Eleven years ago, as Barack Obama approached the podium to announce the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which would become the landmark legislation of his presidency, Vice President Joe Biden clasped his arm, pulled him close, and whispered, “This is a big f***ing deal.”
The blunt aside was captured by hot mics at the press conference.
Fast forward 11 years, and most Democrats, including Joe Biden, agree that the White House failed to sell the American public on why Obamacare was actually a big deal, leaving room for Republicans to define the law in their own terms, and setting the stage for a wipeout of the Democrats in the midterm elections that fall.
President Joe Biden and his allies want to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.
That’s why the new Build Back Together 501(c)(4) outside group, created with the blessing of the White House by Obama’s former deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter and other veteran Democrats, has set out to tell the story of what the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan means for voters, with an unprecedented early focus on selling it to Latino voters, Newsweek has learned.
Danielle Melfi, the group’s executive director, says it is building Latino outreach into all parts of its campaigns from the start.
“Listening to and communicating with Latinos across the country is an integral part of our agenda at Building Back Together,” she said. “Our goal is to tell the stories of Latino Americans who have benefited from the American Rescue Plan and how the president will continue to prioritize the Latino community in his policies.”
The outreach plan begins in Florida, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Arizona, with Spanish-language television ads on networks like Univision and Telemundo, along with bilingual digital ads and radio planned as well. Voto Latino, Latino Victory Fund, and Somos Votantes are three early national partners in a program that is still finalizing its budget, but expects to invest “significant” resources.
The term the group is using internally is “always on” Latino outreach, which addresses concerns that while Biden did well with Hispanic voters overall, propelling him to victory in states like Arizona, he did worse than expected in states like Florida and Texas, where Donald Trump improved from 2016.
The group plans to expand beyond this initial quartet of states to eventually include others such as Georgia, Wisconsin, and Texas, a source said, and expects to eventually have dozens of partners working together ahead of the midterms for the remainder of 2021 and 2022.
The Build Back Together plan to engage Latino voters, which precedes even the organization’s announcement of its general marketing plan, is central to the group’s mission and is reflected in its new hires.
Mayra Macias, a well-respected Latina leader who served as the executive director of the Latino Victory Project, is joining in a co-leadership role with Melfi as chief strategy officer. The group is also drawing from the ranks of senior Latino spokespeople with the addition of Xochitl Hinojosa, the former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, who will manage earned media strategy.
But perhaps most critically, the organization is handing the reins of its Latino-focused ads to Chuck Rocha, who was the architect of the success of Senator Bernie Sanders with Latino voters during his presidential run, as well as Mosaic, which managed Hispanic outreach for Biden’s 2020 campaign.
Speaking to Latinos in the summer of 2020, Rocha told Newsweek the question he heard most often was, “How is Biden going to make my life better?” He feels he now has the answer to that question.
“Shots in arms and money in your bank account,” Rocha said.
“The single biggest factor in the underperformance of Democrats in 2020 was everything started too late,” he added. “The most important part of what we’re going to be doing is fixing that problem and talking to Latinos about how Joe Biden is making their life better in the first 100 days of his presidency.”
The group says the ads will tell stories like those of Latino small business owners who saw their livelihoods return because of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. The ad campaign will also have a significant digital component, with a strong presence on digital radio platforms like Pandora in order to reach Latinos, who are disproportionately younger, as well as on YouTube, where 64% of Latino voters said they got election information, including three-quarters of Florida voters, as noted by the Democratic research firm EquisLabs.
“I’m most excited about the opportunity to do this, leaving no stone unturned, using every single aspect of digital and broadcast media, from Univision Spanish-language TV to a 15-second pre-roll ad you have to watch on YouTube before you get to watch your Bad Bunny video,” Rocha said, invoking the popular Reggaeton star.
The outreach program will be adjusted and expand based on survey data. In addition to his role as a senior advisor to the group, former Biden pollster Matt Barreto will also be directing polling on Latino voters for the advocacy group, along with partners, which will inform the shape of the outreach and also be shared with the White House.
While the outside group says it is not putting a particular emphasis on any one state, two early partnerships with grassroots groups are aimed at spreading their message to Puerto Ricans in Central Florida through Alianza for Progress, and to Cubans in south Florida through the Miami Freedom Project.
Marcos Vilar, the president of Alianza for Progress, says he doesn’t see the work through a partisan lens, and welcomes the opportunity to share his group’s network and reach—which includes 23 Puerto Rican elected officials—as well as credibility with the president of the United States, calling it an honor.
But he said the natural tendency to work quietly and let your work speak for itself has its limitations.
“One of the things we’ve learned in recent years is even a lie can be accepted as truth if it’s repeated enough,” he said. “When there’s people repeating lies in politics in this country, we believe truth is stronger than lies, but not a silent truth. We need to be aggressively talking about the good things we’re doing from the White House to Congress, Tallahassee to Osceola County, and the school board all the way down.”
With the future of Biden’s agenda riding on the midterms deciding which party controls Congress, Democrats are looking to successfully sell their policy wins, from the COVID relief package, to vaccinations—and a future pivot to the sweeping infrastructure package if Biden can pass it—in a way that emotionally resonates with voters and tells them who is on their side.
The opportunity for the Build Back Together team, said Kristian Ramos, a Latino vote expert, is that “we have seen three months of job growth, Latino unemployment in particular has dropped to 7.9% down from 18.9% this time last year,” and overall employment is only 3.5 points away from pre-pandemic employment levels.
“The trick,” he argued, “will be to convince voters that Democrats are not only good for the economy, but good for them in particular.”