MIAMI — Despite a late push to court Latino voters over the last several weeks, Joseph R. Biden Jr. is ending his presidential bid on shaky and perhaps perilous ground with this diverse, essential segment of the electorate, according to interviews with Democratic officials, community activists and voters.
Several of the battleground states on a knife’s edge ahead of Election Day — Florida, Texas, Arizona and even Pennsylvania — have large Latino populations. If Mr. Biden loses those states, let alone the election, the Democratic Party’s post-mortem will surely include this question:
Did Mr. Biden do too little, too late to court Latino voters, committing a strategic error that could be the 2020 version of Hillary Clinton taking Wisconsin for granted in 2016?
“There’s more we could have done on our side, there is more the Biden campaign should have done, as a party we are always so late to the game,” said Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action, a Washington-based progressive group that has been trying to mobilize Latino voters.
“We are always leaving people on the table, we are always leaving power on the table,” she added.
Polling in battleground states this fall has generally shown Mr. Biden leading President Trump among Hispanic voters, but not in every case — and rarely by the same margin that Mrs. Clinton commanded in 2016, especially among Hispanic men.
The picture is especially dicey for Mr. Biden in Florida. Mr. Trump and his team have aggressively courted conservatives in the Cuban, Venezuelan and Colombian communities around Miami for years, hoping to offset their losses among suburbanites and seniors in the state.
His closing message — that Mr. Biden is the captive of “radicals” and “socialists” — resonates deeply in the anti-Castro Cuban community, and Mr. Trump wrapped up Saturday’s five-rally day in Opa-locka, once home to a relocation center for refugees from the island.
A New York Times/Siena College poll of Florida released on Sunday showed Mr. Biden with the support of 54 percent of the state’s Latino voters, compared with 62 percent for Mrs. Clinton four years ago. He and Mr. Trump were basically tied among Hispanic men in the state. Last week another Florida poll, from NBC News/Marist College, actually found Mr. Biden trailing among likely Latino voters, 52 to 46.
Hispanic voters in general have long shown less partisan loyalty over all than white and Black voters typically do, and they are more inclined to express ambivalence about their choices in an election.
Mr. Biden is competitive among Latino voters, and could still win Florida based on his strength with educated whites. But he would be in better shape, campaign aides privately acknowledged, if the campaign had reached out earlier to recruit infrequent voters and soften Mr. Trump’s support among Hispanic men in the state.
Even as Mr. Biden’s campaign intensified its phone-bank efforts and Spanish-language advertising in Puerto Rican communities in Florida and North Carolina over the weekend, it was clear to many involved in the effort that time had run out.
“The Biden people have done a good job in playing catch-up, but it is always the same, every cycle,” said Chuck Rocha, who runs Nuestro PAC, a pro-Biden committee that has raised $9 million for Spanish-language advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. “Everybody only does Latino outreach in the last couple of weeks of the campaign. That has to change.”
Julián Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio whose unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination was rooted in an appeal to Latino voters, said his party “needs to do much more.”
“There needs to be a yearlong, consistent effort to turn people out, and to reach voters who are harder to get — especially in Arizona and Texas, which are so close for us now,” Mr. Castro added.
The coronavirus has also been an impediment, said Mr. Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama and now an adviser to Mr. Biden. “Latino voters like in-person contact,” he said.
The overall problem is rooted not only in the party’s inconsistent efforts to reach Latino voters, but also in the particulars of Mr. Biden’s primary campaign. It was a cash-poor operation that was focused on Black voters, a group long courted by the former vice president that turned out to be critical to his primary victory.
Mr. Biden’s Hispanic-outreach operation, like other parts of his campaign, did not really get rolling until the summer, when his lackluster fund-raising operation turned around, and he hired Julie Chávez Rodríguez, granddaughter of the labor leader César Chávez, to oversee it.
Still, the party has seen some successes. The Democratic National Committee invested heavily in microtargeting Puerto Rican voters through the purchase of call lists in 2019, and Mr. Biden owes his surprising strength in Texas and Arizona to strong support from Latino voters.
Democratic officials say they expected that nine million Latino voters will have gone to the polls early by mail or in person, up from 3.7 million in 2016. Many of those voters are new — 500,000 of the two million Latino voters who have voted early in Texas were there for the first time, according to a person who worked on the effort.
