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Latino voters will have more say in 2020 with new primary schedule

In 2020, candidates who don't connect effectively with Latino voters ahead of the California and Texas primaries "do so at their peril," says a consultant.

AUSTIN, Texas — Because of a slight calendar adjustment, Latinos will have a larger say in who Democrats elect to run for president in 2020.

California moved up its presidential primary — held in 2016 on June 7 — to March 3 for next year's election.

That means California, the state with the largest number of eligible Latino voters, estimated by Pew Research Center at about 7.7 million in 2018, will join Texas, the state with the second largest number of eligible Latino voters at about 5.5 million, in holding their primaries on Super Tuesday.

“One in five American Latinos live in Texas and if you add California, you get substantial power of the Latino vote to really influence the Democratic Party and reshape especially the Democratic Party on key issues, especially health care and immigration,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramírez, executive director of Jolt, a Texas-based group which organizes Latinos on voting, turnout and on issues affecting the community.

Iowa’s caucuses on Feb. 3, as well as New Hampshire's primary on Feb. 11, 2020, still will precede the Texas and California primaries.

But Texas’ early voting starts 17 days before its primary, which means Latinos in the state will start voting when New Hampshire holds its primary.

California starts accepting mail-in ballots on Feb. 3.

“I think it’s one of the very principal reasons why we moved primaries up, which is for California to have a real say in who the nominees for president are,” said Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state who oversees its elections. “It’s not just the most populous state in the nation. We are the most diverse state in the nation and to allow for those voices to be meaningful in the nominating process is very empowering for California voters, including Latino voters."

California temporarily moved its primary up in 2008, joining 23 other states in holding primaries on Feb. 3 that year. But Texas’ primary came about a month later then.

Harnessing Latino voter influence

Other states still may reschedule their primaries, which could determine how influential the Latino vote is on Super Tuesday.

All of this comes in a year when the nomination race is expected to be crowded and not too long after a 174 percent increase in early voting by Latinos for the 2018 midterms. There also is evidence of stronger than expected turnout of Hispanics on Election Day.

Higher Latino turnout means that there are voter lists with many more Hispanics on them that can be more easily contacted for turnout, said Texas Democratic consultant Matt Angle, the founder of the Lone Star Project, which seeks to win more offices for Democrats in Texas.

Julián Castro, former Housing Secretary under President Barack Obama as well as former San Antonio mayor, is scheduled to officially announce his presidential run plans this weekend in his hometown, San Antonio. He’s given many indications that he’ll be in the race.

The only Latino in the race, so far, is a military vet and former West Virginia state senator, Richard Ojeda (pronounced Oh-JED-ah rather than the Spanish pronunciation of Oh-HAY-dah).

Being Latino doesn’t guarantee a candidate the Hispanic vote. Kamala Harris could be a favorite in her home state of California. But research has shown Latino candidates can spur more Hispanic engagement if they are considered to be paying attention to Latino voter concerns.

Angle foresees a nomination up for grabs when March 6 rolls around “and the candidates who fail to communicate effectively with Latino voters will do so at their peril.”

According to Angle, that could be seen in campaigns like those of former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who ran a very close, but ultimately unsuccessful race against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Wendy Davis, who failed in her 2014 Texas gubernatorial run. They had a hard time communicating with Latino voters and weren’t well known in the community, Angle said.

He thinks Castro would have a leg up on other candidates with Texas' Latino voters.

Stepping up outreach

The large Hispanic electorate voting early could also force a change in how candidates reach out to Latinos. Simply running Spanish language ads or starting outreach late in the cycle won’t be enough.

California has been very intentional about improving voter turnout, adopting methods such as registering 16- and 17-year-olds and modernizing how its elections are conducted so voters have many options for where and when to vote, Padilla said.

By moving the primary up, candidates “have to come here and earn votes,” he said.

Groups that work to mobilize more Hispanics to vote are accelerating and adjusting strategies for registering and turning out Latino voters earlier.

Image: A poll worker places a mail in ballot into a voting box as voters drop off their ballot in the U.S. presidential primary election in San Diego, California
A poll worker places a mail in ballot into a voting box as voters drop off their ballot in the U.S. presidential primary election in San Diego, California, United States June 7, 2016.Mike Blake / Reuters

On the issues, Tzintzún said her group will be looking for candidates to address specifics such as health care — in particular, the large number of uninsured Latinos — as well as student debt and immigration policy.

“There’s going to be a litmus test," said Tzintzún. "The Democratic Party has moved — it’s more diverse and younger and there is real economic suffering happening in this country, especially among younger voters and voters of color."

Ben Monterroso, Mi Familia Vota executive director, said his group has already begun discussions on turning out more Latino voters for the primary and addressing the challenges of increasing the number of Hispanics who vote by mail in California.

Mi Familia Vota will start talking to voters about the primary in earnest this fall, said Monterroso, because "Latino voters need to be setting the agenda in the presidential race from the beginning, not at the last minute."