Maria Cardona on Latino voters and Democratic Strategy
I'm pleased to bring you this interview with Maria Cardona, who is a Principal at the Dewey Square Group (DSG); Founder of Latinovations, DSG’s Latino Strategies Practice; a Democratic strategist; a CNN and CNN Español Political Commentator; and host of the MARIA! Show on El Rey Network. Her expertise encompasses public policy, communications, coalition building, and constituency outreach. Our conversation took place on November 18, 2021, and has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): Many people feel that Democratic Party messaging has failed to adequately publicize the amazing accomplishments of the Biden administration, and also does not respond forcefully enough to the Republican assault on democracy.
Maria Cardona (MC): I believe that there is a lot more forceful and positive messaging that Democrats need to embark on in the next year, especially leading up to the midterm elections, to underscore and unequivocally frame what Joe Biden and this administration have been able to accomplish. Let's not forget that when he came into office, there was a raging pandemic, and vaccinations were just becoming available. He put in place initiatives to get majorities of Americans vaccinated, even in the face of Republican reticence and disinformation.
And the Recovery Act put money into the pockets of families who were desperate because of what they had gone through during the pandemic. Businesses were able to stay afloat as opposed to going under. The most recent accomplishment, which is the bipartisan infrastructure bill, is the icing on the cake. And so, to your point, there have been a lot of success stories that this administration needs to tell, about what Democrats are doing for families right now.
This administration also needs to remind the American people of what's at stake with the decisions that we make at the ballot box next November, which are probably just as important as the presidential election, because they will determine who is empowered in the House and in the Senate. And that in turn will then determine what issues are at the forefront. All of the investigations into the January 6th insurrection could go away if Democrats lose the House and the Senate. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.
RBG: Looking ahead to the midterms and 2024, we know that Latino voters are becoming a bigger part of the electorate. And they're voting in larger numbers for Republicans, especially Latino men. The number of Latino men who voted for Trump increased between 2016 and 2020. This situation perplexes people who may have a simplistic understanding of identity politics: if you're Latino, you're supposed to vote Democrat. That just does not reflect reality.
MC: Democrats should never have considered the Latino vote as what they call a base vote. A base vote means that it is a group of people that, if they come out to vote, they will vote for the Democrat. That means that they don't necessarily need to be persuaded.
Latinos are not base voters. Latinos are swing voters. And from the moment that I started studying the Latino vote back in the early nineties, this has been the case. Latinos swung for George W. Bush in massive amounts. The numbers of Latinos voting for Democrats have never been in the high seventies or eighties or nineties, the way that the African-American vote has been. Democrats need to put more resources into persuading Latino voters, and make investments in that earlier, as in years before an election.
For Latino voters, the primary voting motivation is economic--how secure you feel that you can provide for yourself and for your family. That motivation increases the closer they are to the person who immigrated to this country. Have I been able to achieve the American dream, which is the reason I (or my parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents) came over here?
The other motivating factor is immigration. When the Republicans became very draconian on immigration in the mid-2000s, it became what we call a filter issue. Meaning that if you were not talking about immigration in a generous manner, then the majority of Latinos, we're not even going to listen to you on any other issue. That's a big reason why Democrats won the House in 2006 and why Barack Obama won as president in 2008.
And then came Trump, who ran on an anti-immigrant platform. In 2016, Latinos overwhelmingly came out against Trump. Hillary Clinton won 71% of the Hispanic vote. But Latino men in particular were not necessarily bothered by Trump’s hard line. A lot of them were conservative, and they were legal American citizens. That's when the margins matter, and small swings matter.
The 2020 swing vote from Democrat to Republican happened in places that were majority democratic strongholds, like Miami Dade, and in the Rio Grande valley in Texas. In Miami Dade, the Republicans used a brilliant and nasty disinformation tactic that painted the Democrats as Socialists. Using WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook, they spread horrible rumors and lies about Biden and Kamala Harris and the Democrats. In the Rio Grande valley, it draconian hardline immigration talk and a pro-business standpoint attracted Latino male voters to Republicans.
But 2020 also shows us that when Democrats organize and really fight for the Latino vote it works for them. Take Georgia. Biden wouldn't have won Georgia without the margin that he got from Latinos. Stacey Abrams and her groups worked very closely with Latino advocates in Georgia throughout 2020. And then they did not stop fighting after we knew that these two Senate seats were up for grabs.
I have always believed that it's with Democrats that Latinos can live a better life in this country, but we have to never let up on why we believe that's the case.
RBG: I want to ask you about the mainstreaming of extremism. If you saw it in another country, for example a country that had had a military dictatorship, you would see American extremists, like militia members, as a paramilitary.
You do a lot of public speaking, and I imagine that there are people who you're speaking to, or among your audiences on CNN Español, who come from countries that had coups and rule by juntas. How do you explain Jan. 6 to them?
MC: I think that what happened on Jan. 6th is that we lost our innocence. We have always taken our democracy for granted. Jan. 6 really showed us how fragile it is.
RBG: Many people in America are feeling a bit depressed and helpless in the face of the worsening threats to our democracy. What are some things that people can do to respond to this situation?
MC: They can make sure that they, their families and friends, and their communities register and go out and vote. That also means participating in every single local election. If everyone makes a vow to make sure that they vote and that their family and friends vote, then our democracy will continue to stay strong.