Can Biden count on Hispanic voters in a Trump rematch? Weakening support raises alarm for 2024.

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WASHINGTON ― Lindsay Hernandez, a 19-year-old junior at Arizona State University in Phoenix, identifies as a Democrat and backs progressive causes. But she is unsure about voting for President Joe Biden in November.

“If it was my choice, I wouldn't vote for either of them,” said Hernandez, who is mulling whether to instead vote for a third-party candidate.

In a warning sign for Biden's reelection campaign, polling suggests the president has weakening support from Hispanic voters - a key voting bloc in the Democratic coalition - in a hypothetical rematch against Donald Trump.

US President Joe Biden arrives to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on January 12, 2024. Biden is travelling to Allentown, Pennsylvania.
US President Joe Biden arrives to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on January 12, 2024. Biden is travelling to Allentown, Pennsylvania.

A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll this month among registered voters found Biden trails Hispanic voters by a 39%-34% margin to Trump, the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination. Twenty percent of Hispanic voters said they plan to vote for a third-party candidate. Biden won Hispanic voters in the 2020 election 65%-32%, according to exit polls.

Hernandez, a first-time Latina voter studying to become a mental health therapist for teens, wants "new, fresh representation" and opposes Biden's support for Israel's war in Gaza. Older Hispanic voters who have soured on Biden often point to rising costs and other pocketbook issues.

Biden allies argue a true snapshot won't come until closer to the election when contrasts crystalize between Biden's record and a potential second Trump presidency. Yet any decline in support or turnout from Latino voters could hurt Biden's chances in key battleground states, particularly in the Southwest, where Biden carried Arizona and Nevada narrowly in 2020.

"There's no question that, as far as the polls are concerned, it's a real trend. It's a big trend. It's enough to sink potentially Biden's candidacy," said Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic political analyst who analyzes Latino voting patterns.

'The concern is constant,' Democratic congressman says

Biden is also underperforming with two other key constituencies, Black and young voters, according to the USA TODAY/Suffolk poll. Like the broader electorate, Hispanic voters have concerns about the economy and inflation despite progress the White House has touted on job growth, unemployment and other metrics under the slogan of "Bidenomics."

"Truthfully, I don't talk about Bidenomics in my district. I don't use D.C. talking points," said Rep. Gabriel Vasquez, D-N.M., who won his swing congressional district on the southern border by less than 1 percentage point in 2022. He's unsure how "Bidenomics" will resonate in the campaign. "But I do know that Hispanics value hard work, the opportunity to have a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, and I think that's really what we need to be focusing on," he said.

Democratic Hispanic leaders largely defend Biden's record and top legislative achievements such as passing historic infrastructure and climate bills and leading a resurgence in domestic manufacturing. But they worry the Biden campaign's Hispanic outreach is lagging and that the message isn't getting to Hispanic voters.

"The concern is a constant, and it has to do with the party, and it has to do with the Biden administration," U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said. "The consistency of outreach and attention is not there and not at the levels that it needs to be, particularly when we realize that the 2024 election is critical."

Is Biden's message the right one for Hispanic voters?

Biden opened the new year with major speeches in Valley Forge, Pa. and Charleston, S.C. that outlined the central case to his candidacy: that democracy itself is a stake if Trump returns to the White House. Biden is also campaigning heavily on restoring abortion rights following the Supreme Court's 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Teixeira, author of "Where have all the Democrats Gone?", questioned whether Biden's democracy argument appeals to most Hispanic voters, who are disproportionately working class. He argues the democracy argument is most effective with "the emerging college-educated base" of the Democratic Party.

"I think it's the case that working-class people live closer to the bone and have much more mundane concerns," Teixeira said, pointing to economic anxieties. "Their lives and their concerns are different."

Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latino American Citizens, said Biden needs a "clear and concise message that appeals to working-class Latino families." He said Hispanic voters' aren't feeling the economic improvements touted by the White House.

"A lot of Latino families are living paycheck to paycheck like most Americans, and they haven't really seen the benefits of the stock market that's growing or the jobs reports," Garcia. "It's something that's kind of invisible to them right now. They're not feeling it in their pocketbooks."

Garcia said a net decrease of 30,000 to 50,000 Hispanic voters backing Biden in Arizona or Nevada, for example, would be enough to doom his chances there. Biden won Nevada by a margin of 33,596 votes and Arizona by just 10,457 votes.

"That's, in my opinion, something that the Biden administration and his campaign really needs to reflect on. What they're doing is just not working," Garcia said.

Why the Biden campaign says it isn't worried

The Biden campaign says it has embarked on the earliest and most expensive paid media operation targeting Hispanic voters at this juncture of the calendar in presidential election history, having already aired radio and television ads targeting different Latino communities in swing states.

Biden's campaign insists it is working to persuade Latino voters − not just relying on get-out-the-vote efforts at the end of the race.

"The Biden-Harris campaign alongside Democrats fighting up and down the ballot refuse to take the Latino vote for granted," said Maca Casado, the Biden campaign's Hispanic media director. She said Biden has fought for policies "making a real difference" in Latino communities: efforts to lower prescription drug prices, investments in Latino small businesses and fighting gun violence. "We are taking that message to Latinos across the country who will be critical in deciding the election."

