Tony Cárdenas believes the Democrats have a Latino problem.
In every election, there are complaints that the party takes this important constituency for granted, adopts a one-size-fits-all strategy, spends too little on advertising and turnout, relies on the same clique of Washington advisors, and bypasses knowledgeable strategists with closer ties to Latino communities.
Like so much in politics, it is a struggle for money and power. But the stakes have risen as Latinos have become one of the fastest growing electoral groups in the country; The loyalties formed today are likely to outlast many upcoming elections.
Cárdenas, a Democratic Congressman from the San Fernando Valley who has played a key role in Latino public relations for the past three election cycles, hopes and prays that his party will keep control of Congress after the 2022 midterm elections.
But, said Cárdenas in an interview, “it will take a lot of work” and requires the Democrats to develop a much stronger relationship with Latinos of different origins and cultures.
Analytics can be all the rage these days. When speaking to voters, strategists practically know when someone goes to bed in the evening and what they eat for breakfast the next morning. But more important than the compilation of these personal profiles, said Cárdenas, is the establishment of a personal connection.
It is not enough to address Latino voters in Spanish – or to lead the party’s pitch through Google Translate – he said. Democrats also need to speak different “cultural languages”.
“Understand what makes them giggle,” he said of Latinos from all backgrounds. “Understand what makes her laugh. Understand what is upsetting them. Understand what drives them. “
A year ago, the Democrats achieved their overarching political goal and chased President Donald Trump out of the Oval Office. But the 2020 elections left an ashy aftertaste on many partisans due to the disappointing election results.
The Democrats took control of the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tiebreaker in a 50-50 chamber.
But that fell far short of what the Democrats had hoped for, and gave each of those 50 Senators life and death control of President Joe Biden’s appointments and agenda. Experience the last few months in which Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin effectively act as co-presidents alongside the haunted Biden.
The House races result was even more discouraging for the Democrats, who were fully confident that they would expand their leeway and give House Speaker Nancy Pelosi significantly more breathing room. Instead, they lost a dozen seats, leaving the Democrats with the closest majority in any party for decades.
One reason for the 2020 result was a worse-than-expected result among Latino voters. (Put another way, Trump and his Republicans far exceeded expectations.)
Trump won about 28% of the Latino vote in 2016, which was roughly the average for most Republican presidential candidates over the past 50 years. After the many hideous things he said about People of Color and the combative anti-immigration policies he pursued, it seemed unlikely that Trump would increase his support among Latinos. But he did and, depending on the poll, won anywhere from 32% to 38% of their votes in 2020.
If the Democrats thought Trump’s bigoted behavior was doing their job and making Latinos bitter about the GOP and its candidates, they were wrong. The Republicans also gained ground in congressional competitions in Florida and Texas, among other places, which brought several House seats in their way.
After the election, as he neared his fourth term, Cárdenas sought to chair the Democratic Congress campaign committee to put his ideas into practice.
Cárdenas lost the competition, but continues to informally advise candidates and others whom he met as the head of the Political Action Committee of the Hispanic Caucus of Congress. He recently offered his recipe for Democrats over a bowl of chicken soup at a Mexican corner shop in sunny San Fernando.
An important step, according to Cárdenas, is for the party to deal with Latino voters early and often instead of waiting for the last few months of a campaign.
The Democrats, too, should not only address young, left-wing voters.
“If you just communicate and say, ‘Well, Latinos are progressive,’ you’re likely to get positive attention from an 18-25 year old,” said Cárdenas. But that risks alienating someone who has two or three jobs and has a family, or someone who works – he crossed out the word for emphasis – who needs a roof over their head, or someone who works who is medical Supply needs.
“Many Latinos are very, very proud and like to earn what they get,” said 58-year-old Cárdenas. “But if you tell them you’re just going to give it to them, you probably won’t go down very well with older Latino voters.”
Democrats should also be tougher on allegations they oppose against the police or crime, and appreciate it better when Republicans accuse them of selling “socialism,” which may sound far-fetched to them, but always to some Latinos who fled repressive or authoritarian regimes are still afraid.
All of these steps, suggested Cárdenas, require the kind of awareness and sensitivity that comes with hiring strategists who are culturally better and more organically connected with the voters who want the Democrats to win over.
“Sooner or later the dam will break,” said Cárdenas, bringing with him a flood of Latinos, Blacks and other advisors who will replace today’s wage laborers and offer a new perspective to campaigns across the country.
“I want every aspect of what we do in Washington to look like America,” he said. “If we do that, we will get amazing results” in both politics and politics.
Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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