Michigan's Latinx Voters Could Help Flip the State Blue, Are Democrats Doing Enough To Reach Out?
Over the sound of cars passing outside Supermercado La Estrellita, a neighborhood staple for the Latinx community in Lansing, Corinne Kendall, who is originally from Mexico, said she feels like there’s never been such a divided America.
“We were all so sad because we never thought our country would put a man like that in that position,” she explained. “It was terrible. It was heartbreaking."
Kendall is concerned about institutional discrimination and economic and educational opportunities. She’s planning to cast her ballot for Joe Biden this November, but said she doesn’t think the Latinx community in the area will show up to the polls.
For Democrats to turn out Latinx voters, they need to understand key differences between communities around the country.
Mara Ostfeld analyzes exit poll data for Telemundo, one of the largest Spanish speaking networks in the U.S. She said the key difference between Latinx voters in Michigan and a state like Florida is proximity to the immigration experience.
“If you look at Florida, there tends to be more people who are recent immigrants, there’s more Spanish-dominant immigrants here. Whereas in Michigan, a larger share of the Latinx population actually speaks English at home," she said.
According to Ostfeld, since many Latinx Florida voters are newer immigrants, they have concerns Michigan voters are less likely to have.
“Many of them have left Venezuela or Cuba because of their concerns about the state influence over personal, what they felt should be non-governmental, matters.”
She said in Michigan, Latinx voters are not as concerned with government intervention.
“For a number of reasons, their concerns [are] about institutionalized discrimination. Their concerns [are] about the concentration of wealth in the hands of very few people. They are concerned about economic opportunities. They are concerned about educational opportunities,” she explained.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 70% of eligible Latinx voters in Michigan are of Mexican origin.
Angela Ocampo teaches political science with a focus on Latinx politics at the University of Michigan. She said the Latinx community has been hit really hard during the pandemic and that will be a driving force in how they vote.
“And so, this is something going into the election [that] is really at the forefront, and in their minds and their everyday experiences,” Ocampo said.
In the 2016 presidential election, Latinx voter turnout in Michigan was around 36%.
That means that about 81,608 Latinx voters cast a ballot out of the 226,690 that were eligible to vote.
Hillary Clinton lost to President Donald Trump in the state by 11,612 votes. If Democratic Latinx turnout had been 5.2% greater, Clinton would have received the support needed to win the state.
In 2020, Latinx voters have the power to flip the state back to blue. Ocampo says there are 34,000 more eligible Latinx voters this year than in 2016. Ultimately, it will come down to mobilization and how many eligible voters turn out.
Ocampo said the fact that Latinx leaders were missing from the Democratic National Convention shows the party’s lack of intention in reaching out to this electorate.
“I think the absence of key people like Julián Castro were obvious and were really, you know, shocking for the Latinx community.”
Alex Garza is a state representative for Michigan’s 12th District. He's also part of the Latino Leadership Committee for Joe Biden's campaign. He disagrees with Ocampo’s assessment and says engagement with Latinx voters this election cycle is higher than it's ever been.
“I mean there’s so much on the ballot for many different Americans and especially our Latinx community. They are highly engaged this time around, and we are continuing to see that engagement go up as time goes by,” Garza said.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez says his party is making unprecedented investments to draw in Latinx voters in the state because he believes they can make a difference in this upcoming election.
“Joe Biden is going to enable Latinos to get their jobs, their lives back, to have their kids back in school because he has a plan for dealing with coronavirus. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Latino voters in Michigan,” Perez stated.
Earlier this year, national polls found Democratic Latinx voters overwhelmingly supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign.
Chuck Rocha was advisor to the 2020 Sanders Campaign and is the author of Tío Bernie. His book examines how the Sanders campaign engaged Latino voters.
He says the key difference between the way Biden and Sanders this electorate is in the prioritization of young Latinx voters.
“We actually had a conversation with these young people who never get targeted by any campaign, and we said, 'Would you like to vote for Bernie Sanders?' And then when we told them about the issues, of course they lined up for the Green New Deal, increasing minimum wage, Medicare For All [and] college affordability,” Rocha said.
If Democrats want to engage this electorate in Michigan, Rocha says advertising needs to be specific to Michigan Latinx people.
“In the voter file, all of those people that are U.S. citizens all say Latino, but they couldn't be more culturally different.”
According to political scientists, Latinx voters in Michigan tend to be very young and almost 40% are considered millennials.
At 18-years-old, Juan Morales says he'll cast his ballot for Joe Biden in his first every presidential election because he doesn’t want four more years of Trump.
But he’s not as excited about Biden as he was about Bernie Sanders, whose policies on gun control, marijuana, and college loan forgiveness more closely align with his beliefs.
“As of right now, if you ask me today if I was ready to vote, I would say no because I am not as informed as I feel like I should be,” he said.
Morales said he’s been encouraging his fellow Latinx friends to vote, but is finding that very few are interested in doing it.
“Only like half of the people I know are probably going to vote in November, as far as friends my age, just because they haven’t taken it upon themselves to register.”
If young Latinx voters like Juan stay home, it could be an Achilles heel for Michigan Democrats and Joe Biden.
Michelle Jokisch Polo is a reporter for WKAR in East Lansing.