When the primary season began, there were signs that the 2016 election was going to be different from others in the past. This would be the most diverse electorate in United States history, and Latinos were set to play a central role on a national stage. Latinos had played an important part of the Barack Obama coalition and their electoral size only continued to grow. After suffering two presidential defeats, the Republican National Committee, headed by Reince Priebus, issued a report that rethought the GOP’s strategy. The RNC had come to the conclusion that the Republican Party needed new voters. It needed Latinos, but Latinos’ support for Republican candidates had been steadily decreasing since George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. The RNC thought a change in policy and rhetoric could fix this in 2016.
As 2016 approached, it seemed both parties were doubling down on diversity.
During the primary season, Latino Democrats found out that Hillary Clinton was just like your abuela, Bernie Sanders was just like one of your tíos and that a middle-aged white guy from Maryland named Martin O’Malley was, as the Iowan Spanish-language newspaper El Latino said when they endorsed him, “the most pro-Latino and pro-immigrant candidate in the history of this country.” This surprised many, including the many Latinos across the country who had no idea who the candidate was.
All the candidates’ outreach strategies included Latinos and Latino media. O’Malley gave his first interview as a presidential candidate to María Elena Salinas and spoke about immigration to white audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire. Clinton walked out to the music of Selena at an early campaign event in San Antonio, Vicente Fernandez wrote a song in support of her candidacy and late in the presidential campaign she appeared on the Univision program “El Gordo y La Flaca.” Sanders visited the U.S.-Mexico border and spent time in the Mountain West. There was even a Democratic debate held by Univision that was conducted partly in Spanish.
Then a candidate who announced his presidential run on the platform that Mexicans were criminals and rapists won.
Barack Obama’s America
The problems started earlier than 2016.
President Obama’s popularity among young people and liberal-leaning voters hid the unpopularity of his policies among a wide base of the Democratic Party, especially with Latinos. He was a uniquely talented politician who was able to campaign in the poetry of American possibilities. That talent gave him a wide berth when his policies felt short of his promises.
The rumblings of disapproval began to reveal themselves when early on he earned the title of “Deporter-in-Chief.”
After eight years in office, the Obama administration had accumulated a long list of disappointments: the continuation of ICE raids at workplaces and factories across the nation, the ineligibility of unauthorized migrants for healthcare under the Affordable Care Act, deportation recommendations that were supposed to reflect a concern with “felons not families” that removed thousands of immigrants with no criminal convictions, the hesitation on welcoming unaccompanied Central American children who were fleeing violence and the continued policy of providing aid for the militarization of Mexico’s southern border to limit the numbers of migrants that reached the southern border of the United States.
After failing to deliver on the promise of immigration reform during his first term, President Obama issued executive orders that provided protection to undocumented immigrants brought as children and their parents before his reelection in 2012. It was welcomed but also perceived as a political calculation.
Obama’s policy shortcomings were set to create problems for Democrats in 2012 and in 2016.
“You had a very cynical Latino electorate [in 2012]. The Obama campaign very early on realized this was going to be a problem,” said Gabriela Domenzain, Director of Hispanic Media for Obama’s 2012 campaign, but whose career includes positions in the National Council of La Raza, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the 2016 O’Malley presidential campaign. By the early primary season in 2015, “the Latino electorate was more jaded than what we had to work with in 2012 because the president continued to deport record numbers of people. We had eight more years of Latino millennial voters who were very jaded and cynical,” Domenzain explained of the problems facing Democrats.
With all of the Obama administrations’ shortcomings, three Democratic candidates pushed forward with Latino outreach programs that were all individually innovative but still fell short.
Nearly every candidate with the exception of Clinton was seen as a long shot in the Democratic primaries. O’Malley was no exception. While he had the pedigree of an East Coast liberal Democrat, O’Malley surprised almost everybody with his Latino-focused strategy.
Before the primaries, there were signs that O’Malley was concerned with Latino issues and immigration policy. As governor of Maryland, he worked to pass a statewide DREAM Act, he pushed to issue drivers licenses to unauthorized migrants and he worked to bring Central American children to the state to find refuge.
