Alejandra Gomez was surprised, but pleased, by a flurry of phone calls from the White House in the spring, offering updates on its efforts toward an immigration overhaul. Officials also asked what her Arizona-based advocacy group thought of its work on voting rights and how the pandemic relief package was affecting the state.
“It’s absolutely different than what we’ve seen before,” Ms. Gomez said, comparing the efforts to those of previous Democratic administrations, which typically waited to reach out only during re-election campaigns.
She wasn’t alone. Leaders of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials were taken aback when both the president and vice president committed to speaking at their conference in June, the first time in the event’s decades-long history that the top two White House officials had agreed to speak in a non-election year.
And in Wisconsin, Voces de la Frontera, a group that represents low-wage immigrant workers, was thrilled when the White House reached out to arrange a conversation between their members and Marty Walsh, the secretary of labor, during a swing he made through Milwaukee.
“We had an opportunity for all our members to come listen to him and for him to listen to us,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the executive director of the organization. “That’s a good cue that they haven’t forgotten us after the elections.”
For years, Latino activists and organizers complained that Democratic efforts to woo their community often seemed like an afterthought, a motley collection of Spanish-language advertisements, haphazardly translated campaign literature and a handful of outreach staff members tacked on to campaigns.
But after last year’s election, when Republicans peeled away significant amounts of Latino support across the country, Democratic leaders are trying a more aggressive approach.
Led by a White House that recruited top Latino organizers to high-level staff positions, and with the first lady, Jill Biden, taking a particular interest in reaching out to Latino voters, the new effort bridges the party, encompassing policy, communications and political organizing. The outreach encompasses a broad number of community leaders and social media stars, such as Eugenio Derbez, a Mexican comedian, and meetings with Hispanic faith leaders.
The efforts reflect how vital Latino voters are to the party’s success, but also the extent of the work needed to win back a group that makes up nearly 20 percent of the population. Democrats have long viewed these voters — a diverse group that includes dozens of countries of origin and a wide range of socioeconomic status — as a mostly monolithic bloc that could be taken for granted, operating as though the most important factor was simply turnout; if Latino voters cast ballots, the reasoning went, they will vote Democratic.
But 2020, with a record 18.7 millions ballots cast by Latino voters, proved just how wrong that theory was. Though roughly 60 percent chose President Biden, the movement toward Donald J. Trump plunged Democrats into a period of soul-searching.
While there has not been a conclusive detailed analysis, exit polling and focus groups from both parties show that Mr. Trump won over Hispanic voters without a college degree who were critical of shutdown orders amid the pandemic and believed the former president would be a better steward of the economy. Republicans also did well with Cubans, Venezuelans and Colombians in South Florida who viewed Democrats as sympathetic to socialism, as well as Mexican Americans in South Texas and other regions who backed his border policies. Evangelicals made up a sizable portion of Latino Trump supporters based on their opposition to abortion.
The Democratic Party is now trying to use data to better understand Latino voters, and to try to develop a more granular understanding of how different national backgrounds, economic status and other factors change voting behavior.
As a candidate and president-elect, Mr. Biden has had uneven success with Hispanic outreach. In early 2020 primaries, he trailed his rival Bernie Sanders among Latino voters. Top Latino officials were frustrated during his campaign last year by the absence of Hispanic officials in his inner circle.
Some activists are quietly criticizing the new efforts as lackluster, and point out that while outreach has increased, there has not been a major policy victory on a critical issue like an immigration overhaul. But they acknowledge that there is a growing recognition that winning over Latino voters will take more than stops at taco shops and inserting mangled Spanish slogans into stump speeches.
“In terms of their engagement, they are doing a much better job at this point than during the first Obama administration,” said Arturo Vargas, the chief executive officer of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, who recently briefed White House staff members on the organization’s policy priorities. “We didn’t get this kind of outreach under Obama.”
“I would hope the lesson has been learned that you cannot take the Latino vote for granted,” Mr. Vargas added. “We’ve been saying that for decades, and I think that has now fallen on ears that are open.”
