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Trump sees a boost with Latino voters. What is Biden doing about it?

Biden's top Latino pollster says they've significantly increased polling and specific voter outreach—the way campaigns have traditionally done with white voters.
Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff visit with customers at Amaize restaurant on Sept. 10, 2020 in Doral, Fla., a city with a large number of Venezuelan Americans. Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images

Facing uproar over numbers showing President Donald Trump is making headway with Florida Latino voters, the Joe Biden campaign said it has been polling and targeting Hispanics more than any previous presidential campaigns in its race to contain Republican gains.

Matt Barreto, who took a break from the Latino Decisions polling firm he founded to join the Democratic nominee's campaign, told NBC News the campaign recently conducted a poll of 1,800 Latinos in Florida. By comparison, for Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016, Barretto polled about 600 Hispanics in the state.

The increased polling “gives us the ability to look at Latino voters the same way we have been looking at white voters over the years, which is to microtarget them, break them down into different groups — those without a college degree, those who are married — we’re now bringing that level of sophistication to the Latino community,” he said.

The added investment allows the campaign to tailor its digital ads and mailers for the many subgroups of Latino voters, hitting on issues more important to them or in ways that resonate with them.

It's part of a scramble for votes in the key battleground state that has the campaigns dividing up Latino voters by their countries of origin and playing to their cultural differences.

The Biden campaign declined to release its poll's findings, but is holding up the deep dive on Latino voters as evidence of how seriously focused it is on Florida. The campaign has been dealing with a week of panic from Democrats stirred up by polls showing Trump has stronger Hispanic support in the state than he had in 2016, even though Biden leads in the state overall.

Experts attribute Trump’s bolstered Latino backing to expanded support among Cuban American voters and Venezuelan Americans.

A Bendixen & Amandi/Miami Herald poll of 500 voters from Miami-Dade, where most of the state’s Cuban American voters live, showed Trump with a 38-point lead over Biden with Cuban American voters. With Hispanic voters overall, they each take about half the vote in the area.

In 2016, while Clinton won the overall Latino vote with 62 percent, slightly more than half of Cuban Americans, 54 percent, voted for Trump.

Countering a constant Republican message

Florida Democrats began sounding an alarm early in the Biden campaign, warning that the party was not responding aggressively enough to constant Republican attacks against "socialist" Democrats in an appeal to more conservative Cuban American, Venezuelan and other Latino voters.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have regularly visited South Florida and touted their hardline stance against Cuba and Venezuela.

This past weekend, Biden countered that message, describing Trump's policies on Venezuela and Cuba as "abject failures" in an interview with Miami's NBC station, WTVJ, saying life in these countries had gotten worse under Trump.

Democrats have also been recently attacking Trump as a "caudillo," or strongman, whose flouting of institutions is more akin to Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro.

“We all knew Florida would be close. We knew the Cuban voters, but also Venezuelans and others tend to lean conservative. That’s why early investment and strategy matters so much," said Vanessa Cárdenas, a Democratic strategist who left the Biden campaign during the primary season.

"At this stage, less than 50 days from the election, it’s like an all-hands-on-deck moment," she said.

Stephanie Valencia, co-founder and president of EquisLabs, said that while Trump has expanded Cuban-American support, a recent Equis poll suggests he may be hitting a ceiling with Cuban American voters.

A poll of 1,081 Latinos voters in Florida, conducted Aug. 20-25 by Equis Research, found 53 percent of respondents would vote for Biden and 37 percent for Trump.

Nearly a third of the respondents were Cuban Americans, 24 percent were Puerto Rican, 18 percent of South American descent and 16 percent Spanish. Other Hispanic subgroups were in single digits.

“What’s really important for Democrats and Joe Biden is to tap into those Cuban Americans who are undecided and might potentially still support Joe Biden” and to reach out to Puerto Ricans, people with roots in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and other countries that were part of her polling sample.

Boosting the Puerto Rican vote?

About 3.1 million Latinos are eligible to vote in Florida. In 2018, some of the fastest growth in registered voters has been in counties with large Puerto Rican populations.

Bernard Fraga, Emory University associate professor of political science, said the Biden campaign's expanded polling and targeted messaging is critical because coronavirus has had an impact on voter registration drives and mobilization. The narrative about low voter enthusiasm for Biden might reflect delays in outreach because of COVID-19, he said.

“Trump may do really well among Cuban Americans and South Americans, but among Puerto Ricans, Biden is expected to do far better. That’s a population that’s harder to poll considering how many recently arrived,” Fraga said.

In a bid for Puerto Rican voters, a recent Biden digital ad featured a song by artist Bad Bunny, who is from the island. Titled “Pero Ya No” or “No More”, the ad features clips of Trump interspersed with separations of families at the border and in cages, police reform protests and Trump tossing paper towels to Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017.

The campaign also created a version of the digital ad to appeal to other Latino groups using the song "Decepciones" (Deceptions) by Mexican mariachi performer Alejandro Fernandez.

Keeping up the Puerto Rican outreach, Biden recently retweeted a report on the Trump administration's efforts to withhold disability benefits from Puerto Ricans. The campaign also released a statement recognizing Cubans' patron saint, the Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre and slamming deportations of Nicaraguan asylum seekers.

The campaign has promoted Julie Chávez Rodríguez, granddaughter of civil rights leader and farmworker activist Cesar Chavez, to be a deputy manager of the campaign, as well as added Adrian Saenz, former Obama national Latino vote director, to coordinate mailings with states and Jorge Neri, an Obama campaign veteran, as a senior adviser.

Trump's campaign would not say whether it is microtargeting Hispanic voters. In an emailed statement, the campaign said "we understand that Hispanics are not single-issue, monolithic voters" and that Biden and Democrats have "moved too far left and are too out of touch with Hispanic American voters."

The intensifying scramble for Florida's voters played out on the trail this week. Trump campaigned in South Florida Tuesday. Meanwhile, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris traveled Thursday to Florida and made an unannounced visit to Doral, home to Florida's Venezuelan community. Venezuelans are the country's fastest-growing Latino subgroup.

Barreto said the expanded Latino polling and outreach is not confined just to Florida. Polling also has been done for other battleground states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where no Hispanic polling was done in 2016. The polling of 1,800 Florida Latinos was part of a larger poll of 3,800, Barreto said.

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