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Community Leaders Are Contending With Disenchantment Among Latinx Voters

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

This year, Latinos will make up the nation's largest non-white voting bloc. Historically, they have supported Democrats by large margins. But this year, Latino leaders fear that an enthusiasm gap could keep many Latinos from voting. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Gabriel Carlos Leon is a 24-year-old Democrat from Arizona. He is going to vote for Joe Biden in November, but...

GABRIEL CARLOS LEON: I don't feel good about it. I feel gross. I feel icky.

FLORIDO: Leon wanted a more progressive candidate. He also has lots of undocumented friends, so immigration reform is important to him. But he worries that a Biden administration, just like the Obama administration, won't deliver that reform.

LEON: Right now the Latino community is in a position where - like, we're held captive because the only people who are going to make the kind of political reforms, especially in the age of Trump, is going to be the Democratic Party. And I don't see anyone in the Democratic Party right now prioritizing it.

FLORIDO: Thus his reluctant support for Biden - that disenchantment with this election, especially among many young Latinos, is something Maria Teresa Kumar has hurt a lot of this year. She's president of Voto Latino, which is trying to register half a million voters. It worried her when she started seeing young Latinos on social media saying there was no real difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. That's one reason Voto Latino issued its first-ever endorsement this year for Biden.

MARIA TERESA KUMAR: What we didn't want to happen was what happened in the 2016 election, where once Bernie Sanders was no longer on the ticket, a lot of their supporters who happened to be a lot of young Latinos sat it out.

FLORIDO: Her worry that many Latinos won't vote this year has been expressed by a lot of Latino leaders in recent days and speaks to what they say is a deeper problem - that Democrats aren't targeting Latinos hard enough. Sonja Diaz directs the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative.

SONJA DIAZ: I don't know that it makes sense for any voter to be enthusiastic about a product that is not clear and is not marketed to them. One of the things about the Latino vote is it seems like it's expected.

FLORIDO: She says it's like how politicians have treated Latinos during the coronavirus pandemic. Millions of them, including citizen children born to undocumented parents, have been excluded from relief programs. And yet...

DIAZ: We're just expected to show up to work and keep America fed, safe and housed and die or become infected and infect our families.

FLORIDO: Diaz says speaking directly to Latinos about their top concerns - the economy, health care, education - would build crucial support among the huge population of young Latinos just now aging into the electorate. The Biden campaign has said it's ramping up Latino outreach; so has the Trump campaign, targeting conservative Latinos in states like Florida where Trump and Biden are polling about even among Latino voters. Stephen Nuno-Perez of the polling firm Latino Decisions says despite a real enthusiasm gap among younger Latinos, Biden is enjoying overwhelming Latino support overall.

STEPHEN NUNO-PEREZ: There is a well-settled, you know, up-and-coming middle class, largely Mexican American, who really just want to get past Donald Trump, right? They really just want to come back to some sense of normalcy.

FLORIDO: The firm's polling also showed Biden's choice of Sen. Kamala Harris, a mixed race daughter of immigrants, gave him a boost among Latinos.

NUNO-PEREZ: I think the question is, does that support hold? So far, we just don't see that it's not.

FLORIDO: Erika Andrade lives in Connecticut. She's 50, an immigrant from Ecuador, teaches English to adult Spanish speakers. In 2016, she voted for Donald Trump.

ERIKA ANDRADE: As much as I'm a Democrat, I have some liberal tendencies and very conservative tendencies - the Latina and I was raised Catholic.

FLORIDO: But she soon came to believe Trump was threatening the democracy her family came to the U.S. for. This year, she is an enthusiastic Biden supporter.

ANDRADE: Biden impressed me because he seems to be the one unifying force. And I just hope that Latinos come out and vote.

FLORIDO: She said some of her English students have recently become U.S. citizens, and so she's asking them to please register and vote.

Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.