Biden ramps up Latino outreach with appeal to Puerto Rican voters in Florida

Key Points
  • Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden visited South Florida on Tuesday, seeking to shore up support among Hispanic voters in this crucial swing state.
  • Biden's trip came after a poll of Florida voters was released last week that sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party. The poll, by NBC News and Marist, found President Donald Trump leading Biden among Latino voters by four points, 50-46.
  • Biden's plan to win over Hispanic voters includes microtargeted campaign ads and a new recovery plan for Puerto Rico.
Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden arrives to participate in a Hispanic Heritage Month event at the Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida on September 15, 2020.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden visited South Florida on Tuesday, seeking to shore up support among Hispanic voters in this crucial swing state.

Biden's trip came after a poll of Florida voters was released last week that sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party. The poll, by NBC News and Marist, found President Donald Trump leading Biden among Latino voters by four points, 50-46.

Four years ago, Democrat Hillary Clinton won Hispanic voters in Florida by 25 points, 60-35, although she lost the state overall. According to the NBC poll, Biden is underperforming Clinton by 29 points with a key demographic in a key state.

Historically, Republicans tend to do better with Hispanic voters in Florida than they do elsewhere, owing to the state's large concentration of Cuban Americans who lean Republican.

Nonetheless, the NBC survey results coming just 50 days before Election Day set off alarm bells at the Biden campaign.

On Saturday, the Biden campaign unveiled a trio of new Spanish-language ads that will run in Florida, each one directed at a specific group of Hispanic voters.

On Sunday, aides to billionaire Michael Bloomberg announced that the former Democratic primary candidate will spend $100 million to support Biden in Florida, essentially freeing up the campaign to put money allocated for Florida into other battleground states such as Pennsylvania.

Tuesday night was Biden's first major speech aimed directly at Hispanic voters in Florida. But not just any Hispanic voters: Puerto Rican voters.

Biden's pitch to Puerto Ricans

The former vice president delivered his speech at a Hispanic Heritage month celebration in Kissimmee. While there were no crowds, the location reflected his campaign's effort to court Puerto Rican voters. Kissimmee is the seat of Osceola County, the only county in America where Puerto Ricans outnumber all other ancestral groups. 

Before he took the stage, Biden was introduced by two world-famous Puerto Rican performers, Ricky Martin and Luis Fonsi, and by Hispanic American actress and activist Eva Longoria. 

Musician Ricky Martin speaks before the arrival of Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden at a Hispanic Heritage Month event at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida, U.S., September 15, 2020.
Leah Millis | Reuters

In prepared remarks, the former vice president ripped Trump's approach to the U.S. territory. 

"Even after being president for four years, Donald Trump does not seem to grasp that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens already," he said.

"I'm running to be president of all Americans, including 3 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico. I'm not going to steal the money that is desperately needed to reconstruct the island, in order to build a wall that does nothing to keep Americans safe. I'm not going to suggest that we sell or trade Puerto Rico. I'm not going to throw paper towels whose lives have been devastated by the hurricane," said Biden. 

Last fall, Trump shifted $300 million away from cash-strapped disaster relief agencies to fund border security projects, including his "wall" project on the southern border. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Trump allegedly wondered aloud whether the United States could "sell" the island or "divest" from it. And during a rare visit to Puerto Rico shortly after the hurricanes, Trump tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd of survivors at a relief center. 

Biden also said Tuesday that while he personally supports adding Puerto Rico as a state, he will work with both sides of what is a bitter debate on the island, and let voters there ultimately decide their course. 

A plan for Puerto Rico

Along with Biden's visit, the campaign released a multi-pronged plan Tuesday afternoon to help rebuild and revitalize Puerto Rico, which is home to 3 million American citizens. Two devastating hurricanes in 2017 left millions of Puerto Ricans without power for months, prompting more than one hundred thousand to move to the mainland.

Trump to Puerto Rico: 'You've thrown our budget out of whack'

Today, Florida is home to more than a million people who identify as Puerto Rican. Nationwide, Puerto Ricans represent the second largest pool of Hispanic voters in the country, after Mexican Americans. In Florida, more than one in four Latino voters identifies as Puerto Rican. 

Key elements of Biden's Puerto Rico plan:

 - Provide direct federal investment in infrastructure projects and forgive federal disaster aid

 - Offer Puerto Ricans more access to community-based health care and SNAP food assistance

 - Ease Puerto Rico's massive debt burden by reversing austerity measures and restructuring some of the debt

In a statement accompanying the new plan, the Biden campaign criticized Trump's response to the 2017 hurricanes in Puerto Rico. 

They also brought up the account of Elaine Duke, a former top official at the Department of Homeland Security. Earlier this year Duke told The New York Times that in the aftermath of the Hurricane Maria, Trump mused about whether the United States could sell Puerto Rico.

Taken together, Biden's plan for Puerto Rico and his direct appeal on Tuesday to Puerto Rican voters represent the best example so far of what the Biden campaign says is an ultra-targeted strategy with Hispanic voters. 

Micro-targeted outreach

In response to the concerns raised by the NBC poll last week, Biden campaign aides over the weekend emphasized that their outreach to Hispanic voters has expanded dramatically in recent weeks, and now includes full-time Hispanic-focused mobilization efforts in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas.

"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," senior political adviser Jorge Neri said on a conference call with reporters Sunday.

Biden aides also stressed how carefully targeted their Spanish language outreach is, up to and including using different Spanish accents in multiple versions of each campaign ad, accents that are tailored to the geographic origins of the Hispanic population in different markets.

Below is one of the Spanish language ads Biden launched over the weekend.

Currently, Biden ads appearing in the Miami and Tampa media markets are voiced with Cuban-accented Spanish. In and around Orlando, voters hear a Puerto Rican accent. And in West Palm, Fort Myers, and across Arizona, the narrator has a Mexican accent.

"That is indispensable because we know that our communities, we share a language, but we have a tremendous diversity of experiences and from those experiences we have similar priorities, but we also have many unique interests," Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez told reporters. 

It's impossible to tell at this stage whether Biden's play for Puerto Rican voters will bear fruit. But already this week there are signs that perhaps the NBC/Marist poll was merely an outlier, and that Biden is actually doing better with Latino voters in Florida than it seemed he was last week.

On Tuesday, Monmouth University released a new poll of Florida that showed Biden winning Latino voters 58 to 32 over Trump, a number that's much closer to Clinton's 2016 margin.