By Yue Stella Yu. CalMatters.
For six generations since she emigrated from Mexico to the United States, Clarissa Renteria's family has never voted.
If any campaign mail arrived during the election season, Renteria's parents, who worked as warehouse workers in Woodlake, a farming town of 7,600 people in California's citrus belt, would throw them in the trash. When his neighbor was elected mayor of Woodlake, Renteria's father ignored him. “Look at him trying to fit in,” Renteria remembers his father saying.
“My family just didn't feel included in politics, they didn't feel seen,” Renteria, 25, said in an interview at a voter registration event in Tulare. “It was like, 'You guys obviously don't care about me. I don't care about you and I'm not going to vote. I'm just going to work to live and that's it.'”
Lack of engagement is common among millions of eligible Californian Latinos who cannot vote each year. Latinos are the least likely to vote, even though they make up the largest racial and ethnic group statewide, research shows. They represent only 25 percent of the state's likely voters despite representing 36 percent of the statewide adult population, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
But they could be the key to the 2024 US Senate race, as they are a voting bloc largely untapped by the leading candidates.
“Whoever wins Latino voters will win the March 2024 primary,” said Christian Arana, vice president of policy at the Latino Community Foundation.
But who will it be? With less than four months until the March 5 primary, many Latino voters are still unsure.
The leading Democratic candidates, U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, are polling at less than 20 percent among Latino voters, while 30 to 40 percent remain undecided, according to polls conducted this year. In an October survey by the Latino Community Foundation and BSP Research of 900 Latino voters, about half said they did not yet have an opinion on the Senate candidates or did not know enough about them to form one.
“We still don't see any Latino electorate connecting with any particular candidate for the U.S. Senate,” said Matt Barreto, founder of BSP Research and the Institute for Latino Politics and Policy at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I think all of these candidates running now are behind the times.”
Among all voters, Schiff and Porter are the favorites in polls over the past two months, well ahead of Lee and the Republicans, although about a third of respondents are still undecided. The top two vote-getters on March 5, regardless of party, will advance to the November general election.
The candidates met with Latino leaders, held listening tours in communities of color and visited Latino business owners across the state, some as early as February, according to the campaigns. They have also been building support from Latino leaders locally and nationally. On November 4, the three top Democrats (Lee, Porter and Schiff) participated in a forum on immigration issues hosted by the Coalition for Immigrant Human Rights Action Fund.
But political experts say much more is required to win the support of Latino voters: early, consistent and aggressive campaigning, but more importantly, issues that resonate enough to persuade Latinos not only to vote, but to vote. vote for them.
“Low voter turnout is almost as significant an indicator of the unattractiveness of a message as voting for another party,” said Mike Madrid, former political director of the California Republican Party and political strategist with experience in the Latino vote.
“I don't care how early you start. If you don’t have a message that resonates, it doesn’t matter.”
In terms of population, the potential political power of Latinos in California seems unmatched.
They are the largest racial and ethnic group, making up 40 percent of the state's population. California is also home to 8 million (or a quarter) of the country's eligible Latino voters, more than any other state, according to the Pew Research Center. And that number is growing as young Latinos come of age, increasing their share of the state's eligible voting population.
But Latinos are significantly underrepresented in voter registration and turnout at the state and national levels.
They made up just 14 percent of “frequent voters” (those who voted in at least five of the seven most recent elections), while white voters made up 71 percent, according to an August survey by the Institute for Governmental Studies. Berkeley of the University of California.
Latinos also had the lowest turnout rate of all groups in the 2020 elections at the state and national levels, according to a 2022 analysis by the UCLA Institute for Latino Politics and Policy. The data shows that only 60 percent of eligible Latinos in California registered to vote, and only 55 percent of eligible Latinos voted. They represented 32 percent of California's eligible voters, but only 27 percent of those who voted that year.
Poorer + younger = less committed
Why are Latinos less likely to vote?
One contributing factor: Latinos are disproportionately poorer, especially in California, which is among the states with the greatest income inequality, Madrid said.
