Latinos represent 35% of California's adult population, but account for only 21% of those most likely to vote — nearly 60% of whom are registered Democrats — according to the Public Policy Institute of California. California's Latino voters have also helped hand Democrats a complete lock on the Legislature.
"No politician can take Latino votes and our community for granted," Olga Miranda, president of SEIU Local 87, said at a recent phone- banking event to persuade voters to reject the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Manuel Pastor, director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California, said this recall election shows how campaign messaging to Latino voters has evolved from the days when candidates would just say a few words in Spanish.
"I think you’re starting to see some level of sophistication, which is not so much around what kind of Spanish you speak as it is around what kind of issues you address and whether or not they actually hit people where they live," he said.
Hector Barajas, a Republican political consultant working on the effort to remove Newsom, said people of color, and Latinos in particular, have borne the brunt of the pandemic, both financially and physically. The pro-recall campaign leans into that frustration, betting that families who’ve been pushed to the margins will vote to remove Newsom.
Meanwhile, opponents of the recall — who are labeling the effort a “Republican power grab” — have tried to cast a light on the anti-immigrant stances of some key players behind the campaign, in a defensive effort to scare and mobilize Spanish-speaking Latino voters.
But are either of these strategies actually effective in engaging the Latino electorate? Earlier this month, KQED sat down with two families — one from the East Bay and one from the Central Valley, representing different political and regional perspectives — to hear their thoughts on how to successfully earn their votes.
KQED’s María Peña and Lina Blanco facilitated two intimate focus groups with the families to record their responses to nine Spanish-language political ads from both sides of the recall effort, as well as spots from two recall candidates: Kevin Faulconer and Larry Elder.
Turning our mics to families
In our first focus group, we spoke with three members of the Díaz family, representing two generations: Itzel, who considers herself independent or nonpartisan, and her parents María de Jesus and Porfirio, who are both registered Democrats. All three were born in Jalisco, Mexico, and voted in the U.S. for the first time in the 2020 presidential election. They all speak Spanish as their first language and call Oakland home.
The second focus group included three members of the Avila family, who also represent two generations: Debbie and her brother Obed, as well as their mother Adela. All three are registered Republicans, self-identify as Mexican American, and speak Spanish fluently. Debbie and Adela live in Modesto and Obed lives in Merced.
In both bilingual conversations, we asked participants the same questions:
"How do each of these ads make you feel?"
"What stood out to you while watching them?"
"On a scale of 1 to 5, how likely are you to vote YES or NO on the recall after watching each one?"
KQED then opened the floor for participants to suggest strategies politicians should consider implementing in future elections to better reach and engage Latino voters.
A range of reactions
Itzel, the independent voter from Oakland, said she was initially struck by Kevin Faulconer’s fluency in Spanish. She had grown used to seeing political ads where a politician would speak just a phrase of Spanish here or there and consider it enough to win her vote. Yet, she was most taken by how staged she thought the casting seemed, and the general lack of Latino representation on-screen.
"I felt it was like a series of checkboxes. It’s the way they think what Hispanics look like. I didn’t see a representation of Afro-Latinos or queer Latinos," she said of the Faulconer ad. "It's very obvious who they think are not going to vote for them."
Her father, Porfirio, agreed, saying Faulconer’s ad tailored its message toward well-to-do Latinos. Like Itzel, he believes this reveals how little most politicians and strategists seem to know about California's incredibly diverse Latino population, and how many political ads seem designed to only reacha selective few.
But what frustrated Itzel most was that both ads emphasized school closures during the pandemic and the negative impact it has had on youth.
"The schools did not close. The classes continued online and the children continued learning," she said. "They do not mention the effort, the operation and the infrastructure that it took [to get] digital access to a lot of those children that never had it before," she said.
But Itzel also said she felt offended by the three anti-recall spots paid for by Gov. Gavin Newsom's campaign — including one that claimed Republicans backing the recall were the same anti-immigrant politicians who support embedding microchips into immigrants. Trying to reach Latinos with fear-based messaging, she said, may have worked 20 or 30 years ago, but not today.
"They are ignoring the fact that there are a lot of very well-educated people in the community. That is, people are very well-informed right now," she said. "I feel offended in that sense that I mean really, they think that with pure fear they are going to convince us? What a lack of imagination."
"Something that disappoints me, frustrates me is that they are focusing 100% on fear [and] on the trauma that people already have,” Itzel said, calling that strategy completely unnecessary. "[Newsom] has done so many things to support the Latino community. I feel he missed an opportunity."
