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Democratic concerns about Latino support linger in final days of campaign

(CNN) Democrats are concerned about lower enthusiasm among Latino voters in the final days of the 2020 campaign, warning it could cause the party and its presidential nominee Joe Biden to come up short in key states on Election Day.

Latino voters make up large portions of the electorate in a number of crucial states, including two top battlegrounds -- Arizona and Florida -- as well as Texas, where Biden's campaign is mounting a late push, and Nevada, where President Donald Trump is seeking to broaden his own map.

They are also a smaller, but important, part of the electorate in other critical areas, including Philadelphia, the biggest city in what could be the most important state on this year's electoral map.

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And with polls consistently showing Biden with lower support among Latinos than Hillary Clinton had four years ago, party operatives, elected officials and activists -- while crediting Biden with improving his standing since the summer, when concerns about his struggles with Latinos were at a peak -- worry that a failure to effectively engage the community could hurt Democrats in close races up and down the ballot.

One particular concern: Trump's inroads with Latino men.

"The Latino men, specifically those 50-to-75-years-old, are no different than White males in suburban communities," said Philadelphia City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, a member of the Biden campaign's Pennsylvania Latino Leadership Council. "They're macho men and there's parts of Trump's personality that they like, and we needed to be able to have counter-messaging about how the family component of who they are is being attacked."

Another concern is Biden's on-the-ground engagement efforts. The coronavirus pandemic led his campaign to avoid door-to-door canvassing over the summer -- a safety-focused decision that came at the cost of giving up many of the one-on-one meetings with potential voters who campaigns often don't reach. The campaign has resumed canvassing in recent weeks, but some liberal organizers focused on reaching Latino voters worry the move came too late.

One red alarm for Democrats comes in Florida's Miami-Dade County, home to a huge Hispanic population where Republicans are besting Democrats in turning out those voters.

"My concern is that it edges up more. But if the Democrats can close that gap, that might help save them in the rest of the state," Florida-based Democratic data analyst Matthew Isbell said.

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He said Democrats have huge pools in Miami's Hispanic community that they could reach -- people who have voted in one or two of the last three elections. Republicans, he said, have especially large advantages in Cuban communities, and it's unclear whether Democratic voters in those areas will show up at the last minute or "maybe feel isolated in the community" and won't vote this year.

Still, Biden's allies say the pandemic is the dominant issue in the 2020 election -- and that Trump's mismanagement of the pandemic will bring voters to them.

"It's a disproportionate impact that it's had on Latino communities across the country, but in particular in South Texas. And Biden's message resonates with what we need in our district -- wearing masks, social distancing rules and doing the right thing," said Texas Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez.

Trying to break through in Florida

In Florida, the Biden campaign and its allies are searching for a new way to break through after years of narrow Republican victories in big-ticket statewide elections. Making up those small but durable deficits has been a focus both of outside progressive groups and top Biden surrogates.

Florida state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, one of Biden's most prominent backers in South Florida, praised the campaign for pushing out "culturally competent" messaging -- some of which he's been called on to deliver.

In Florida and around the country, Trump has sought to label the moderate Biden as a "radical socialist" beholden to the party's left-most reaches. But Rodriguez believes the accusation, a familiar one in an area with so many immigrants from Fidel Castro's Cuba and other Latin American countries roiled by socialist strongmen, is beginning to lose its power.

Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a Hispanic heritage event at Osceola Heritage Park on September 15, 2020 in Kissimmee, Florida. National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States runs from September 15th to October 15th.

"When you see the President using federal law enforcement as his personal shock troops, when you see them attacking the judiciary, the press, openly undermining democratic institutions to try to further his own re-election, that looks a lot like what folks of my father's generation, and people still coming to Miami, what they fled," Rodríguez said. "It's just ironic that Trump's out there repeating this crazy rhetoric about Latin American dictators, when that is really kind of his model."

He also believes that Trump's refusal to acknowledge basic science on climate change, in a state that routinely and increasingly feels its brunt, could help bring around some concerned voters.

Rather than "having the leadership to go out and explain to people what's happening, have a dialogue on what we need to use address it," he said, Trump is "just kind of wallowing in this sort of weird ideological stuff going on the internet. And then basically leaving it at that."

Climate is a top priority for younger voters across other demographic lines. Turning out those voters, especially the ones whose indecision isn't between the two tickets, but whether to cast a ballot at all, is a top priority for outside progressive organizations like New Florida Majority, which is dedicated to increasing turnout in marginalized communities.

Andrea Mercado, its executive director, told CNN that the group is laser-focused on low-propensity voters, making and sending millions of calls and text messages. They've also arranged live entertainment for people waiting on long line to votes -- one in a variety of tactics to boost and diversify turnout.

The group's best message to potential voters, Mercado said, doesn't focus narrowly on what Biden has promised to do if elected, but whether they will have a voice and seat at the table in the years to come.

"We're honest about the fact that we're not voting for a savior. That no candidate is going to save us," Mercado said. "I think that's maybe one area of difference (in the group's messaging). We know that in many ways we're not voting for a savior, we're voting for our next target."

Potential missed opportunity in Texas

Biden's campaign has focused most of its efforts on states that could push the former vice president past the 270 electoral vote threshold, such as Arizona and Florida.

