Many Latino Californians aren’t voting. Can U.S. Senate candidates motivate them?

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YUE STELLA YU | CALMATTERS

For six generations since emigrating from Mexico to America, Clarissa Renteria’s family never voted.

If any campaign mailers arrived during election season, Renteria’s parents — who both worked as warehouse workers in Woodlake, an agricultural town of 7,600 in California’s citrus belt — would throw them away. When their neighbor was elected mayor of Woodlake, Renteria’s father shrugged it off. “Look at him trying to fit in,” Renteria remembers her father saying.

“My family just didn’t feel included in the politics, didn’t feel seen,” Renteria, 25, said in an interview at a voter registration event in Tulare. “It was just 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 Latino Californians who miss out on voting each year. Latinos are the least likely to vote, though they comprise the single largest racial and ethnic group statewide, research shows. They account for just 25% of the state’s likely voters despite making up 36% of the adult population statewide, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

But they could hold the key to the 2024 U.S. Senate race since they’re a voting bloc largely untapped by the leading candidates.

“Whoever wins over Latino voters is going to win the March primary in 2024,” said Christian Arana, vice president of policy at the Latino Community Foundation.

But who’s that going to be? With less than four months until the March 5 primary, many Latino voters aren’t sure yet.

The leading Democratic candidates — U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff — are polling mostly less than 20% among Latino voters, while 30% to 40% remain undecided, according to surveys conducted this year. In an October Latino Community Foundation and BSP Research poll of 900 Latino voters, roughly half said they did not have an opinion about the Senate candidates yet or did not know enough about them to form one.

“We are not seeing yet any of the Latino electorate connect with any particular candidates for U.S. Senate,” said Matt Barreto, founder of BSP Research and the Latino Policy and Politics Institute at the University of California Los Angeles.

“I think all of these candidates who are running right now are behind.”

Among all voters, Schiff and Porter are the frontrunners in polls in the past two months, well ahead of Lee and Republicans, though roughly one third of those surveyed are still undecided. The top two vote-getters on March 5, regardless of party, advance to the November general election.

Candidates have met with Latino leaders, conducted listening tours in communities of color and visited Latino business owners around the state, some as early as February, according to the campaigns. They have also been racking up endorsements from Latino leaders locally and nationally. On Nov. 4, the three top Democrats — Lee, Porter and Schiff — participated in a forum on immigration issues hosted by The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Action Fund.

But political experts say it requires much more to gain support from Latino voters: Early, consistent and aggressive campaign outreach, but more importantly, issues resonating enough to persuade Latinos to not only vote, but vote for them.

“Low voter turnout is almost as significant an indicator of a lack of appeal of a message as voting for another party,” said Mike Madrid, former political director for the California Republican Party and a political strategist with expertise on Latino voting.

“I don’t care how early you start. If you don’t have a message that resonates, it doesn’t matter.”

Population-wise, the potential political power of Latinos in California seems unmatched.

They are the biggest racial and ethnic group, accounting for 40% of the state’s population. California is also home to 8 million — or one quarter — of the nation’s eligible Latino voters, more than any other state, according to the Pew Research Center. And that number is growing due to young Latinos coming of age, increasing their share of the state’s eligible voting population.

But Latinos are significantly underrepresented in voter registration and turnout statewide and nationwide.

They made up just 14% of “frequent voters” (those who voted in at least five of the seven most recent elections), while white voters made up 71%, according to an August poll from the University of California Berkeley Institute of Government Studies.

Latinos also had the lowest turnout rate of all groups in the 2020 election statewide and nationwide, according to a 2022 analysis by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Institute. Just 60% of eligible Latinos in California registered to vote, and just 55% of eligible Latinos voted, the data shows. They accounted for 32% of California’s eligible voters, but only 27% of those who voted that year.

