As Latino clout rises, Sanders leads field in courting them.

Why We Wrote This

Outreach to Latino voters has often been a late-stage activity for Democratic campaigns. That’s changing visibly In Nevada, the first primary contest in a majority-minority state.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
People clap for Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren at the Mi Familia Vota community event at the Cardenas Market in Las Vegas on Feb. 17, 2020.

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This year, for the first time ever, Latinos are expected to become the largest racial or ethnic minority eligible to vote in a presidential election. How many of them will do so – and whether they will tip things one way or the other – remains unknown. But Saturday’s caucus in Nevada, where Latinos make up nearly a third of the population, will provide some early clues. 

Bernie Sanders’ campaign started targeting the Latino community in Nevada last June. In recent weeks, the senator from Vermont has been outspending all but billionaire Tom Steyer in Spanish-language advertising here.

Experts say Senator Sanders’ grassroots organizing helps explain why the self-proclaimed democratic socialist is leading among likely Democratic voters in Nevada – and the nation. “He’s using a lot of Latino youth to connect with other Latino youth,” says Mindy Romero, an expert on the Latino vote at the University of Southern California.

Still, he’s struggled to win support among older voters. “Anybody but Bernie,” says Margarita Rebollayal, a spirited octogenarian exiting a town hall sponsored by the League for United Latin American Citizens. “He’s lying to young people,” she says, filling their heads with unrealistic ideas.

This year, for the first time ever, Latinos are expected to become the largest racial or ethnic minority eligible to vote in a presidential election. How many of them will do so – and whether they will tip things one way or the other – remains unknown, but Saturday’s presidential caucus in Nevada will provide some early clues. 

Unlike the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, minorities make up the majority of Nevada’s population, with Latinos accounting for nearly 30%. Right on the heels of Saturday’s vote will come Super Tuesday on March 3, when giants like California and Texas – where Latinos make up nearly a third of eligible voters – will weigh in.

In past presidential cycles, Hispanics have tended to lag behind other groups in turnout. But if the Democratic campaign playing out here in Las Vegas is any indication, Latino voters’ interest in this election is high. Lines for early voting were long, including in the heavily Hispanic area of east Las Vegas. Several campaigns have been working on Latino outreach here since at least last summer – setting up local field offices and hiring Latinos for senior leadership positions.

“When [campaigns] engage Latinos ... we turn out,” says Sindy Benavides, chief executive officer of the League for United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, the oldest civil rights Latino organization in the country. While her organization does not endorse candidates, she singles out the Sanders campaign as a model.

“Bernie Sanders is doing the investment, making sure to reach the Latino community where they are,” she says in an interview before a recent town hall in Las Vegas sponsored by LULAC. The town hall featured Democratic candidates Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar, as well as a video appearance by Senator Sanders, who boomed into the auditorium from a movie-theater-sized screen.

Senator Sanders’ grassroots organizing in the Latino community helps explain why the self-proclaimed democratic socialist is leading among likely Democratic voters in Nevada – and the nation. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows him at 30% in Nevada, with his closest rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, at 16%. 

A new survey by the Spanish-language television network Univision shows similar levels of support for Senator Sanders among Latinos, with 33% backing him in Nevada and 30% nationally. Mr. Biden trails him by about 10 points in both cases.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Clarissa Perez (left) and Shaun Navarro stand outside the Democratic presidential town hall sponsored by the League for United Latin American Citizens in Las Vegas on Feb. 13, 2020. They both are huge fans of Sen. Bernie Sanders and see him as a candidate with consistent progressive values. Ms. Perez refers to him affectionately as uncle, or tío in Spanish. "I love Tío Bernie," she says.

“I love Tío Bernie”

It is an achievement that worries moderate Democrats, but excites his supporters.

They include Latinos such as Shaun Navarro, who is hanging around a Sanders table outside the entrance to the LULAC town hall at the College of Southern Nevada here. It’s the only candidate table set up, featuring a well-worn cutout of the candidate that keeps flopping over. As students stop by for free pizza, they can learn a bit about Senator Sanders, as well as how to register to vote.

