Drums, Chants or Bull Horns? Political Canvassers Strive to Awaken Latinos

Campaigners try different outreach methods in the Bronx to register Latino voters.  (Marybel Gonzalez)

Campaigners try different outreach methods in the Bronx to register Latino voters. (Marybel Gonzalez)

In a backroom of the Cherry Tree Bar in Park Slope, a group of Latino campaigners gathered the first week of March. This was the first Latino grassroots group meeting for the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The New York presidential primary was about a month away, voter registration in New York City was around the corner and time was running out to engage the increasingly growing population of the city’s Latinos.

But, instead of cohesion, there was tension. And instead of unity, there was disagreement.

On one side of the room, one activist called for targeting the Latino youth through college campuses. Across from him, Ron Suarez, 14th Congressional District Sanders Delegate, raised his voice to make an opposite point.

“You may prioritize the younger people, but that doesn’t mean we can leave out the elderly!” he exclaimed.

Saul Bautista, another fellow activist, suggested reaching out to Latinos using music and block parties.

“The way to get Latinos engaged is through entertainment,” he interjected.

“But Mexican music to me sounds like Polka!” someone yelled back in a thick Cuban accent.

One man, William Noguera, suggested something less colorful: getting back to the basics.

“Let’s just use megaphones!” he said.

After about an hour of deliberating on the best way to engage Latino voters and not reaching a concensus on how to get them to vote, the group agreed to meet again the following week.

This sort of deficiency in voter outreach among Latinos could explain a larger reality of why a minority group with increasing political power isn’t necessarily influencing the outcome of elections. Not only are eligible Latinos voters not showing up to the polls, but there’s also difficulty in engaging Hispanic constituents politically. While the Latino population has experienced rapid growth – the number of eligible Hispanic immigrant voters has increased from 3.3 million in 2000 to 6.6 million in 2016,  Latino voters are showing up at the polls in lower numbers compared to other groups. In 2012, only 48 percent of Hispanic constituents voted, compared to 64.1 percent of whites and 66.6 percent of blacks, according to Pew Research Center figures.

Yet, on the other side of the polls, the Latinos have been making waves. Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—both of Cuban descent— made history by being the first Hispanics to make bids for the presidency. Cruz even became the first Hispanic to win a caucus –he had the most votes in the January Iowa caucus; Rubio followed in third place. Despite their Hispanic heritage, though, many Latinos have not shown up in large numbers to vote during the primaries in solidarity for either contender. In fact, Rubio withdrew from the race last week after his poor showing in the Florida primary, his home state, against Donald Trump. Rubio’s disappointing run was a major let down for his supporters.

And while the two Latino contenders have failed to galvanize the Latino vote, real estate mogul and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump stirred the community to action by calling undocumented immigrants ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals.’ According to a New York Times article published this month, the amount of applications for naturalization filed by Latinos increased by more than 14 percent from June to December 2015. It seems they are eager to become citizens to cast ballots against Trump.

Many non-profits, grassroots organizations and even one of the largest Spanish-language television networks have used Trump’s rhetoric as fuel to engage Latino voters. Univision has announced its own “Vote for Your America” campaign which aims to increase the Hispanic and millennial voter turnout in the presidential primaries and the 2016 general election.

The racially charged discourse combined with hard-lined immigration policies from the Republican candidates have skewed the Latino vote in favor of Democrats, yet the Hispanic vote among registered Democrats  is not entirely concentrated on one single candidate in that party either. For example, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led amongst Latino Democrats in Texas, while Sen. Sanders came up on top with the same demographic in Colorado. In 2012, President Obama won the Hispanic vote by 71 percent, yet only 48 percent of Hispanic eligible voters showed up to the polls, the Pew Research Center reported.

“Historically Latinos have been less engaged in the electoral process than other minority groups,” explained Jens Krogstad, writer and editor at the Pew Research Center. “But the question of why a lot of Latinos are not voting is quite a complicated one.”