Biden campaign advisors are also quick to point out similar doom-and-gloom "red wave" forecasts ahead of the 2022 midterms. Those forecasts predicted Hispanic voters turning on Democrats, which didn't materialize.

"A lot of people were writing the same story then. None of that happened," said Matt Barreto, a pollster for Biden's 2020 campaign who oversaw Hispanic research and focus groups. Even in recent polls that show Biden underperforming with Latino voters, Barreto noted that Trump hasn't significantly expanded his support. And he said it is normal for incumbent Democratic presidents to experience early underperforming with core constituencies, particularly Latino voters, many of whom are voting for the first time.

"There's just a natural reflex, I think for all voters, to be a bit more skeptical or critical of the incumbent," Barreto said.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrive to attend a reception in the East Room of the White House for Hispanic Heritage Month in Washington, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrive to attend a reception in the East Room of the White House for Hispanic Heritage Month in Washington, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.

Polls that isolate only Hispanic voters with larger sample sizes have been favorable to Biden's standing. While the USA TODAY/Suffolk survey polled 122 registered Hispanic votes, a UnidosUS poll of more than 3,000 eligible Latino voters conducted in November found Biden leading Trump 51%-33%, more consistent with recent reelections.

"Biden's got his flaws, but I'll take his flaws over a divided country," said Eduardo Ponce, a 49-year-old manager at a utilities company from Los Alamitos, Calif., who plans to vote for Biden. He called Trump's brand of divisive politics an "existential threat."

Trump's backing from 32% of Hispanic voters in 2020 marked an improvement from the 28% he received in the 2016 election. Hispanic support for Democratic presidents reached 71% for Barack Obama in 2012, then fell to 66% for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 65% for Biden in 2020.

Democrats' increasing reliance on college-educated voters in recent cycles could create an opening for Republicans to court more Latino voters. But while white working-class voters have steadily shifted to Republicans, Black and Latino blue-collar voters have remained reliably Democratic.

"Americans from every community are better off with President Trump, but thanks to Joe Biden life in America has become more expensive and less safe," Trump campaign senior advisor Jason Miller said. "President Trump looks forward to continuing the trend of growing his support with Hispanic and Latino voters as November approaches.”

Reasons for Democratic optimism

One major obstacle for Trump expanding support among Latinos is his long history of anti-immigrant rhetoric and hardline immigration policies as president. On the campaign trail, Trump has warned his base that immigrants are "poisoning the blood" of the nation.

Latino voters strongly favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, according to the UnidosUS poll. Immigration, however, only ranked as the sixth most important issue for Hispanic voters, with inflation and rising costs topping concerns.

In an encouraging sign for Democrats, the same poll found Latino Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans on nearly every issue: the economy, combatting inflation, health care, gun violence and the lack of affordable housing. Hispanic voters said they oppose efforts to restrict or ban abortion by a 71%-23% margin.

"The good news for Democrats is that in terms of their values and issue perspectives and priorities, Latino voters tend to see more alignment with how Democrats identify with those values," said Clarissa Martinez, vice president the Latino Vote Initiative at UnidosUS. "That sends a message that there's opportunity here (for the Biden campaign) to solidify and grow (Hispanic) support."

Although Republicans have made some gains with Latinos the past decade, Martinez said GOP policy positions that are "radically out of step" with Hispanic voters complicate making further headway.

In this Sept. 14, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump give a thumbs up to the cheering crowd after a Latinos for Trump Coalition roundtable in Phoenix.
In this Sept. 14, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump give a thumbs up to the cheering crowd after a Latinos for Trump Coalition roundtable in Phoenix.

'We must tell a story'

Biden's Hispanic supporters give him high marks for assembling a diverse administration that includes four Latino Cabinet members. And they applaud Biden choosing as his campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodriguez - the granddaughter of Mexican American union leader Cesar Chávez and the first Latina woman to lead a major presidential campaign.

Héctor Sánchez Barba, CEO and executive director of Mi Familia Vota, which works to organize Latino voters said there is a "world of difference between the impact" Biden has had on the Latino community versus Trump. He said Latinos have a true voice in the Biden White House that they lacked under Trump.

"We must tell a story about giving the Latino community a better life. This administration has created jobs, rebuilt infrastructure, and helped Latinos turn the page on the chaos of the MAGA movement," Barba said.

He said the problem isn't so much "a disconnect" between Biden and Latino voters as it is a "need for clarity" on Biden's record.

"Latinos are a target of a lot of misinformation," Barba said. "When we can present the policy positions of the two parties, Democrats' positions are far and away more popular."

Grijalva, who has represented his Arizona congressional district for two decades, said "a full-throated, assertive and aggressive defense of democracy and fundamental rights," like Biden is making, can be a winning message in the Hispanic community, particularly with young voters and recent immigrants.

"I don't think it's doomsday," Grijalva said, mocking the "Chicken Little people" who say the "sky is falling" in terms of Latino support for Biden.

But he said Biden's case must be delivered directly in a "real and resourced" way to Hispanic voters. If it's not, he said the "Chicken Little people" will be proven right.

Contributing: Rafael Carranza, Arizona Republic.

Reach Joey Garrison on X, formerly known as Twitter, @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Can Biden count on Hispanic voters in a race against Trump?