Texas -- a bigger state with expensive media markets and a largely untapped population of potential voters along the border -- would have been a more difficult and expensive state, so Biden has instead gone the narrower route of airing more targeted ads in some Texas media markets, and reaching voters there through national ad buys.

Biden's running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, plans to visit McAllen -- part of the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley, where early voting has lagged -- during a Texas trip on Friday. But Biden himself has not scheduled a trip to the state.

Still, Gonzalez and other Democrats lamented what they said has been a missed opportunity to treat Texas -- where a number of congressional seats and control of the state House are also up for grabs -- as a true swing state.

Some Texas Democrats, including former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, are clamoring for Biden to make a last-minute visit -- even a brief one -- to the state. Gonzalez said he wished former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is pumping $100 million into Florida, had spent the same amount on Texas.

"I do believe it's still worth it, even at this stage," Gonzalez said. "A good portion of voters come out on Election Day, and we still have three more days of early voting."

Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, has spent years focused on reaching low-propensity voters in her Latino-heavy district and said it is "a very resource-intensive effort."

"It doesn't happen by accident, and it takes a lot of work," Escobar said. "They are the folks that most campaigns and parties give up on because they're not consistent, regular voters, and so the thought process is, 'We don't have the resources to target them, let's target the people who instead we know are going to go vote.'"

It turns out, she said, that "most people don't turn out to vote because nobody asks them."

"These are not the folks getting mailers; these are not the folks who have the luxury of watching cable news and seeing every commercial. These are not the folks who get a knock on their door," Escobar said.

Concerns in Philadelphia

Last year, Pennsylvania state Rep. Angel Cruz challenged Quiñones-Sánchez for her seat in a primary. They are political rivals on a number of counts, but in accord when it comes to assessing the Biden campaign's outreach efforts to Latinos in the city: It has fallen short.

"These national campaigns come in and bring people from elsewhere. And then they depend on us to clean up the mess and carry everyone," Cruz said, adding that the state and local party infrastructure has tasked itself with "picking up the slack."

Cruz estimates that his state House district, the 180th, is between 60% and 70% Latino and trends older. He expects that many voters there, especially those who recently came from Puerto Rico, will opt to vote in-person on Election Day. The desire to defeat Trump, he said, is there -- but the campaign's connection to the community has been lacking.

In this September 14, 2020 photo, President Donald Trump arrives for a Latinos for Trump Coalition roundtable at Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix.

Asked if he expressed those concerns to the campaign, Cruz told CNN he did, but got no clear answer in return.

"I'm still waiting," he said.

Quiñones-Sánchez said she's concerned that, should Biden fall short in Pennsylvania, Latinos will become the scapegoat.

"That burden, I don't want to shoulder, and I don't want my community to shoulder," Quiñones-Sánchez said. "And we've seen in the past with where these campaigns do the same thing, and then they'll blame the African-American community here and the Latino community there. And I don't want to be in that space."

Democrats' confidence grows in some states

Fears about Democrats' ability to court and turnout Latino voters in Arizona reached a high point early in 2020, when some Democratic operatives in the longtime Republican stronghold said they believed Trump was marching toward winning Arizona again.

But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, casting a pall over everything else the Trump administration has done, especially considering the virus disproportionally impacted Latino households.

"There was concern much earlier this year," said Steven Slugocki, chair of the Maricopa County Democrats, where 31% of the population is Latino.

But with the pandemic in play, the election was refocused, especially over the summer when Maricopa became a hotbed for virus. To date, the county has had over 155,000 total cases, with more than 3,500 deaths.

Slugocki said the Biden campaign has done "a great job since then to make sure they were doing outreach into all communities" since the pandemic began.

"The pandemic has changed the nature of the election," said Biden pollster Matt Barreto. "And so from our perspective, we're pushing harder as a result of that, saying, 'OK, let's not let some of those votes who normally might expect a door-knock -- let's not let them go to waste.' Which is why we are continuing to organize and prepare for a large Election Day turnout."

On Thursday, Biden's campaign released a new ad highlighting his plan to issue an executive order seeking to reunite children separated from their families at the border. Biden campaign senior adviser Cristóbal Alex told reporters the subject would be a "top priority" for Biden if he wins.

"This is an issue that has had a profound impact on the vice president," Alex said. "The centerpiece and core focus on Joe Biden's immigration policy is family unification," he said, calling the administration's handling of the situation "criminal."

Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action and Clinton's national Latino vote director in 2016, acknowledged that the Biden campaign was slow earlier this year to reach out to Latino voters. But, Praeli said, his campaign has addressed those issues because they know "that there is no path to the White House without Latinx and Black voters."

"Their choices and investments are noticeable," Praeli said. "They're making a full court press across the board to reach, persuade and mobilize Latinx voters," she added, citing increased staffing, a "barrage" of paid media and using community influencers, including entertainers, to connect.

"We are now in the last push and we know that Latinx voters turn out in large numbers on Election Day," she said. "Can't let off."

Trump and his surrogates have said they expect historic support from Latino voters in next week's election. His campaign says it built a huge lead in voter contacts, including 7.1 million contacts in Arizona. Senior adviser Jason Miller recently touted new spending on Spanish-language radio ads in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area.

"Latino voters know that unlike Joe Biden, whose only accomplishment in 47 years in office has been to enrich himself and his family, when President Trump makes a promise, he will deliver," said Samantha Zager, a Trump campaign spokeswoman.