“It’s not so much his policies; it’s his values,” says Mr. Navarro, who, as local co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, is certainly in sync with the Vermont senator’s policy agenda. The American dream is no longer achievable just through hard work, he says, and the country needs someone like Senator Sanders to take the nation in a new direction. He also praises the senator’s authenticity and consistency: “He’s been a progressive since college.” 

Clarissa Perez, who is working during her pre-college “gap year” as an intern in Las Vegas, pipes up with the observation that the senator talks with the Latino community, not to it. The mariachi bands at his events show his appreciation for her culture, she says, adding that she thinks of the avuncular white-haired candidate as an uncle, or tío. “I love Tío Bernie,” she says with a big smile.

Often, campaigns focus on the Latino community toward the end of their efforts. The Sanders campaign decided to focus on it at the beginning. In Nevada, it started targeting the Latino community last June, and its first communication to voters was bilingual. In California, the campaign has opened at least 15 field offices, many in Latino areas. In recent weeks, he’s been outspending all but Mr. Steyer in Spanish-language advertising in Nevada, according to data from Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

“He’s using a lot of Latino youth to connect with other Latino youth, and across generations,” says Mindy Romero, an expert on the Latino vote at the University of Southern California. Still, that cross-generational reach has been limited so far – his support among Latinos, as with voters in general, skews young. Neither are Latino political leaders flocking to him (or to any candidate, for that matter).

“Anybody but Bernie,” says Margarita Rebollayal, a spirited octogenarian as she exits the town hall. She minces no words: “He’s lying to young people,” filling their heads with unrealistic ideas. She says she’s leaning toward Senator Klobuchar as someone who can “get things done.” 

Outreach by other campaigns

Senator Sanders is not the only Democratic candidate making a major effort to connect with Latinos in Nevada. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign has been on the ground since January 2019, and has 12 field offices in the state, including in east Las Vegas, where most people on her staff are Spanish-speaking. She ranks third in the state among voters overall, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Mr. Steyer, the billionaire turned climate change crusader, has also invested heavily in the community. His senior leadership team in Nevada is mostly Latinas, and he praised the mujeres on his staff at a recent event with Latino attorneys, small-business owners, and other professionals. 

Walking into the second-floor offices of immigrant lawyers Rudolfo Gonzalez and Edgar Flores, and trailed by a mariachi band singing “the immigrant song,” Mr. Steyer last week detailed his work that directly benefited Hispanics – biographical details unknown to many people there and met with approving nods and applause.

He touts his mission-driven bank that provides loans to people not served by big banks, his church that is a sanctuary for immigrants, and his success in blocking a proposed power plant in the Latino community of Oxnard, California. Mr. Steyer’s electronic billboards tower over Las Vegas as rush-hour traffic inches along Interstate 15 and his campaign claims its internal polling shows him statistically tied with Mr. Biden for second place in Nevada.

Always looking to shift the media spotlight away from Democrats, President Donald Trump is on a Western tour that will culminate with a Las Vegas rally Friday night – hours before the Democratic caucus. About a third of registered Latinos self-identify as Republicans or lean Republican, according to the Pew Research Center, and 30% of Hispanic voters approve of President Trump’s job performance – 23% very strongly.

This presents a challenge for Democrats, writes Kristian Ramos, former spokesman for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in The Atlantic. Democrats lost in 2016 with about 66% of the Latino vote, Mr. Ramos notes. They will need about 70% to win this time, he says.

But that is not an impossibility if Latinos who support Democrats show up in large numbers. In the Nevada midterm elections of 2018, Latino voter turnout in Nevada was 74% – a 22-point increase over the midterms of 2014, according to Mr. Ramos, a consultant for Mi Familia Vota, the Latino voter registration and participation organization.

“That is an indication of the scope and urgency in this cycle,” says Mr. Ramos, who expects heavy Latino turnout in Nevada. In California, the Democratic polling firm Latino Decisions also detects high intensity among Latino voters – with Senator Sanders leading.

The difference between 2016 and this time is that Latinos have actually experienced the Trump presidency, and not just been warned about it, many Latinos say.

Back at the law firm of Gonzelez & Flores, Mr. Gonzalez says he has not yet made up his mind about whom he will vote for. He needs to consult with his family and his law partner. But he will definitely vote. And will Latinos, generally, show up?

“On this one, yes,” he says. “I think people are fed up with what’s been going on for the last four years.”

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