KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — Joe Biden vowed in 2020 to work “like the devil” to energize Hispanic voters, and flew to Florida seven weeks before Election Day to do just that. But, as he stepped to the podium at a Hispanic Heritage Month event near Disney World, Biden declared, “I just have one thing to say” and used his phone to play part of “Despacito.”
It was meant to salute the singer of the reggaeton hit, Luis Fonsi, who had introduced Biden. Still, the gesture triggered online backlash from some Hispanics who saw it as playing to belittling stereotypes — proof that while outreach is important, failing to strike the right tone can undermine it.
“The details actually matter for people because it’s respecting their background, respecting their history, respecting their culture,” said Grecia Lima, national political director of the progressive activist group Community Change Action.
President Biden isn’t the first politician to strike a sour note trying to connect across cultural lines. But the blowback he encountered illustrates a bigger challenge he faces while seeking a second term.
Hispanic voters, long a core constituency for Democrats, have reliably supported them based on substantive matters of policy, from health care to managing the economy, according to Pew Research Center surveys. But recent signs that Republicans have made inroads with those voters is adding to the sense that Democrats must work to maintain their advantage.
Democratic candidates won 57% of Hispanic voters during last year’s midterms, a smaller percentage than the 63% of Hispanic voters Biden won in 2020 and the 66% of Hispanic voters supporting the party in 2018, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the national electorate.
Meanwhile, 39% of Hispanic voters backed Republicans last year, a tick up from the 35% who supported former President Donald Trump’s reelection bid.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican considering a White House run, said Democrats have hurt themselves by adopting terms like Latinx, a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” and “Latina.”
“They’ve created a tremendous opportunity for Republicans,” Suarez said.
Democrats believed harsh rhetoric from Republicans during and after the presidency of Trump — who in his campaign launch in 2015 declared immigrants from Mexico to be rapists and criminals — would give them a boost. Instead, even modest swings toward the GOP could mean millions more Republican votes next year. Hispanics made up 62% of total growth in the nation’s eligible voters between 2018 and last year’s election, according to Pew.
“Are they behind?” asked Javier Palomarez CEO of the United States Hispanic Business Council. “Yes.”
Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said nearly every cycle features “activists with their hair on fire: ‘The campaign’s not doing enough, we’re not hearing from enough people.‘” She said Biden’s campaign is neutralizing those perceptions with “historic strides and investments” in Hispanic voter mobilization.
Biden supporters also say substantive issues, rather than incidents like playing “Despacito,” are what resonates with Hispanic voters.
“President Biden has spent his first two years in office focusing on the issues facing many Latino families — lowering health care costs, creating good-paying jobs, getting our small businesses and schools reopened, and fighting gun violence in our communities,” Kevin Munoz, a spokesperson for Biden’s reelection campaign, said in a statement.
Still, “Despacito” wasn’t the Biden camp’s only misstep.
First lady Jill Biden flubbed pronouncing the rallying cry “Si Se Puede,” during a speech in California last spring. Then, in Texas last summer, she said the Hispanic community was as “unique as breakfast tacos here in San Antonio,” prompting another backlash and an apology from the first lady’s office.
Matt Barreto, who does polling for the White House and the Democratic National Committee, said Hispanic outreach programs have intensified.
“We’ve been learning our lessons, and constantly improving,” he said.
Democrats were hindered in 2020 by the pandemic limiting on-the-ground organizing. But those efforts resumed in 2022, when Democrats nonetheless lost key House races in some heavily Hispanic areas.
In Florida’s Broward County, still a Democratic stronghold, Richard Ramunno, a 31-year-old business owner of Argentine and Chilean background, remembered Biden’s “Despacito” episode but laughed it off. He said he worries more about policy decisions Republicans are making at the state level, including the Parental Rights in Education law signed by DeSantis, which makes it easier to challenge a book over its content.
“The laws they are passing are very conservative right now,” he said. “Books are being removed from schools.”
Melissa Morales, founder of Somos PAC, which supported last year’s reelection of Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate, said the midterms showed the importance of economic policies like affordable housing and healthcare — not GOP-led culture war issues.
“The thing that really emerged for us in 2022 was that Latinos were so solutions-oriented,” Morales said.
Lima, of Community Change Action, said the economy is a top motivator for Hispanic voters, and that Biden can point to a major public works package and increased federal spending on health care, social services and green energy.
But she called those “down payments” and said Hispanic voters will expect Democrats “to make good” on policies that help the economy work better for them.
Many activists who have criticized Biden and Democrats praised the president for selecting Julie Chavez Rodriguez, granddaughter of civil rights icon Julio Cesar Chavez, to manage his reelection campaign.
In a memo detailing 2024 strategy, which the Biden campaign produced in English and Spanish, Rodriguez promised to “engage early and often” with Hispanic voters. The DNC also plans to build on Adelante, or “Forward,” a seven-figure outreach plan that featured bilingual radio and print in nine battleground states last year.
The DNC also is planning to resume “boot camps” to train bilingual campaign staff in key states.
“I believe that now the Democratic Party is in a position where, when I go and tell people, ‘I want you to do more,’ I have willing partners,” Barreto said.
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed to this report from Washington.
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