More than half of Californians living in poverty are Latino, according to data from the Public Policy Institute of California. Only 1 in 10 Latino households can afford a median-priced home in the state, lower than their white and Asian counterparts, according to the California Association of Realtors.
Young people also have a lower “interest in society,” as they are less likely to be parents or homeowners, who tend to invest more in local politics, such as property taxes or school vouchers, Madrid said.
“If that is not done, we will have a very transitory mobile society, and very civically disconnected, which is not good for democracy,” he stated.
'Deprived of rights' and disconnected
Mateo Fernández, 17, will vote for the first time next year. While he's excited, the San Diego native said no one around him talked about voting until he was in eighth grade.
"A lot of people will tell you, 'I just don't know... how that works.' Or they feel hopeless, like they have no power over what's going on around them because everyone else seems so much more powerful,” he said.
Jovonna Renteria saw the same thing in her community. He said Latinos feel “disenfranchised” and have “lost faith in the system” as they don't see how they can benefit from those elections.
The sense of disconnection is due in part to a historical and current lack of outreach in political campaigns, said Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy and a political scientist who studies voting and underrepresentation among communities of color.
It's a chicken-and-egg problem that's repeated in other states like Texas: Latinos are less likely to vote because campaigns rarely reach them, but campaigns are less inclined to reach them because they focus on likely voters. Romero noted.
“We know that often in the Latino community… you need to make the case and build trust and use trusted messengers,” he said. “We still don't see candidates doing it, or at least not in a sustained way.”
But when campaigns do get through, some rely on stereotypes about Latino communities, hosting events with mariachi bands, saying a few words in Spanish and “parachuting” in and out, Romero said.
“When there is no upward economic mobility… that is a very big problem for participation,” Madrid said.
Jovonna Renteria, a 26-year-old Latina voter in Tulare County, said working-class Latinos in her neighborhood prioritize their immediate needs, such as housing, food and child care, over voting. Her mother works in a warehouse and she is a first-generation college student majoring in social work.
“When people are so focused on trying to survive, (voting) falls by the wayside,” said Rentería, who is not related to Clarissa Rentería.
Latinos in California also tend to be younger, and more than half of the state's population ages 24 and younger are Latino, research shows. Nationally, 34 million young Latinos will be qualified to vote next year.
But younger voters are less likely to turn out, political experts say. They tend to be less wealthy and motivated to vote not out of habit but for issues they care about, said Mark Baldassare, polling director at the Public Policy Institute of California.
Presidential campaigns have also been known to organize events at taquerias to attract the Latino vote, running the risk of what Barreto called “hispanderismo.” Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden dined at King Taco, a famous Los Angeles joint, during their presidential campaigns.
“But there is so much more to our community than that particular taqueria in East Los Angeles,” Arana said.
Inconsistent outreach makes Latino voters feel ignored, said José Barrera, national vice president for the Far West of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“Every four years it seems like everyone wants our vote,” he said. “But once elected, the candidates seem to forget about us… Why should we, as a community, support some people who really promise everything, but never deliver?”
A very open race
When asked by CalMatters how they have connected with Latino voters, leading U.S. Senate candidates pointed to their outreach efforts, endorsements and track records.
Lee, Porter and Schiff have met with Latino business owners and leaders in Southern California, the Central Valley and the Bay Area, and have held most events in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno or areas nearby, according to their campaigns.
All three campaigns noted their advocacy in Congress for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and expanded health care coverage. They are all co-sponsors of the House version of the “Registration Act,” which would allow some undocumented immigrants to qualify for legal status.
Schiff's campaign highlighted his support for expanding child tax credits, affordable housing, clean energy and more, as well as his role in leading the first impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. He also introduced the Head Start Improvement and Expansion Act, which would invest billions in providing services to children from low-income families.
Porter's campaign also noted that she pushed for more language assistance for non-English speaking voters and advocated for free COVID-19 testing for all. She was also the first Senate candidate to launch her campaign website in multiple languages, including Spanish, her campaign said.
Lee, who responded to CalMatters after the story was published, primarily touted her stance on immigration issues, noting that she is the only candidate who voted against the creation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2002 and says he now wants to cut customs. and Border Protection funding halved. Schiff, then in his first term, voted in favor of creating ICE. Lee also highlighted his long history of supporting Medicare for All and said he supports canceling all student debt.
