced by the hurricane should be prime Biden supporters in battleground Florida, which the Republican Trump won by 1.2 percentage points in the 2016 election.
Not only have they widely derided Trump’s handling of relief efforts for the U.S. territory after Hurricane Maria, they also have seen Latinos disproportionately left sickened and unemployed by the coronavirus outbreak.
Reuters/Ipsos national polling shows that only about a quarter of Hispanics chose Trump in a matchup with Biden. But the number supporting Biden dipped to 46% from 51% from February to April as Trump held steady.
Former President Barack Obama won 71% of Hispanic support in 2012 with Biden as his running mate, according to the Pew Research Center. Democrat Hillary Clinton won 66% of the Hispanic vote in 2016.
Democrats and Latino strategists say the Biden campaign needs to show more urgency – both in its messaging and ground game – to win over what is expected to be the largest non-white voting bloc in the 2020 presidential election.
“Just saying negative things about President Trump is not going to be enough to get people excited to vote for anybody,” said Javier Cuebas, a political consultant who worked on Democratic presidential campaigns for Al Gore and John Kerry.
Biden campaign officials say they are expanding outreach to Hispanic voters after a “small and scrappy” operation during the Democratic presidential contest that effectively ended last month.
They are targeting major Hispanic populations in states like Florida and Arizona, as well as smaller but potentially decisive communities in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which have larger Latino populations than Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in those crucial states.
“We haven’t turned on the ignition yet,” said senior Biden adviser Cristobal Alex, who previously headed the influential Latino Victory Fund. “What you’re going to see once we do is a very substantial increase in support for Vice President Biden.”
Biden’s task of turning out Hispanics has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited him to holding virtual events from his home.
The campaign must quickly find new ways to make the person-to-person contacts needed to turn out Latino voters, said Vanessa Cardenas, a former staffer who worked on Latino outreach for Biden’s primary campaign.
“You’ve got to speak their language, but I don’t mean just speaking Spanish – you have to speak to the issues they care about,” said Cardenas. “They have to feel a personal connection to you.”
The voting bloc’s diverse interests make that task challenging.
In Florida, the state’s 1.1 million Puerto Ricans mostly vote for Democrats, while the 1.5 million Cuban Americans are traditionally Republican thanks to the party’s hardline policies toward the Communist-run Cuban government.
Many Latinos are part of evangelical congregations drawn to the Republican Party’s opposition to abortion and gay rights.
Trump, effectively unopposed as the Republican nominee, has had more time to build out “Latinos for Trump,” an initiative kicked off by Vice President Mike Pence in Miami in June 2019.
Alex Garcia, regional political director for Trump Victory, said Trump’s appeal to the Latino community would highlight his domestic and foreign policy records.
Many Hispanic voters oppose Trump’s drive to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall and his aggressive deportation practices. But the Obama administration’s record of deporting large numbers of people has also left some Latinos wary of Biden.
The former vice president has said he would put a moratorium on deportations, except for violent offenders, reverse Trump’s executive orders on immigration, and introduce an immigration reform bill on his first day in the White House.
The Biden campaign has hosted virtual events this month under the “Todos con Biden” (All with Biden) banner, and the candidate’s wife, Jill Biden, held a video call with Latino leaders in Arizona last week.
She also has weekly calls with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who are lobbying her husband to appoint a Latina as his vice presidential candidate in a show of commitment to Hispanic voters.
The outreach so far has drawn a lukewarm response from some voters.
Jose Nieves, 44, senior pastor of First Kissimmee United Methodist Church near Orlando, Florida, said his congregation is filled with people struggling to pay rent and buy food after losing tourism jobs because of coronavirus shutdowns.
Latino unemployment reached 18.9% nationwide this month, higher than other ethnicities, and data from Florida shows they have been disproportionately hit by the virus, making up at least a third of COVID-19 cases in the state.
“I definitely feel there is a disconnect with the needs of the Puerto Rican community and those who are in political power,” said Nieves, adding he was willing to hear Biden’s plans to address the community’s needs.
Law enforcement officer Jacob Ruiz, 43, of Kissimmee has grown disillusioned with Trump since voting for him in 2016. He said Biden could win him and other Latinos over if he offers a convincing plan for the country’s recovery.
“If (Biden) can be a voice of unity, calming people, while communicating a vision so that people have hope,” Ruiz said, “I think he can be successful.”