Adrian Saenz worked as the Latino Vote Director for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. And while Saenz is quick to say that the work he and his team did was groundbreaking, the experience also taught him that there remains a huge amount of work that both parties need to do in order to adequately court — and keep — the Latino vote.
Saenz is originally from the border, specifically Brownsville, but began his involvement in politics while studying political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In the mid-90s he volunteered for local campaigns, and then found his way into a regional campaign training; when this opportunity led to another, in Washington, D.C., Saenz took a semester off from school to head to DC for a week-long training and then a three-month stint on a New Jersey congressional campaign.
After he completed his undergraduate studies, his first job offer led him to New Mexico, where he would only stay for a few months — but ultimately his work would bring him back for a bigger role a few years later.
“I remember that day I arrived in New Mexico. It was a real turning point,” he told Politic365: it was the day he set his sights back on Texas congressional politics. Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez had just announced his retirement from Congress and Saenz left New Mexico to join the campaign for Henry B’s son, Charlie Gonzalez. When Gonzalez won the election, Saenz headed back to D.C. — but this time as a congressional staffer.
[pullquote_right]Back in D.C. Saenz began taking periodic leaves from his duties on the Hill to work on campaigns, cultivating both with Latino voters in Texas, but also on campaigns in other states. This, in turn, led to working as the Hispanic Outreach and National Field Director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2005.[/pullquote_right] By the end of the election, he had helped Ciro Rodriguez (a Democrat) beat Republican Henry Bonilla in a border congressional district in Texas. Soon after, he joined Rodriguez’s office as Chief of Staff.
“At the time, it was my favorite job, doing both worlds — the legislative side and the campaign side everyday, obviously within the proper boundaries,” he said of working for Rodriguez in 2007. “Building the team, putting together the plan to get Ciro re-elected in what was one of the most competitive districts in the country was an incredibly rewarding experience for me.”
These experiences would later inform Saenz’s next big move — running Obama’s New Mexico campaign in 2008 when a short stint helping organize the Texas primary for the campaign turned into a full-time job turning New Mexico blue.
“That year, all three congressional seats were open and a Senate seat was open as well. It was a chance to be part of building the Obama operation in a way that would help win back all of those Democratic seats — and we succeeded. We won every single federal seat.”
Saenz said the experience of working as New Mexico State Director for the Obama campaign and turning the state blue was very rewarding and motivating for him, professionally. The state had been a “traditional” swing state, changing parties frequently, but now it seems that the state has been moved to solidly blue — “I think that’s largely because of the work our team did in 2008,” he told Politic365.
In 2009 Saenz returned to D.C to work for New Mexico Congressman Harry Teague, and in 2011 he joined a political communications firm. And then his political past came looking for him, and again, he couldn’t say “no.”
Two years later in 2011, a former colleague called to tell him about a “constituency vote initiative” the Obama campaign was working on for 2012. It would be data driven, and ensure that all departments in the campaign — field, press, digital, polling, analytics, research — were part of building the Latino vote program.
And, since he couldn’t say no to that, by November of 2011 Saenz moved to Chicago to start building Latinos for Obama.
“It was hard not to want to be part of the organization that was intent on building that kind of program to turn out the Latino vote,” he said, noting that quickly it became apparent that his was almost a Sisyphean task. “How do you build this program? How do you take all the resources that are available to you from the campaign and use them to build a Latino vote program that helps state teams reach their goals?”
Latinos are actually constituencies-within-constituencies, he explained, noting that Central Florida is different from South Florida, and both are different from New Mexico. So Sanez said, the campaign focused on building strong state-specific programs in Colorado, Nevada and Florida, while still allocating time and resources to states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina.
As an example Saenz pointed to an emerging Latino community in Northern Virginia. The campaign didn’t have the benefit of either an established Latino organization or elected official around which to rally support, thus, it had to be built. Identifying leaders in the community, recruiting and training volunteers, and ultimately making sure that the people working on behalf of Latinos for Obama were from the communities where they campaigned allowed Saenz to build something different.
And this is especially pertinent given what Saenz sees to be the less-than certain future of Latino voters as a Democratic constituency.
“We have to continue to advocate an agenda that works for the Hispanic community. If we don’t, we run the risk of this becoming a swing population,” Saenz told Politic365. “I’ll say this – making the assumption that Hispanics are a base constituency — that all you have to do is turn them out and they will vote Democratic — is a mistake.”
Latinos not only lean heavily Democratic, but voted for President Obama to the tune of 71% in the 2012 election. However, Saenz is quick to point out that these numbers came as the result of a lot of work in the Latino community persuading voters, informing them about the president’s accomplishments in health care, education and even immigration that they might not have necessarily known about. It takes work, and to keep Latino voters in the Democratic fold, it’s going to take more work he explained.
“If we take our success that we had with Hispanics in this cycle for granted, we run the risk of being in a position where this becomes a persuasion universe that we’re having to dedicate a lot of resources to not just turn out, but also persuade in every campaign moving forward,” he said.
Although Republicans may be making Democrats’ job of winning over Latino voters more easy with hateful rhetoric and politically-motivated “come to Jesus” moments over immigration, Saenz said they haven’t completely botched their chances yet. If Republicans are able to see past Latinos as a one-issue (immigration) constituency, and then also figure out how to sustain policy that is attractive to Latino voters, they might stand a chance.
If there’s one thing Saenz said he’s learned about the Latino vote from his long and diverse career, it’s that campaigns have a long way to go in engaging and keeping Latinos engaged in the political process. A big emphasis for Latinos for Obama was on sharing with potential voters what the president’s accomplishments were, but if organizers and campaigners don’t find a way to replicate and improve upon this outreach in the future, they risk losing out on Latino involvement.
And in a certain respect, this is related to another lesson from 2012: there are simply not enough Latino political workers to go around.
“The population is growing so fast — and growing in electoral strength — that we need more Latino political operatives in places like Nevada, Florida, and Colorado, but we also need to keep recruiting and training people in states like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and Virginia,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do on that front as well. I don’t know where that comes from, whether it’s through the [Democratic] party or some third-party, but it has to happen.”
Finally, these two points are related to a very important lesson Saenz said he took away from 2012: don’t take the Latino vote for granted.
“We can’t expect that Latinos are going to vote that way every time. We’ll have to work even harder in the future to be successful in this community and that will require leaders that are committed to the Latino community and the Latino vote,” he said.
Saenz is now working as the Senior Advisor for Immigration Reform at Organizing for Action.