When he ran for president, he was the first to release a progressive immigration policy that Jorge Ramos called “the most inclusive immigration plan” of all the candidates. O’Malley spoke to Latinos in states like Iowa and spoke about immigration in places like New Hampshire. In small Iowa communities like Dennison, Latino voters had never been approached, yet O’Malley, Domenzain and Jose Aristimuño, O’Malley’s director of Hispanic Media, spoke to these communities and introduced them to the caucus process. O’Malley’s efforts won him key endorsements from Latino activists, immigration rights activists, Spanish-language newspapers and acclaim from local LULAC organizers. According to Domenzain, his name recognition went from 0 to 25 percent. This was a key part of his strategy. It was “not by accident, but by design,” she said.
Yet on February 1, 2016, after a disappointing showing in the Iowa caucus, O’Malley suspended his campaign. The candidate who had made Latinos central to his presidential campaign from the beginning was the first to be defeated. Was this an ominous sign?
O’Malley’s promise was in his message, in his ability to transform Latino issues from the particularities of pandering into national policy concerns. His campaign showed that presidential campaigns can treat Latinos not just as strategic constituents, but as part of the country. His message didn’t fail him in early 2016. He lacked a megaphone. He had limited name recognition in a campaign where names mattered. His campaign also showed that as the Latino electorate continues to grow in importance, it was still heavily concentrated in Southwestern states. The Latino communities outside of the Southwest will play important roles as crucial swing voters, but they alone cannot change the political calculus in the Midwest or South.
Sanders was yet another long shot in a primary contest that was never supposed to be competitive. An independent and a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Sanders had a small but loyal following prior to his presidential run. As his rallies drew thousands, an old Northeastern curmudgeon became an unlikely celebrity. This was remarkable given that Sanders wasn’t that charismatic, he wasn’t that photogenic and he wasn’t that great of a speaker. But, he was a man with a message.
For Sanders, growing economic inequality was the biggest problem the nation faced. At first, this alone was his central focus. Sanders’ emphasis on the economy over all other social issues caused him problems early-on. He had an unfortunate interaction with Black Lives Matter activists and older minority voters were wary of him.
But he was overwhelmingly popular among younger millennial voters of all ethnicities. Much of his popularity had to do with the work of Sanders’ staff. He hired important activists early on, like DREAMer activists Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas and other activists like Symone Sanders. These activists-turned-staffers were familiar with the concept of intersectionality—that identities are not singular wholes but composites of multiple positionalities. What Sanders’ staffers were able to do was move from the intersectionality of identity of activists to the intersectionality of policy. That is, Sanders’ staffers were able to show the interconnections between immigration and deportation and economic inequality and the carcareal state. They showed how the criminalization of brown and black bodies led to the enrichment of private prison corporations while offering poor whites poorly paid jobs as prison guards with few benefits. In their criticism of free trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, they emphasized that global capitalism is not a competition between foreign and domestic workers, but a larger pattern of corporate cooperation meant to lower pay across the globe.
Sanders’ economic critiques showed the enthusiasm of young voters for a much more left-leaning Democratic Party. While much of this enthusiasm had flamed out before, with politicians like Howard Dean, Sanders’ support only grew stronger. Much of this had to do with the ways in which his young staffers made evident the interconnections of social, political and economic inequality. While the intersectionality of his messaging was promising, there were still problems in making that into policy. At multiple points in the campaign, the Sanders camp was unable to offer clear, precise political solutions to the problems they were identifying. While his most ardent supporters wanted an ideological revolution, most voters wanted concrete reforms.
Clinton was the clear front-runner. She had name recognition and had been center stage in American politics for decades. Clinton’s loss in the presidential election was not just a problem with the candidate herself. She was unarguably one of the most qualified presidential candidates in U.S. history and she faced one of the least qualified candidates. In both primary and presidential debates, Clinton’s policy knowledge was rarely surpassed or rivaled.
Clinton’s campaign was one of the most sophisticated campaigns in modern politics. Elan Kriegel, the campaign’s analytics director, had a team of over 60 analysts who developed an algorithm to direct campaign resources, volunteers and mailers. The Clinton campaign placed their full faith in data-based campaigning. Her campaign was also one of the best-funded. It was also well-organized. When the data analysis told the campaign where to go, the staff on the ground worked nonstop.
The overreliance on statistical modeling and data failed the Clinton campaign. The data analysis came directly from the New York headquarters and when volunteers sent message that the homes that they were sent to were not Clinton supporters, it was ignored. There was reporting that the algorithms were trusted even more than Bill Clinton’s political hunches.