Latinos are underrepresented among likely voters in California, Latinos account for 36% of California’s adult population but make up just 25% of the state’s likely voters, data from the Public Policy Institute of California shows. | Source: Data analysis by Public Policy Institute of California • Graphic by Yue Stella Yu, CalMatters

Poorer + younger = less engaged

Why are Latinos less likely to vote?

One contributing factor: Latinos are disproportionately poorer, especially in California, which is among states with the highest income inequality, Madrid noted.

More than half of Californians living in poverty are Latinos, 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 — a percentage lower than their white and Asian counterparts, according to the California Association of Realtors.

“When you have no upward economic mobility … that’s a very big problem for turnout,” Madrid said.

Jovonna Renteria, a 26-year-old Latino voter in Tulare County, said working-class Latinos in her neighborhood prioritize their immediate needs — such as housing, food and childcare — 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 just trying to survive, (voting) gets pushed to the side,” said Renteria, who is not related to Clarissa Renteria.

Latinos in California also tend to be younger, and more than half of the state’s population ages 24 and younger are Latinos, research shows. Nationwide, 34 million young Latinos will be qualified to vote next year.

But younger voters are less likely to participate, political experts say. They tend to be less affluent and motivated to vote not by habit, but by issues that matter to them, said Mark Baldassare, survey director at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Youths also have a lower “stake in society” since they are less likely to be parents or homeowners, who tend to be more invested in local politics such as property taxes or school bonds, Madrid said.

“If you don’t do that, you have a very transient mobile society, and that is a very civically disengaged one, which is not good for democracy,” he said.

‘Disenfranchised’ and disconnected

Mateo Fernandez, 17, will be a first-time voter next year. While he is 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 in what’s going on around them because everyone else seems so much more powerful,” he said.

Jovonna Renteria saw the same in her community. She said Latinos feel “disenfranchised” and have “lost faith in the system” since they don’t see how they can benefit from those elections.

The feeling of disconnect is partly due to a historical and current lack of outreach from 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 echoed in other states such as Texas: Latinos are less likely to vote because campaigns rarely reach out to them, but campaigns are less inclined to reach out to them because they focus on likely voters, Romero noted.

“We know that often in the Latino community … that you need to make the case and build trust and use trusted messengers,” she said. “We still don’t see candidates doing it, or at least not in a sustained way.”

But when campaigns do reach out, some rely on stereotypes about the Latino communities, holding events featuring mariachi bands, sprinkling in a few Spanish words and “parachuting” in and out, Romero said.

Presidential campaigns are also known to hold events at taco shops to rally the Latino vote, running the risk of what Barreto called “Hispandering.” Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden dined at King Taco — a famous Los Angeles joint — during their presidential bids.

“But there’s so much more to our community than that one particular taco shop in East L.A.,” Arana said.

The inconsistent outreach makes Latino voters feel ignored, said Jose Barrera, national vice president for the Far West at the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“Come every four years, it seems like everybody wants our vote,” he said. “But once elected, candidates seem to forget about us. …Why should we as a community support some people who really promise everything but never deliver?”

A wide-open race

When asked by CalMatters how they have connected with Latino voters, the leading U.S. Senate candidates pointed to their outreach efforts, endorsements and track record.

Lee, Porter and Schiff have all met with Latino business owners and leaders in Southern California, the Central Valley and the Bay area, holding most events in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno or nearby areas, according to their campaigns.

All three campaigns pointed to their advocacy in Congress for a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants and for expanding health care coverage. They are all co-sponsors of the House version of the “Registry Act,” which would allow some undocumented immigrants to qualify for lawful status.

Schiff’s campaign highlighted his support for expanded child tax credits, affordable housing, clean energy and more as well as his role leading the first impeachment trial against former President Donald Trump. He also introduced the Head Start Expansion and Improvement Act, which would invest billions in providing services to children from low-income families.