Democrats’ efforts are also geared toward persuading voters to see benefits of the party’s policies, particularly in key places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where more defections could cost them congressional seats.
Since Mr. Biden entered office, the White House has held dozens of meetings, many of them virtually, with leaders across the country. It is also finding ways to reach out directly to Latino voters and not rely solely on advocacy groups.
The administration has blanketed Spanish-language television and reached out to Spanish and English language publications read by Latino voters — even in often overlooked pockets in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Minnesota. A senior administration official appears on “Al Punto,” the Sunday morning show hosted by Jorge Ramos, twice a month.
Encouraged by her Latino chief of staff to step up her involvement, Dr. Biden made her first morning television appearance on Hoy Día, a Telemundo news show, and a series of stops in Latino neighborhoods from Salt Lake City to Osceola, Fla.
There are biweekly calls with Latino organizations on vaccination efforts and economic policies, as well as one-on-one meetings and briefings on more specific issues. Officials responsible for hiring held months of weekly calls with outside organizations to help develop a pipeline of Latino candidates for administration posts. The effort has been successful: A number of Latino organizers and strategists now hold high-level posts in the White House and the cabinet.
White House aides say that many of the top policy priorities will benefit Latino voters significantly; the child tax credit, for instance, could have an outsize impact on a Latino population that is disproportionately young. In private polling of Latino voters shared with The New York Times, Building Back Together, a group run by Biden allies, found that economic concerns and public health were the top-ranking issues, with immigration ranking third.
Top aides said they were particularly pleased that their efforts on vaccination had appeared to pay off, as the gap between Latino and white Americans receiving vaccinations has narrowed. Latinos have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, in part because they make up a disproportional number of essential workers, and have seen life expectancy decrease significantly.
“It’s definitely by design,” said Emmy Ruiz, the White House director of political strategy, “In everything that we do, there’s a Latino frame to it.”
It’s an approach that differs from the past. During the Obama administration, much of the outreach came after the midterms and was focused largely on health care legislation and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed young undocumented immigrants to legally live and work in the United States.
Still, the effort falls short of what many Latino leaders hope to see, particularly in the wake of last year’s election, when the Hispanic vote caught many Democratic officials by surprise.
“This moment requires a full-court press,” said Carlos Odio, a co-founder of Equis Labs, a research group that has spent the last several months examining the shifts among Latino voters during the last election cycle. “My concern is that there is a belief that last year was an anomaly, and that it is just going to go back to normal. That’s especially troubling if Republicans go back to campaigning for those votes.”
Some of the push is pre-emptive, designed to ensure that Latino voters recognize that Democrats are at least trying to pass an immigration overhaul.
There is widespread support for legislation to grant Dreamers a path to citizenship, including among Latino Republicans. Even among Latino voters who do not view immigration as their top issue, the majority say they would not vote for a candidate who opposes such legislation, according to polling from Building Back Together.
Among Latino Democrats, there is a widespread belief that the country is improving, including for Latinos themselves. But Hispanic Republicans say the situation in the United States has worsened in the last year, according to recent polling from the Pew Research Center.
“Democrats are at code red — they see it, they get it and they are scrambling to get all hands on deck,” said Daniel Garza, the executive director of Libre, a conservative Latino group.
Still grappling with the 2020 results, Democratic strategists have blamed several factors for the losses: concern about crime, fears of socialism stoked by the Trump campaign, and even the “machismo” of Latino men.
To try to avoid another drop in support during the midterms, Democratic campaign committees are already investing millions to install organizers in heavily Latino districts in Florida, Texas, Arizona and Georgia.
“When you have a group that is so new, so big and is growing at such high rates, it requires constant conversation,” said Matt Barreto, a Democratic pollster who has focused on Latino voters for decades and is involved in the Building Back Together efforts. “We want to have years of conversation so that when a campaign comes, we’re not trying to scream at people.”