Porfirio agreed with his daughter's criticism. He wished the campaign would stop spending so much money on resources to produce fear-based ads and instead emphasize specific ways in which Newsom's administration has supported the Latino community.
"They are very rushed, they look as if they waited too long to prepare for this election,” he said of the Newsom campaign’s ad strategy, which he claims has had no impact on him. "Sadly, it's the approach they take in every election, right? To scare people with negativity and leave aside the positive contribution. It's as if they keep betting on that, as if they believe it has more impact."
Meanwhile, Obed Avila, from Merced, a Republican and former Marine, said he wasn't swayed by an anti-recall ad paid for by the California Latino PAC, linking recall proponents to supporters of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that targeted the state's undocumented immigrants.
"A lot of the stuff is a little bit one-sided," he said.
But his sister, Debbie, also a Republican, disagrees. She said the anti-recall ad brought her back to that infamous ballot measure from nearly 30 years ago.
"I remember the feeling of being treated like a second-class citizen," she said, through tears. "I have a lot of pride in my family. Of my dad and the hard labor that he's done in the field, and even my mom who's sitting next to me, and the work of 'mi gente.'"
Even though Debbie personally dislikes Newsom, she plans to vote against the recall because she refuses to align herself with candidates who backed the Trump administration. She said she also supported Newsom’s mandate to shut down the state during the pandemic.
"I think that shutting down the state was a difficult decision, but I feel that it needed to be done," she said. She believes the move helped save lives and curb the spread of COVID-19 in her community, even though she knows many people are still suffering from the pandemic’s economic impact.
And while Debbie’s no vote on the recall may seem like an unexpected one for a registered Republican, she said she was also swayed by her support for recent Democratic state legislation helping undocumented seniors.
"I don't see a Republican candidate who would have fought for our undocumented seniors [who’ve] worked in the fields their entire lives, and many of them still are working in the fields today," she said.
'Yo voto con mi fe'
Adela — Debbie and Obed's mother — who worked as a farm laborer and a teacher for decades, said her spiritual views are the most important factor when deciding whom to vote for. "Yo voto con mi fe [faith]," she said. "I don't look at what other people are doing. I vote if they tell me what their plans are and if I agree with their plans, I’ll vote for them. If not, I won’t."
Both Adela and Obed said they were frustrated that both Faulconer and Elder shared so little information about themselves or their plans for how to implement change as governor.
"They can make promises, but show me how you're going to fix it, what your plan is," Obed said.
As a general contractor, Obed has worked on several affordable housing projects for unhoused communities in the Central Valley, but is frustrated by what he sees as money wasted. "I've seen millions and billions of dollars being wasted just for a temporary Band-Aid. I want to see how they're going to do these solutions to win my vote."
"Instead of 30 seconds and spending, you know, the thousands and probably millions of dollars he's using to put this on the air on radio ads or TV ads, I wish he would have used that to tell me who [Elder] is as a candidate, and what his plan is for the state," she said.
Missed opportunities and the road ahead
So how should politicians transform their campaign strategies to more meaningfully connect with Latino voters?
Nearly every participant agreed that while it was encouraging to see candidates attempt to speak Spanish or run ads in Spanish, the ads they watched had no impact on who they would decide to vote for, nor did the messages apply to their everyday lives. Simply seeing ads in Spanish wasn’t enough for them to not feel like an afterthought in a last-minute campaign effort, they said. Instead, they wanted to see the candidates address issues that really affected their day-to-day lives.
The Díaz and Avila families made it clear they are both deeply committed to their community’s well-being. Debbie and Adela, from Modesto, want to see politicians coming to communities in the Central Valley, introducing themselves to residents and learning about their biggest concerns.
And, both families said, politicians need to continue that relationship-building process with Latino communities year-round — not just at election time.
"They need to invite us to the table, and many times they don't invite us to the table," Debbie said. "I would love it if they had an advisory committee that had people from all walks of life. It would be nice to even see undocumented folks and see teenagers. There's a lot of wisdom to what they have to say."
Porfirio, in Oakland, also stressed that in addition to politicians reaching out to people in his community, Latino voters must also exercise their right to vote and hold legislators accountable for addressing their needs.
"In Mexico ... I never missed an election. I always believe that this is one of the most important civil rights. Not only should we demand it, but we should also defend it," he said. "We have not valued the importance that we have, or we have not believed it. We have not demanded it."
Hear more of our conversation with the Díaz and Avila families on KQED's The Bay podcast below.