Much of the problem stems from the fact that Latinos are different cultural groups, united mostly by a common language. In New York City, Latinos make up more than 18 percent of the total population, but that group consists of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Mexicans and other Central and Latin Americans. Each group is concentrated in particular neighborhoods throughout the city. With so many dynamics at play, from differences in age and nationalities, casting a wide net of appeal to all Latino voters is proving challenging for grassroots political organizers.

The disputes that came up at the Cherry Tree bar illustrated this phenomenon vividly. Each campaign leader, represented a different nationality and their respective neighborhoods. In the end, they each agreed to continue with their individual efforts: The campaigners who insisted on targeting the younger Latinos at colleges would continue to do so; the canvasser who stands outside the grocery store would return to the the store’s parking lot, and the citizen who championed word of mouth efforts to register Latinos would carry on as he always has.

In that spirit, a few days after the meeting, activist and Sanders campaigner Carlos Suarez took to the streets of the Melrose section of  the Bronx, targeting the highly trafficked block of Westchester and Melrose Avenues. With clipboard in hand, he stopped the passersby, mostly Hispanic, and tried to persuade them to register to vote, in both English and Spanish.

After a few dismissals, one woman stopped to listen to Suarez.

“Are you registered to vote?” Suarez asked.

“No. But I don’t think it will make a difference if I do anyway,” she answered.

About an hour into canvassing the street, Suarez didn’t manage to register a single voter.

“Politics are just not on their agenda,” he said.

Ruben Estrada, president of the Latino National Republican Coalition of the State of New York, understands this sort of apathy and is on a mission to energize Hispanic voters. His chapter organizes an array of events, from brunches to talk shows, and most recently a family oriented Latino Festival featuring music, indoor sports and face painting, which was held in Florida, New York.

“It’s not just an event for politics,” he said of his organization’s events. “I try to keep candidates away. I’d rather have the community attend so that we can ask them to register to vote.”

“I don’t like drawing for candidates, I like drawing people,” he added.

Estrada knows Latinos could be influential, especially younger ones. Millenials — people born between the early 1980s and early 2000s- account for nearly half of the 23.7 million eligible Latino voters – a number that is higher than any other minority group, according to a recent Pew Research Center study published in January. So, the Latino Youth, in theory at least, can have a large impact on the presidential election.

Yet, historically, there’s a correlation between the youth (irrespective of cultural background) and voter abstention. Latino millennials, in particular, tend to register to vote at lower rates than other minority groups. In 2012, only half of the eligible Latino millenials did so, and the 2016 elections could follow suit, according to the same study. This year, a projected 11.9 million Latino millenials will be eligible to vote.

Another reason for low Latino voter turnout could be due to lack of political engagement in this ethnic group. States with large Hispanic populations like California, Texas – where the majority of the Latino population is Mexican — and New York — where Puerto Ricans and Dominicans comprise the majority, about 42 and 21 percent respectively – are not considered to be tossup states. Campaigns are therefore less inclined to place their outreach efforts in these places, and instead focus their efforts on key battleground states like Colorado or Florida.

“If they aren’t competitive states, you might see less advertising and campaigning,” explained Krogstad who co-authored the Pew report. “This can drive the number of people who vote.”

Even though Florida has a large eligible Latino population, the effort to drum up Hispanic voter excitement has been tricky. With Latino Republicans on the rise—up from 16 percent of registered Latinos in the state in 2000 to 83 percent in 2006 — Cuban-American Rubio did not win the primary.

Latino activists in New York, meanwhile, will keep trying to get Latino voters in the city excited about the upcoming primary, and later the November election.  On a Saturday afternoon, William Noguera approached potential voters in the Bronx, not with a megaphone as he’d suggested at the previous week’s organizational meeting, but with a mic and small speaker. His idea remained the same: get the word out with whatever means possible.

Standing on the side of the street, Noguera picked up the mic and started chanting: “You want free college? Vote for Bernie! You want a $15 minimum wage? Vote for Bernie!”

“This attracts people,” he said of his campaigning efforts. “Everybody listens when you have a mic.”

And indeed once he started chanting, “Feel the Bern,” some passersby turned their heads in his direction and a few others picked up a flier. Perhaps if Noguera’s hunch is correct, his old-fashioned canvassing method will bring Latinos to the polls in New York next month, one at a time.