AUSTIN, Texas – Driving around Houston, political activist Andy Canales asked his aunt and mother their thoughts on the Democratic presidential candidates.
The sisters, naturalized U.S. citizens from El Salvador, mentioned Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke and commented on Pete Buttigieg’s youthful demeanor.
Missing from their banter: Julián Castro, the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor – and lone Latino candidate among Democratic presidential hopefuls.
“They didn’t even mention him,” said Canales, chairman of Latino Texas, a political action committee that promotes Latino candidates. “Part of the challenge for (Castro) is people aren’t really paying attention as much right now – and name recognition is a challenge.”
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As the Democratic primaries rapidly approach, Castro struggles to pull in national Latino voter support. A poll released this week by Telemundo Noticias showed Castro in a three-way tie for fourth place among Latino voters, with only 2% support. Former Vice President Joe Biden (26%) and Sanders (18%) led the candidates among those voters.
Castro has made Latino and immigrant issues a cornerstone of his campaign. His first trip as a presidential candidate this year was to a Latino summit in Puerto Rico, and he has highlighted changes he would make to Trump's immigration policies.
Castro, who was raised in San Antonio by a Mexican American activist mother, was mayor for five years before being appointed U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary by President Barack Obama in 2014. He's the identical twin brother of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas.
The Castro campaign didn't reply to a request for comment.
Being the only Latino presidential candidate doesn’t automatically equate to Latino voter support, said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas, a nonprofit media organization supporting liberal causes. Candidates need to devote time to venture into Latino neighborhoods, he said.
Broad name recognition helps. Though Hispanic voters tend to agree with Castro’s policies and ideas, he's lesser-known among the crowded field of Democratic candidates, Espinoza said.
“There’s a lot of admiration for Castro,” he said, “just not a lot of support.”
Latino voters are poised to have one of their biggest moments in U.S. political history with the 2020 presidential election. Next year will mark the first time Hispanics will be the largest racial or ethnic minority group in the electorate, accounting for more than 13% of eligible voters, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
About 32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in 2020, compared with 30 million eligible black voters, according to the analysis.
Latino voter turnout has been historically questionable but lately trending up. Hispanic turnout jumped from 27 percentage points in the 2014 midterm elections to 40 percentage points in the 2018 midterm elections. Pollsters wonder if the trend will continue into the presidential election.
Democrats and Republicans have worked to woo Latino voters, hoping to harness that election muscle. President Donald Trump won about 28% of the Latino vote in 2016, far below the 40% won by George W. Bush in 2004, according to exit polls.
In June, the Trump campaign launched the “Latinos for Trump” coalition, an effort to bring in more Hispanic voters. The administration has been criticized for immigration policies seen as harsh toward some Latinos, such as separating families at the border, and for some of the rhetoric used by Trump to describe undocumented immigrants, such as when he called some Mexicans rapists.
"We are a party that works from the bottom up," said Adryana Aldeen, an Austin-based Republican analyst who works on Spanish-language TV. "That grassroots effort is important to us, and it's important for the Latino community."
Democratic candidates, hoping Trump's tough immigration rhetoric has turned off Latinos, have tried to connect with them by speaking Spanish during debates, holding forums with Latino leaders or deploying volunteers into Latino neighborhoods.
Latino voters could prove crucial not just in the general election but in the primaries. Latinos represent only 3.4% of eligible voters in Iowa, site of the first Democratic caucuses in February, but could play pivotal roles in other states with larger pools of Latino voters, such as Nevada (19%), Florida (20%) and Texas (30%).
Harnessing the Latino vote is no easy task. Unlike African American voters, who tend to vote as a bloc, Hispanic voters are not nearly as monolithic, said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in California who studies Latino political activism. About 69% of Latino voters vote Democrat, and 29% tend to go Republican, according to exit poll data.
She said Latino voters may overlook Castro for a popular reason this election cycle: electability. His low overall poll numbers may make voters more likely to back someone with stronger name recognition, such as Biden or Sanders, Michelson said.
“Even if they might love the idea of having a Hispanic president, they have the same concern of other Democratic voters which is, ‘We have to elect someone who can beat Donald Trump,’ ” she said.
Mayra Macías, executive director of Latino Victory, a liberal political action committee, said just having Castro in the race for president is a huge win for Latinos – regardless of who’s on the ballot next year. The last time a prominent Latino tried to win a Democratic presidential nomination was in 2008 in the campaign of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who dropped out after poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both first-generation Cuban Americans, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
“For us, it so important and historic just to have him on that stage,” said Macías, whose group endorsed Castro for president. “The impact will be long-term.”
Macías said she sees Castro’s influence each time her parents in Chicago tune into the primary debates through a Spanish-language livestream on their TV – something they never did before.
“They’re more engaged and following what Secretary Castro is doing,” she said. “For the first time, they see themselves represented.”
Canales said he has noticed a different reaction: a disconnect from Latino voters in the barrios he has canvassed around Houston and its suburbs. For candidates to truly ignite the Latino electorate, they need to do more than back their issues and run Spanish-language ads – they need to get into the barrios and engage them face-to-face, he said.
“if there isn’t a concerted effort to engage and talk to Latinos in a meaningful way, there's going to be a huge missed opportunity there," he said.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2020: Candidate Julian Castro lacks Latino voter support