When Donald Trump ran for president four years ago promising to curb illegal immigration and build a wall on the southern border, organizers hoped to get pledges from 10,000 Latinos in Minnesota to vote.
They fell short, reaching 7,000 pledges.
This year, organizers at the Minneapolis organization Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action (COPAL, for its initials in Spanish) say they have already surpassed 15,000 pledges to vote. In part, they credit the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit the Hispanic community hard.
"When we talk about this explosion of interest, already having 15,000 pledges to vote from almost exclusively Latinos across the state is really telling," said Ryan Perez, who serves as the organization's Minneapolis Environment & Democracy program director.
For the first time, the group is hearing a record number of requests for follow-up information — how to register, who's on my ballot, how can I get more involved, said Perez.
Using the moniker "Latinx," a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina, the group is trying to mobilize a small but nonetheless potentially significant voting bloc in the state.
According to the national research organization Latino Decisions, the population of eligible Latino voters in Minnesota sits at around 3%, though that number continues to grow here and throughout the Midwest. But the COVID-19 pandemic is drawing more engagement from Latinos, both in Minnesota and across the country, said Albert Morales, political director for Latino Decisions.
"We now have over 40,000 Latino deaths directly related to COVID. That's a big number, and it's hit us very hard," Morales said. "There's not really an end in sight."
Along with health care and the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the top 2020 presidential issues for Hispanic voters, according to a Pew Research Center report.
But while the pandemic has been a motivator for political mobilization on the left, it also has been an obstacle to organizing and campaigning.
"I think the key for engaging with first-time voters is meeting them where they're at in the community," Perez said. "Normally, when we think about our engagement strategies when we're talking about Latinx voters, it's like, are you going to the soccer game in the community, right? Are you going to the church that's having a service? Are you meeting people at the marketplaces?"
Meeting ordinary people where they are is very different from simply contacting a list of registered voters, said Perez.
"Once we introduced the pandemic, there's both the safety consideration, which is [that] Latinos are one of the hardest-hit groups by COVID right now. But also there's the way people are not gathering in the same way."
Morales noted that Democratic challenger Joe Biden's campaign has only begun to pick up steam with Latinos in recent weeks, with polling from states like Arizona, Florida and Texas returning to pre-pandemic levels.
"Because it hit Black and brown communities so hard, that's the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, it sort of took the wind out of the sails, of not only the vice president's campaign, but … momentum in general," Morales said.
The Biden campaign has not been taking any of those votes for granted, said Morales.
"People are getting more excited. They see that Joe Biden has a plan to get us out of this, and rightfully they're just done with this president, who did not have a plan," Morales said.
But conservative Latino groups say Democrats don't hold an exclusive monopoly on Latino voters anywhere, particularly in Florida's Cuban-American community and in the largely Catholic and evangelical Mexican American community in Texas.
While Hillary Clinton won 66% of the Latino vote nationwide in 2016, Trump got about 28%, according to the Pew Research Center. Trump's share was consistent with that of Republican candidates in the last three presidential elections.
Hispanic voters are eager to hear the plans from both candidates on key issues including returning to the pre-pandemic economy, said Wadi Gaitan, communications director of conservative nonprofit the LIBRE Initiative.
"There is an eagerness from the Latino community to see a strong economic recovery, I think there's a belief that we can both safely reopen the economy and there's also an eagerness for more access to affordable health care," Gaitan said.
Economic conditions previous to the pandemic are likely to continue to draw Latino voters to Trump, Gaitan said: "It's no secret that there are a lot of Hispanics that do not agree with President Donald Trump. But I also think there is clear evidence that Hispanics recognize that under the Trump administration, previous to COVID, they experienced higher wage growth."
Both campaigns have made outreach efforts with Latino voters. Biden made a campaign stop in Miami recently, the latest in a series of visits to the state. Before his COVID-19 diagnosis, Trump held events in Florida and Arizona.
Latinos in the Twin Cities are also voting on immigration, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and driver's licenses for all, said COPAL democracy and immigration organizer Judith Marquez Duran.
"I think now more than ever, it's this idea that your vote isn't just for yourself," she said. "Your vote is for parents, your vote is for your sibling with DACA, your vote is for your neighbor, for your aunt. This vote isn't just yours, but it's representing the community and those you love."
Zoë Jackson covers young and new voters at the Star Tribune through the Report For America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation. 612-673-7112 Twitter: @zoemjack