The 2020 presidential election is not turning out how progressives imagined now that their favorite candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D‑Ma.), have left the race. Left with former Vice President Joe Biden as the de-facto Democratic nominee, progressive organizations like Mijente, a national grassroots hub for Latinx and Chicanx organizing, are pivoting their strategy for November’s general election.
Mijente is an organization that gives young Latinx and Chicanx people the opportunity to develop organizing skills, increase their political awareness and build relationships with others who are invested in justice that is pro-Black, pro-Indigenous, pro-worker, pro-woman, pro-LGBTQ+ and pro-migrant. Mijente decided not to endorse Biden, but it’s not staying on the sidelines — there’s too much at stake. Though the organization endorsed Sanders in February, its members resolved to put their weight behind whichever candidate went up against Trump in November. For them, getting voters to the polls in November isn’t about putting Biden into office; it’s about getting Trump out. That’s the basis for Mijente’s “Fuera Trump” campaign.
The idea behind a negative campaign strategy like Fuera Trump is to get voters to vote against something or someone, rather than for it. Leading up to the 2016 general election, this strategy worked for Republicans: 53% of Trump voters cast their ballots for him as a way to demonstrate opposition to Hillary Clinton. Negative campaigning was less effective in mobilizing Democrats, however, given that only 46% of Clinton’s voters were cast as an anti-Trump statement. By comparison, in 2008 a majority of both Democratic and Republican candidates were positively motivated to turn out for their candidate.
The decision to enter the 2020 election with an electorally-focused negative campaign strategy is new for Mijente, which, since its founding in 2015, has focused on mobilizing around issues rather than candidates. The organization’s issue-based work includes, for instance, protesting the Department of Homeland Security’s cooperation with local and state police and demanding an end to the criminalization of migration, an end to private detention centers and abolishing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement; its protests and public advocacy have helped demonstrate to lawmakers that xenophobic policies will not easily glide by without a fight from Mijente’s members. Its movement work involves the difficult business of building a diffuse apparatus on the ground that’s strong enough to force officials to hear and heed political demands.
Grassroots organizing and electoral organizing diverge in a number of ways, says Mayra Lopez, a Chicago-based Mijente member, organizer and political strategist. Grassroots work is about mobilizing people by building relationships around shared values, for starters. “Community organizing is centered around leadership development and the issue,” Lopez says. “We’re not there to elect somebody just because we want to play politics. There always has to be a larger agenda: Electing this person is part of a bigger plan as to how we’re gonna achieve our goal.”
Mijente’s larger goal is to realize policies like the Green New Deal, universal healthcare and ending family separation and other means of terrorizing immigrants. However, while Mijente has traditionally prioritized issue-based grassroots organizing, it now recognizes how deep a threat the Trump presidency poses — and the electoral organizing needed to oppose that threat. Mijente political director Tania Unzueta realized when Trump was elected in 2016 that the organization had “missed an opportunity” to fight against him and what his candidacy represented. The Trump presidency has made people of color, Latinx people and immigrants more vulnerable than ever before.
Mijente had decided to stay out of the 2016 presidential race for two reasons: the organization’s assessment that then-candidate Trump was not a credible threat, and that Hillary Clinton was not interested in their vision of justice because her platform promised a continuation of Obama-era anti-immigrant policies. After eight years of a Democratic administration that deported more people than any previous administration and expanded the use of detention centers, it didn’t seem to Mijente like things could get any worse with either Clinton or Trump in office.
But of course, things did get worse. “[We] misassessed the threat of Trump becoming president,” says Unzueta. In 2020, “We can’t make that same mistake,” she says. That means getting voters to turn out for Biden, by underscoring the harms of a continued Trump presidency. Even as Mijente is mobilizing members to vote as a way to create change, Mijente’s electoral strategy is still informed by its movement organizing background. Candidates aren’t heroes; they’re targets for organizers to push on their larger agenda. And voting isn’t just about showing up on November 3, but about taking action every day after — Mijente is working the long game. “We know that working within the institutions that oppress us is not going to save us,” Unzueta says. “We also know that ignoring these systems isn’t going to save us.”
Though Fuera Trump won’t break down American governing systems, Mijente is hoping the November election could usher in a candidate who has demonstrated his willingness to listen and move left on the issues at the top of Mijente’s priority list. In other words, Unzueta says, Fuera Trump is about pushing for change “within the state, outside the state and without the state.”
Though a presidential electoral strategy is new for Mijente, the organization has successfully used its issue-based organizing to mobilize voters against a county-level candidate in the past. In 2016, Mijente launched and won their first effort to boot someone out of office: Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a racist Republican who directed his department to racially profile and unconstitutionally detain Latinx people. Arpaio outspent his Democratic opponent by over $11 million and hadn’t lost a race in 24 years, but Mijente’s coalition-building and grassroots effort to engage voters by door-knocking and protesting in front of the sheriff’s office worked. The 2016 effort dubbed “Bazta Arpaio” succeeded even as Mijente was “fighting Republicans in a red state,” Unzueta says. Building a campaign strategy around demonstrating the harm of an elected official worked four years ago, and it could work in November.
In order to replicate its 2016 successes, Mijente will need to use similar organizing skills to rally its base. “It’s about math,” Lopez says. Luckily for them, the math is on their side. Hispanic voters will comprise 13% of the electorate this year — the single largest nonwhite demographic group of eligible voters, according to Pew Research.
This year, Mijente is organizing and registering Latinx and Chicanx voters in states where the Democratic Establishment previously hasn’t done much outreach, such as Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky. Mijente has seen firsthand the power of such grassroots organizing: In 2018, Mijente turned out young voters for Georgia’s gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, claiming to increase the Latinx vote by 300% more than the previous gubernatorial race. Unzueta says that Latinx voters in the state hadn’t previously been reached out to by the Democratic Party, and credits Mijente with the turnout, revealing what they have always known: that the Latinx and Chicanx vote matters.
A vote against Trump is not just a demonstration of values, but a protective measure for Mijente members who can’t vote. Voting is not a tool that’s available to every organizer or activist, including Lopez herself. Lopez is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipient. Her immigration status means she’s not able to cast a ballot in November, and yet, her safety is dependent on getting Trump out of office.
While Mijente believes that voting often fails to create the major systemic change people need and instead results in incremental changes, the Trump administration has proved to be a big enough obstacle to issue-based organizing that voting against him (by casting a ballot for Biden) shifts power away from explicitly white supremacist leaders and to a legislator Mijente believes can be persuaded to enact policy changes aligned with their long-term issue-based organizing.
“While I don’t think [Biden] has earned my support, I think we need to get Trump out,” Lopez says. “At this moment we need to be present. Sitting on the sidelines means that we’re letting this happen.”