Porter’s campaign also noted 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 — mainly touted her stance on immigration issues, noting she is the only candidate to have voted against the creation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2002 and says she now wants to slash Customs and Border Protection funding in half. Schiff, then in his first term, voted in favor of creating ICE. Lee also noted her long history supporting Medicare for All and said she supports canceling all student debts.

Lexi Reese, a Democratic candidate who is barely registering in polls, said her background 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 conducted listening tours in both languages.

A spokesperson for Eric Early, a top GOP contender, said that Latino voters he spoke to want a lower cost of living, tougher regulations on violent crimes and a stop to “the indoctrination of our children in schools” and “the flood of illegal immigration and fentanyl across the southern border.” He also touted his lawsuit against the Santa Barbara Unified School District for diversity training, which was thrown out in federal court.

Republican Steve Garvey, the L.A. Dodgers legend who entered the race last month, did not respond to a CalMatters’ inquiry.

While Latino advocacy groups haven’t announced or don’t plan endorsements, some notable community leaders have made up their minds.

Schiff, who has received dozens of endorsements from Latino lawmakers and leaders, gained support from state Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragán, chairperson of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and today from former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Porter’s campaign stressed her 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 Latino Equality Alliance and mayor of Huntington Park. Lee also received endorsements from Dolores Huerta, longtime activist and co-founder of United Farm Workers.

But despite the months-long outreach by some campaigns, a sizable portion of Latino voters are still undecided, polls show. That’s partly because none of the top candidates have been on a statewide ballot and therefore have low name recognition, some experts say.

“I don’t think that any of the candidates come with a natural advantage,” Baldassare said. “(Schiff) has been high-profile in Washington, but that doesn’t mean he’s high-profile with the California voters.”Additionally, campaigns must expand beyond immigration as a top issue, which is a “relic of the past,” Madrid said. A fast-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 joblessness — not immigration — are consistently the top issue among Latinos, he said.

“How do you have the largest ethnic group in the state with the lowest voter turnout rates when they are telling you … that the No. 1 issue they have is jobs and the economy, and yet, all the Latino advocacy groups are talking about is immigration?”

The Nov. 4 forum was focused almost exclusively on immigration. Madrid argues that while the issue was important, it shouldn’t be all there is.

Fatima Flores, a spokesperson for the coalition that hosted the forum, said it was to “uplift the intersections of other issues within immigration” so members could “walk away informed and knowledgeable.”

And Angelica Salas, the coalition’s executive director, said it wants to see a “torch bearer” on immigration issues among the Senate candidates seeking to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who Salas deemed a “vanguard” of immigration reform.

“Yes, they are all supportive,” Salas said of top Democrats in the race. “But we are looking for the leader who is going to advance this cause, but more importantly, is going to finally be part of the leadership that’s going to get immigration reform over the finish line.”

Arana said he is glad candidates have been out engaging Latino voters. But they must make sure the outreach is consistent and the message is on point, he said, pointing to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ win in the California presidential primary in 2020.

Sanders proposed debt-free public colleges and universal health care, which resonated with young Latino voters, Arana said.

“He opened offices in areas where campaigns … normally wouldn’t,” he said. “Not only did he open that office, he hired people from the community, so it almost made it seem like it was a partnership to change the country.”

As for now, things have mostly been quiet in the city of Tulare.

At the local voter registration drive and Día de Los Muertos celebration hosted by several Latino advocacy groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, two dozen residents showed up, some drawn by the free food. Half a block away, a train whooshed by every few minutes on the railway track that sliced through the city, the blaring horn in contrast with the sleepy downtown.

“I thought it was not real,” Clarissa Renteria said outside the event venue, joking about when she first heard about it. Such events are rare in Tulare, she said. No one has knocked on her door for the Senate candidates, and she has seen no signs of campaign outreach in the area.

“We don’t really have a lot of that around here,” she said. “But I feel like as soon as you get other people who are also Mexican, like myself, to see: ‘Hey, I’m talking about these issues,’ maybe they’ll get more engaged. I think that’s what we need to see.”

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