But, the failure of the national campaign strategy hides the success of state-level organization in the Clinton campaign. In the nationwide wave of Democratic defeats, there were two bright spots: Colorado and Nevada. Clinton won the Nevada caucus during the primary season and then won Nevada in the presidential election. This had to do with excellent state-wide organization.
When Clinton announced her presidential bid, the campaign had staffers knocking on doors in Nevada that same day. She hired intelligent, bilingual, bicultural Latina staffers who worked at attracting Latino voters. These Latina staffers attracted community support because they were reflective of the Latino community Clinton was trying to reach out to. These staffers created new ways of reaching out to Latino voters. They created high school programs that taught teenagers who couldn’t yet vote how to caucus. This was an investment in community engagement. While these teens could not vote in 2016, they were introduced into politics and political organizing, a move that could pay dividends to Democrats in the future.
Latina staffers also created a program in Nevada called “Mujeres in Politics” that focused on organizing and energizing Latinas in order to organize their larger communities as a whole. They saw women as key political influencers and tried to harness that energy. The program was so successful in Nevada that the Clinton campaign tried to make it a national program. In Colorado, there were similar pushes to energize the significant Latino population.
This local organizing paid off. Clinton won Nevada, and the Silver State also elected the first Latina senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, in U.S. history.
Clinton won Colorado, too. These wins were in large part due to the hard work and efforts of Latina staffers. The successes of these two states actually hint at a solution to the larger problems of the Clinton campaign. The large and sophisticated machine that used large-scale modeling failed. The algorithms focused on large national scales, not local ones. For all of its sophistication, for all of its supposed scientific accuracy, it could recreate the forest but couldn’t see the trees. Clinton’s statewide organizers were able to see the forest and the trees. They didn’t lose focus, but did keep things in perspective.
Was the Sleeping Giant Slayed in 2016?
Latinos were supposed to change the nation in 2016, but instead it seemed like the 2016 election was a referendum on how Latinos had already changed the nation. For many, November 8, 2016 ended as a nightmare. The ghosts of the American past, the skeletons in the closet, were no longer haunting the nation—they had come alive.
But, the sleeping giant was not slayed in 2016. In an election that drew only half of the American electorate, Clinton still won the popular vote by three million votes. More Americans voted for her than for Trump. José Aristimuño, who now runs his own D.C based political consulting firm NOW Strategies Inc., explained “It’s not Latinos’ fault. They did their job. They voted.”
A recent article from The Houston Chronicle would back up Aristimuño’s claim, at least when it pertains to Texas (a state Clinton lost): “Nearly 30 percent more Texas Latinos went to the polls in 2016 than in 2012, reducing the participation gap with other Texas voters and signaling to some observers that elections will become increasingly competitive in the Lone Star State.”
Trumpism hadn’t convinced the majority of Americans. Instead, the Democratic Party had developed an overreliance on Obama’s unique political talents. Under successive new Democratic National Committee chairs, the party had ignored a 50-state strategy. The party’s strategy had broken down.
According to Domenzain, the Latino vote was “not slayed, but taken for granted. [Democrats] believed they would be woken by Trump’s racism, but instead it was lulled to sleep because of campaign failures.”
For a staffer in the Clinton campaign, the Sleeping Giant was not slayed nor was it asleep: “It’s not awake. It’s woke.”
All three Democratic presidential campaigns had tried to break away from old pandering politics to craft more authentic Latino outreach strategies. While individually they all didn’t fully succeed, taken collectively they could have a dramatic impact on Latino political participation. O’Malley treated Latinos not as detached constituencies but as part of the country. He spoke about issues that affected Latinos to non-Latino communities seamlessly. Sanders’ campaign was able to bring activist energy and intersectionality to left-leaning policy explanations, but it failed to develop policy prescriptions. Clinton was able to create an extremely effective on-the-ground organization that was unrivaled, but only in certain states. In Nevada and Colorado, her Latina staffers successfully organized communities by making sure the communities were reflected in the campaign.
Latinos didn’t lose their nation in November of last year. Democrats lost elections, and the possibility of Latinos’ electoral power wasn’t lost.
Understanding that Latinos are an integral part of the nation, providing progressive interconnected policy explanations, and unparalleled and hard-earned organizing all had individual successes in 2016. In the future, the combination of these efforts can offer a playbook for future successes.