KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — On a sweaty recent Thursday afternoon, Alex Berrios is instructing his team on how to get people to register to vote. Extend your hand, he says; it makes folks more likely to stop. Smile a lot, that works, too. But immediately take no for an answer so you don't seem too pushy.
Berrios, co-founder of a new nonprofit, Mi Vecino, or “My Neighbor” has a lot riding on developing the right pitch. His group, which works out of a cramped office in the shadow of Disney World, is targeting Latino would-be voters. He was role-playing how best to approach them in front of Walgreens, amid games of dominoes at a senior center or outside El Bodegon, a supermarket chain specializing in Colombian products.
Fifteen months before the midterm elections, groups like his are mobilizing across the country — both Democrats who have enjoyed a historic Latino allegiance and Republicans emboldened by gains in 2020 — all trying to lock down the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.
The stakes are high, particularly for Democrats who are counting on Latino votes as a vital part of a winning coalition for cycles to come. And few places are as central to that effort as Florida.
“We’re not selling cars here,” said Berrios, a onetime boxer who has “fighter” tattooed on his arm and is now vice chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re in the community and we’re staying.”
Even as Joe Biden flipped heavily Hispanic Arizona to Democratic to clinch the presidency last November, he underperformed with many Latino voters elsewhere. And his party lost congressional seats where Spanish is often more common than English, from Miami's Little Havana to South Texas' sparsely populated borderlands to the high desert north of Los Angeles.
Nationally, Biden won Latinos by a 59-38 percent margin over Donald Trump, but that was 17 percentage points lower than Hillary Clinton's 66-28 percent margin in 2016, according to Pew Research Center data.
Republicans say they gained ground with Latinos because Democrats, with their increasingly left-leaning positions, are proving soft on issues like socialism and border security.
But Democrats say a problem for them was that they waited until just before the election to intensify outreach to Latino communities.
“It’s very transactional. Campaigns, they come and they start 30-60 days before an election, then they're gone," said Berrios, who left Biden's campaign after raising concerns about lagging engagement with Hispanic voters.
Berrios says Mi Vecino is trying to change that. And the party has begun an expensive, intensive effort to reach Latinos and other voters of color long before the 2022 elections.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is investing more than $1 million on 48 organizing directors around the country designed to bolster “strategic outreach and build trust” with minority communities in midterm battleground districts, including in Florida and Texas.
Matt Barreto was the Biden campaign’s pollster in charge of Latino message and research and noted that he was only brought on last July, a few months before the election.
“We did what we could,” Barreto said.
He and other top Democratic advisers are now leading Building Back Together, a play on Biden’s “Build Back Better” post-pandemic campaign slogan, to promote the administration through television and digital advertising.
The initiative first targeted Arizona and Florida as well as two other states with sizeable and growing Latino populations, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
Barreto says the “always on” approach relentlessly communicates with Latinos and has tailored messages for those from different backgrounds, including distinct narrator accents for audiences in different parts of the country.