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Democrats Court Latino Voters

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A member of Congress made some news yesterday. Tony Cardenas said he is supporting Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination for president. Cardenas is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. His name might not be all that well-known outside his LA-area district, but it is clear to the Democrats running for president that they need Latino voters to win. Senator Bernie Sanders already has an important endorsement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I can't hear you. What's up, Los Angeles?

(CHEERING)

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Is Los Angeles and California - are you all ready for the revolution?

(CHEERING)

GREENE: That's Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigning for Bernie Sanders last weekend.

Now, to learn more about how important Latinos will be to the Democratic primary, we're joined by Mindy Romero, who studies the demographics. She directs the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California.

Thanks for being here on your holiday.

MINDY ROMERO: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So these endorsements - Joe Biden has Cardenas. Bernie Sanders has AOC. What do these endorsements bring to the candidates?

ROMERO: I think they bring a lot but in different ways. So an endorsement should hopefully bring voters, but it also typically brings some sort of additional support - money, donors - right? - folks that want to work on the ground to bring you those voters, organizers and so forth.

I think particularly for Representative Cardenas - he doesn't have that name support, as you've already noted. But he does bring pretty significant institutional support that's really needed for Biden from the Latino community, the Hispanic community. AOC, like Sanders, likes to talk about challenging, of course, the status quo. But she brings name recognition, also potential donors and a lot of ground support and also, I think, a lot of legitimacy with her supporters to Sanders.

GREENE: I want to ask you about one issue. Biden has faced criticism for not working harder as vice president to change the Obama administration's migrant deportation policies, which, you know, many Latino voters found harsh and punitive. And we spoke with Congressman Cardenas yesterday, and he defended Biden in this way.

TONY CARDENAS: When you're vice president of the United States, you don't have the last word. When you're president of the United States, you do have the last word. That was one of the disappointments in our relationship with President Obama. There's a lot to appreciate about his presidency. But that was one area that Vice President Biden has told me personally that he will not repeat and that he will make sure that we keep comprehensive immigration reform on the forefront. And then he'll make it a first-term issue.

GREENE: So are there things Latino voters want and need to hear from Biden on immigration?

ROMERO: I think yes, absolutely, and particularly Latino leadership still. It's true the vice president is not the president, but that's - the explanation hasn't yet satisfied the Latino community or the Latino leadership in the United States. So Biden just put out immigration policy, one of the last presidential candidates to do so. That's a good first step. And he's certainly, in that policy, distinguishing himself from Trump and at the same time, finally, clearly distinguishing himself from President Obama.

So he doesn't suffer what I think he's been suffering, at least with some folks and - people assuming that he's going to carry on with the exact policies of the Obama administration. But at the same time, he's had some missteps. He has not been clear in the debates, in a lot of his public conversations about what he would do, at times seeming to completely tie himself to President Obama. We know he's doing that in many ways but also along immigration topics. And in other ways, he's distancing himself. He has distanced himself but has been unclear.

And you know, there's a recent rally or a conversation he had with voters where a voter was asking him about his policies. And he told that voter - voters challenging him, I think - and he told that voter to vote for Trump. So I think he has some work still to do in distributing and promoting his now-new immigration policy but also just in his demeanor to seem sincere and some work not just from what happened with the Obama administration but some hill to climb in terms of how he's handled things recently, even.

GREENE: Well, let me ask you this. There's another former Obama administration figure, Julian Castro, the only Latino remaining in a Democratic field that's getting less diverse, we should say. Why is he struggling to capture Latino support versus these older white candidates?

ROMERO: I think there's a couple things going on. Number one, he hasn't had the name recognition. He hasn't had the funding and support to really get his candidate off on a strong footing. When it comes to actual endorsements, many major players, you know, held their endorsements. They're still holding their endorsements. They want to make sure that who they endorse not only matches their values and their own strategic political goals but that the person has a chance at winning. And so I think, you know, Castro has suffered early on, and then that's also certainly been a disadvantage for him to gain any of these sorts of endorsements that we've talked about today.

GREENE: Mindy Romero is the director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of Southern California.

Thanks so much for joining us.

ROMERO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.