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Biden campaign's microtargeting of Latino communities takes on a new twist

The former vice president's campaign is trying to put a familiar touch on its outreach to disparate Latino communities.
Image: Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Biden campaigns in Las Vegas, Nevada
Joe Biden speaks about the disproportionate ways coronavirus has impacted Latinos in Nevada during a campaign stop at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Oct. 9, 2020.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON — For Puerto Rican voters who’ve moved to the U.S. mainland, a phone call from the island’s 787 area code these days is just as likely to be coming from a Joe Biden campaign volunteer as from friends and family back home.

But the conversation is still likely to be a familiar one, because the volunteer on the other end is also a member of the Puerto Rican community.

That’s the intent of the biweekly “Boricua a Boricua” or “Puerto Rican to Puerto Rican” phone banks in Florida — a key piece of the Biden campaign’s Latino microtargeting strategy. From Salvadoran Americans in Georgia to Mexican Americans in Nevada, Latino voters across the country are hearing from Biden volunteers who hail from their own communities, focusing on shared experiences and concerns.

The Biden campaign, with the help of the Democratic National Committee, has deployed a microtargeting strategy never before used by a Democratic presidential campaign to shape its grassroots outreach, messaging, political strategy and paid media for individual communities across different regions of the country.

Recognizing that messages attracting Mexicans to politics are vastly different than that for Colombians is the strategy Democrats are banking on to win at the margins against what they call President Donald Trump’s broad one-size-fits-all approach to outreach.

The targeting of specific subgroups of Latino voters came after Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, a Dominican American, directed investments in the committee’s voter database to identify and differentiate Latino voters’ backgrounds. Before the 2018 midterms, a voter who came up in the file with a common Latino surname wouldn’t be identified by country of origin, resulting in that voter receiving generic messages that could fall flat given the differences among each cultural community.

After thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S. mainland following the devastation of Hurricane Maria three years ago, for example, the DNC bought 80,000 phone numbers to target voters in Pennsylvania and 300,000 to reach voters in Florida with the 787 area code. The party’s goal: To mobilize an already Democratic-leaning community considered even more persuadable now, after Trump’s widely criticized response to the island’s devastation.

The early investments paved the way for the Biden campaign to distribute call sheets to volunteers to contact voters from their own countries of origin. While volunteers are armed with talking points about Biden's policy positions, they do not receive specific scripts on how to conduct the conversation. The campaign has calculated that a Cuban American volunteer living in Hialeah, Florida, knows best how to successfully persuade a neighbor with the same background.

What volunteers do receive, however, are culture-targeted “guides to counter disinformation” with answers to questions that are likely to be posed by members of a certain community. A Venezuelan con Biden packet obtained by NBC News gives callers talking points on how to respond to voter accusations such as “Biden is a socialist/communist” to “Trump was the first to put sanctions on Venezuela.”

It’s a strategy also adopted into the campaign’s paid advertising. Every Spanish-language television ad is recorded in Cuban, Mexican and Puerto Rican accents to play in media markets where voters are used to hearing that accent. They also record digital and radio ads in “Spanglish” in an effort to model the way many young Latino voters speak given that they have likely grown up bilingual.

And with a sizable war chest to use in the final stretch of the campaign, they now have the ability to blitz the airways with new paid media content, including releasing 12 new ads targeting Latinos in just one week.

Talking to Latinos based on common identity from their regional origin is something grassroots mobilizing organizations and political operatives say is key to creating lasting engagement with voters, and gives them the opportunity to play a part in influencing the campaign.

Laura Jimenez, the campaign’s Latino engagement director, helped launch Todos Con Biden a year ago and made a point to create specific outreach groups engaging communities, such as “Ecuatorianos con Biden” to “Venezolanos con Biden.” The goal was to identify community leaders and establish effective outreach through culturally appropriate messages, so they could host their own in-person “charla” discussions and expand their networks on the ground and through social media.

Campaign organizers believe that establishing these grassroots groups a year ago made it easier for them to transition from in-person events to virtual amid the pandemic, like hosting “Cubanos con Biden” daily virtual “cafecitos” broadcast to the 12,500 followers on Facebook or streaming conversations on social media pages popular among youths like Wearemitu, which boasts 8 million people collectively who follow or like their Facebook page.

To be sure, a general sense of frustration has existed among minorities working on the campaign who urged the need for earlier investments in the community, especially of Biden’s time. Operatives have pointed out a worrisome trend by Democratic campaigns to undervalue the Latino vote, particularly in Florida, a perennial swing state. Activists argue that in 2018, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson lost his bid for re-election in part because he did little to appeal to Latino voters in key areas of the state that could have made up for his 10,000 vote loss against the Republican Rick Scott.

Biden himself has acknowledged in recent weeks that he needs to tell his personal story more often to the largely immigrant community who likely did not live in the U.S. during his early political career and has grown used to hearing Trump’s often racist attacks.

“They know (Trump.) They got to know more about me and that's what I'm attempting to do,” Biden told reporters after leaving a Hispanic Heritage Month event in Orlando, Florida, last month.

Biden has significantly increased his travel to heavily Latino communities since then, visiting Florida, Arizona and Nevada to deliver remarks about the economy and jobs.

Biden's focus on the economy is deliberate, as the campaign believes Trump’s popularity among some Latino voters, particularly among men, stems from his economic message and his “strong man” approach to politics.

Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director and CEO of the nonpartisan Hispanic mobilization group Mi Familia Vota, calls the Democrats’ efforts a “step in the right direction” but urges that investments should be met with legislation so that voters finally see their concerns addressed. The first step to do that, he said, is getting Trump out of office.

“There is a world of difference between what Trump and the Republicans have done to the Latino community and what the Democrats have done with the community and the Biden campaign. There is not even room for comparison,” he said.