Lexi Reese, a Democratic candidate who is barely showing up in the polls, said her experience as a business owner helps her understand the struggles of small businesses. She said she is the only fluent Spanish speaker in the race and took listening tours in both languages.
A spokesman for Eric Early, a leading Republican contender, said Latino voters he spoke to want a lower cost of living, stricter regulations on violent crime and to stop “the indoctrination of our children in schools” and “the avalanche of illegal immigration.” and fentanyl across the southern border.” He also touted his lawsuit against the Santa Barbara Unified School District over diversity training, which was dismissed in federal court.
Republican Steve Garvey, the Los Angeles Dodgers legend who entered the race last month, did not respond to a CalMatters inquiry.
While Latino advocacy groups have not announced or are not planning endorsements, some notable community leaders have made a decision.
Schiff, who has received dozens of endorsements from Latino lawmakers and leaders, earned the support of state Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragán, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and today former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Porter's campaign highlighted support from nearly a dozen Latino leaders, including U.S. Rep. and former Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, as well as Eddie Martinez, executive director of the Latino Equality Alliance and mayor of Huntington Park. Lee also received the endorsement of Dolores Huerta, a long-time activist and co-founder of the United Farm Workers.
But despite some campaigns' efforts for months, a sizable portion of Latino voters are still undecided, polls show. This is partly because none of the major candidates have been on a statewide ballot and therefore have little name recognition, some experts say.
“I don't think either candidate has a natural advantage,” Baldassare said. “(Schiff) has had a high profile in Washington, but that doesn't mean he has a high profile among California voters.”
Additionally, campaigns must go beyond immigration as the main issue, which is a “relic of the past,” Madrid said. A rapidly growing portion of the electorate are U.S.-born Latinos who are not as motivated by the issue, and polls have shown that the economy, inflation and unemployment - not immigration - are consistently the top issues among voters. Latinos, he said.
“How is it possible that the largest ethnic group in the state has the lowest voter turnout rates when they tell you… that the number one issue they have is jobs and the economy and yet all the advocacy groups Latinos are talking. What is immigration?
The Nov. 4 forum focused almost exclusively on immigration. Madrid maintains that, although the issue was important, it should not be everything.
Fátima Flores, spokesperson for the coalition that organized the forum, said its goal was to “highlight the intersections of other issues within immigration” so that members could “come away informed and knowledgeable.”
And Angélica Salas, executive director of the coalition, said she wants to see a “torchbearer” on immigration issues among the Senate candidates seeking to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whom Salas considered a “vanguard” of the immigration reform.
“Yes, everyone supports us,” Salas said of the leading Democrats in the race. “But we are looking for the leader who will advance this cause, but more importantly, who will ultimately be part of the leadership that will bring immigration reform to the finish line.”
Arana said he's glad the candidates appealed to Latino voters. But they must make sure the reach is consistent and the message is accurate, he said, pointing to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' victory in the 2020 California presidential primary.
Sanders proposed debt-free public colleges and universal health care, which resonated with young Latino voters, Arana said.
“It opened offices in areas where campaigns … normally wouldn't,” he said. “Not only did he open that office, but he hired people from the community, so it almost seemed like it was a partnership to change the country.”
For now, things have been mostly quiet in the city of Tulare.
At the local voter registration drive and Día de Los Muertos celebration organized by several Latino advocacy groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, two dozen residents showed up, some attracted by the free food. Half a block away, a train whistled by every few minutes on the tracks through the city, its blaring horn a contrast to the sleepy downtown.
“I thought it wasn't real,” Clarissa Renteria said outside the event venue, joking about when she first found out. These types of events are rare in Tulare, he said. No one has knocked on her door for Senate candidates and she has seen no signs of campaign outreach in the area.
“We don't really have much of that around here,” he said. “But I feel like as soon as you get other people who are also Mexican, like me, to see, 'Hey, I'm talking about these issues,' maybe they'll get more involved. I think that's what we need. see".
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