WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is spending valuable time in the final weeks of his re-election campaign trying to boost his numbers among Latino voters in hope of offsetting softening support among other key demographics.
Trump capped off a three-day Western swing with a "Latinos for Trump" event Monday at a Phoenix resort after having spent two days trying to appeal to Latino voters in Nevada, where he said Joe Biden would be a "disaster for Hispanic Americans. He predicted that Hispanics would vote for him because they "like tough people, people who are going to produce jobs."
There are no indications that Trump will be able to win the Latino vote, which has been shifting toward Democrats for the past two decades. But with Trump's support among white voters consistently lower than he attracted in 2016, campaign officials have been saying for months that they see an opportunity to boost support among Latinos with Trump's message on crime and the economy — potentially picking up votes on the margins that could make the difference in closely contested states like Florida and Arizona.
Latinos are expected to be the largest minority group eligible to vote in the 2020 election, making up 13 percent of the voting population, exceeding Black voters for the first time, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Trump got just 28 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2016, on par with Mitt Romney in 2012 but far below the 44 percent President George W. Bush picked up in 2004.
Trump's biggest advantage among Latinos this election cycle appears to be in Florida, helped in part by his anti-socialism message. Trump and Biden are both supported by 48 percent of likely voters in Florida, with the president ahead among Latinos in the state, according to NBC News/Marist polls of Florida voters this month. In the Miami region, heavily populated by Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans, Biden leads by 15 points, while Hillary Clinton won the same counties by 27 points in 2016, the poll found.
Trump doesn't seem to be benefiting from the same shift, however, in other states. In Arizona, where the Latino population is more closely tied to Mexico, Biden has about the same level of support that Clinton had in 2016, with 62 percent of Latinos saying they plan to vote for him, compared to 27 percent who plan to vote for Trump, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll. The survey found Biden leading Trump by 47 percent to 44 percent in Arizona, which Trump won by 3 percentage points in 2016 because of higher support from white voters than Clinton got.
Trump talked up his poll numbers among Latinos moments after he arrived in Arizona.
"We're working with your governor, and we're doing a really good job for Hispanics and Latinos, and I think it really is represented well in the polling numbers we're seeing," he told reporters.
At the Phoenix event, which was billed as a "Latinos for Trump roundtable," Trump touted record low Hispanic unemployment before the coronavirus, accused Democrats of being responsible for violence in cities and attacked Biden's mental fitness.
"My Latinos, I love the Latinos, I have always known how great you are," Trump said.
The event, which included a mix of Latino and non-Latino supporters, was held in a hotel ballroom with no social distancing measures, and very few attendees wore masks — at one point a woman in the crowd yelled, "Open Arizona!"
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Arizona has been one of the states hardest hit by Covid-19, with more than 5,000 people having died of the virus. Latinos in the Phoenix area have been twice as likely to be infected as non-Latino residents.
Groups supporting both candidates have been spending heavily in Arizona — since Sept. 1, each side has spent $4.8 million on television ads in the state. Vice President Mike Pence will be in Arizona on Friday for a Hispanic Heritage Month event.
In Nevada, where 28 percent of the population is Latino, Trump appears to be doing similarly among nonwhite voters as he did in 2016, according to a New York Times/Siena poll from earlier this month. While the poll didn't break out Latino voters specifically, it found Trump's support among nonwhite voters at 24 percent. That compares to 2016, when he got 29 percent of the Latino vote and just 12 percent of the Black vote in Nevada.
Biden campaign officials said they have been increasing their Latino outreach in recent months, with an influx of cash allowing them to put Latino vote directors in 11 states. Since June, they have been running Spanish-language ads, including ads in different accents to appeal to specific groups, campaign officials told reporters. The Biden campaign launched its Hispanic outreach effort late last year by kicking off ethnic group-focused outreach groups like Cubanos for Biden and Puerto Ricans for Biden.
"The pathway to victory includes winning key battleground states, and we're going to do that by building a culturally competent campaign that targets states with heavy Hispanic populations," said Jorge Neri, a senior Biden political adviser.
The Trump campaign, which launched its Latinos for Trump effort in June, has hired dozens of Latino staffers to reach specific groups, like field organizers with ties to Venezuelans in Doral, Florida, and Mexican American field organizers in Phoenix. It has 16 Latinos for Trump offices in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Texas.
The Trump campaign has been running Spanish-language ads focused on Democrats' call for a boycott of Goya Foods after its CEO spoke at the White House, as well as other social issues, like a radio ad in which two Mexican American women discuss Biden's immigration record and attacks by Democrats on Hispanic culture and faith, the campaign said.
"As Joe Biden's campaign tries to hide his nearly half-century record of failure that focused on winning over American socialists and appeasing Latin American dictators, our campaign is on the ground connecting directly with the Latino Community, while President Trump is delivering the Great American Comeback," Trump campaign spokeswoman Ali Pardo said.
The Trump campaign said it sees signs that its strategy is working, pointing to an increase in Latino support in a set of Fox News polls this summer. In June, Trump's support among Latinos stood at 21 percent in the Fox News survey. It increased to 34 percent in the same poll in August and to 38 percent in September. That, along with growing support from white voters, helped Trump narrow his deficit with Biden, according to the Fox News surveys.
Just how much influence Latinos have in the election will come down to turnout. In Florida, for example, 30,000 to 50,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the state after Hurricane Maria, according to the University of Florida. Those transplants are eligible to vote in Florida, and Democrats could motivate them to vote for Biden because of Trump's widely criticized response to the hurricane, but they will have to register to vote there first.
"We know that, regrettably, Latinos have the lowest turnout rate of any group, so in Florida, Arizona, California, Texas, you name it, it's really about mobilization," Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a political science professor at the University of Texas, said in an interview on MSNBC. "And it's worrisome, because in the middle of a pandemic, how do you mobilize most effectively?"