Democrats have also recently begun pouring money and resources into outreach efforts, with donors pumping $28 million into three independent expenditure groups aimed at increasing Latino turnout in the past two months. That includes a recent influx of cash from Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, and Priorities USA, a leading pro-Biden super PAC.
Nov. 3, 2020, 10:48 a.m. ET
Thanks to those funds, the Biden campaign has been able to increase its Spanish-language media buys in the closing weeks, with six-figure expenditures booked in Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania, a spokesman said.
Mr. Biden has also made multiple trips to Florida, and surrogates like Mr. Castro have been crisscrossing the Sun Belt to stoke turnout. Last week the campaign dispatched Kamala Harris, his running mate, for a high-profile tour of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, even though Mr. Biden himself has not campaigned in the state, a big prize many in his campaign still view as a reach.
But much of the Democrats’ resources in the closing days is being devoted to providing basic voting information to registered Latino voters, rather than funding a deeper dive into the voter files to reach more voters, or a big effort to change the minds of wavering male voters, party officials said.
“In our field conversations we’re making sure they have all the information they need to follow through on their voting plan,” said Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
As Election Day drew near, the party and campaign officials converged on a single message: steering voters to voyavotar.com, a web portal with polling place information in Spanish.
The effort has been especially intense in Arizona and along Florida’s Interstate-4 corridor, which crosses the middle of the state. The campaign has also boosted its efforts in parts of Pennsylvania, where dozens of volunteers canvassed voter lists to target Puerto Ricans who have recently moved to the state, a small but potentially significant pool of votes in the critical battleground.
The work is labor intensive.
On Saturday, Veronica Escobar, the Democratic congresswoman from El Paso, spent 20 minutes on the phone with a young Mexican-American woman in Texas who was outraged at Mr. Trump’s response to the pandemic and frightened by his rhetoric — and had no intention, whatsoever, of voting.
It often takes a lot of effort to persuade such voters, but the key for Ms. Escobar was offering the 24-year-old woman, who had registered at 18 but never voted, detailed step-by-step instructions on how to cast a ballot for Mr. Biden.
“When I was done, she said to me, ‘Thank you for doing this, I’ve wanted to vote for a long time, but was I too embarrassed to ask somebody how to do it,’” recalled Ms. Escobar, who helped fund part of a last-minute, $50,000 phone-bank effort to reach Latino voters on behalf of Mr. Biden and other Democrats, out of her own campaign coffers.
Still, Mr. Biden faces significant challenges if he wants to match or improve on Mrs. Clinton’s numbers among Latino voters.
In Florida, Mr. Biden needs non-Cuban Hispanics, such as Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans and others, to grow his support among the state’s Latino voters. Many of those voters, however, live in Miami-Dade County and have not cast ballots at the same rate as Republican-leaning Cubans.
About 45 percent of Puerto Rican voters had cast ballots in Miami-Dade as of Saturday, according to an analysis by Hawkfish, a Democratic technology and data firm, compared with 58 percent of other Hispanic voters and 62 percent of Cuban-American voters. Mr. Trump has made inroads especially with newer Cuban immigrants.
Democrats are relying on many Latino voters to go to the polls on Election Day, as they have tended to do in the past.
“That’s the thing with Miami: It’s hard to predict, because people decide late,” said State Senator José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat from Miami, who is Cuban-American.
On Sunday, Mr. Trump held a midnight rally at the Opa-locka airport, near the Cuban-American enclaves of Hialeah and Miami Lakes. The warm-up acts featured a performance by the Cuban trio Los 3 de La Habana, whose song “Canción de Trump” has become ubiquitous in Miami and made it into a Spanish-language ad that Mr. Trump’s campaign has put atop its YouTube page.
Cary Hidalgo, 57, called the election a choice between “the lesser of two evils, same as last election,” in which she voted for Mr. Trump.
This year, she again voted for him. “He’s not a politician. He’s uncouth. He has no tact,” Ms. Hidalgo, a financial-aid officer at a vocational school, said of Mr. Trump.
“But I don’t like the fact that I feel Biden and the Democrat Party at this point is leaning toward socialistic views. I don’t agree with that,” said Ms. Hidalgo, who is Cuban-American. “That’s what my father left his country for.”