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Inside Bernie Sanders’s quest to win over Nevada’s Latinos

Bernie Sanders poses for a selfie with a fan.
Bernie Sanders poses for a selfie with a fan.
(Ethan Miller/Getty)

EAST LAS VEGAS — "Nevada is especially important because we're a swing state. Who here knows what a swing state is?" a Bernie Sanders campaign organizer had asked the room of 15 volunteers — overwhelmingly Latino and largely in their teens and 20s — during an introductory spiel that was part training and part pep rally.

Silence. The question hung in the air just long enough to become awkward.

"No one?" the organizer asked. Clearly surprised but only slightly deterred, he barreled on with the rest of his pitch.

Many of Sanders's enthusiastic supporters are people who are interested in the presidential race because they're interested in Bernie Sanders, not the other way around. That's a big asset for a campaign that's relying on motivated volunteers: The Sanders campaign needs these young Latinos to spread Sanders's message of economic populism, and his extremely progressive immigration platform, to the rest of the Latino community.

But it's also an illustration of just how much work Sanders's people have cut out for them in a very short amount of time.

bernie sanders campaign office volunteers nevada
Sanders's East Las Vegas campaign office.
(Dara Lind/Vox)

The campaign hopes that this work will cause Latinos to caucus for Sanders on Saturday in high enough numbers to win a state in what's become an unexpectedly close race — and, in the process, prove to observers that Sanders can win with nonwhites.

Sanders is confident his economic message will resonate with young Latino voters

The campaign's office in East Las Vegas is strategically located in a neighborhood the Sanders organizer referred to as "Little Mexico." It is also a few blocks from Rancho High School, a school of nearly 3,000 students, more than two-thirds of whom identify as Latino. This isn't symbolic — it's an important way to make sure Sanders's most devoted supporters can come to the office to call voters and canvass neighborhoods.

The Sanders campaign's "Latino outreach strategy" is a matter of who is speaking on the candidate's behalf — but it doesn't involve changing what those people are saying. Forty-one percent of America's Latino voters, and 44 percent of Nevada's, are millennials. And as far as the Sanders campaign is concerned, they're just like any other millennials: They care about a $15 minimum wage and free college tuition, and they want to get money out of politics.

In other words, the Sanders campaign's "pitch" to Latinos is strikingly similar to its pitch to everyone else: In the words of Nevada state director Joan Kato, Sanders is "someone who's always fought for equality and making sure the average person is not taken advantage of."

Bernie Sanders' East Las Vegas campaign office.
Bernie Sanders's East Las Vegas campaign office.
(Dara Lind/Vox)

In Nevada, at least, this message appeals to many young Latinos who are excited about Sanders's ability to transform a political system they don't fully buy into. It's not just that they agree with the positions Sanders is espousing; it's that they believe he will be a reliable champion for them if he's elected.

"Bernie is the only candidate that really believes in the Fight for $15 movement," a young organizer told the group of volunteers in East Las Vegas, referring to the fact that Sanders's opponent in the primary, Hillary Clinton, has embraced a $12-an-hour minimum wage but won't go as high as $15. "We have to show that support just the way he's supporting us."

How the Sanders campaign turned immigration from a possible liability into a key asset

Even though Sanders's economic message has won enthusiasm from many young Latinos, the candidate's position on immigration is still a key part of his Latino outreach strategy.

For many Latino voters, immigration is a "threshold issue"; issues like health care, jobs, and education might be more important to them, but they won't even start evaluating a candidate — or party — on those issues if he or she doesn't support immigration reform.

Early in Sanders's campaign, during an interview with Vox, he expressed skepticism about large-scale low-skilled immigration into the US — and it looked like he was setting himself up for attacks from the very vocal immigrant rights movement. But instead, the Sanders campaign turned his relative underemphasis on immigration prior to his candidacy into an asset for his campaign by bringing immigration activists in to craft an immigration platform that put him substantially to the left of Hillary Clinton.

DREAMer activists Cesar Vargas and Erika Andiola joined the Sanders campaign last fall, with the task of designing the senator's immigration platform. Along with other Sanders staffers, and the candidate himself, they essentially crowdsourced the platform, asking immigrant activists and legal organizations for suggestions and input.

"We were the people who presented the senator with this whole policy platform. They knew it was bold, and they accepted it," Vargas said.

erika andiola cesar vargas bernie sanders
Erika Andiola (seated left) and Cesar Vargas (back right) are two of Sanders's key advisers on immigration.
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Vargas and Andiola had some good material to start with: Sanders's opposition to big business makes him a natural critic of private, for-profit prisons, and he'd already promised to abolish them. That wouldn't have as much of an impact on the overall prison population as most people think, but it would absolutely transform the immigration detention system — which is dominated by for-profit facilities. And for many grassroots immigration activists, curbing immigration detention and enforcement is a key goal.

Many of the activists Vargas and Andiola talked to had personal experience with the detention system. One of them was Liz Hernandez, an activist with the United Coalition for Immigrant and Migrant Rights in Las Vegas. Hernandez was detained by immigration agents at the age of 10, along with her mother, 7-year-old sister, and 2-month-old brother. Her mother, who made and sold homemade cheeses to support the family, had to ask the agents for food and water for her children.

Sixteen years later — and after having told her story countless times in her advocacy work — Hernandez crying as she recounts all of this for me: "It's disgusting to know that there are kids being criminalized at such a young age." Hernandez received protection from deportation and work permission under Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012; her mother is still at risk of deportation.

Hernandez and other local activists met with Sanders himself while Vargas and Andiola were working on the platform. She told him about her family's experiences. And, she says, "He was like, 'We're going to make something happen.'"

His platform follows through on that commitment. While both Sanders and Clinton promise to go even further than President Obama in using executive action to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportations, Sanders puts a number on it: He'd protect up to 9 million unauthorized immigrants. And he'd even allow some parents who'd already been deported to return to the US and their families. It sounds like an immigration advocate's wish list — because it is.

"I've never been asked to endorse a politician before," says Hernandez. "It's really hard for me to talk about a candidate, to say, 'You have to support this person.'" But Sanders won her over: The afternoon I meet her, she's the most diligent volunteer in the East Las Vegas office, calling voter after voter to urge them to caucus.

The Sanders campaign is relying on word of mouth, which may not be enough to reach Latinos in the state

As far as the Sanders campaign is concerned, their biggest problem is name recognition. Talk to some of their supporters, and you might think it's the only problem.

Adriana Arévalo, an outreach strategist with the Sanders campaign, had a recent encounter with a woman at a soccer tournament who said she supported Hillary "'because she's the wife of Bill Clinton.' I said, 'Okay, but do you know what she's offering for you, for your family?'" Arévalo says the woman left the tournament as a Sanders supporter.

But Sanders' campaign is making progress. One person I spoke to in Las Vegas (who asked not to be named because they're affiliated with a nonpartisan organization) said they're hearing from, "like, Latina housekeepers: 'El viejito, he has some good ideas.'" Viejito is an affectionate, even nicknamey way to say "the old man." "That they already have a nickname for him, wow."

"There's barely any people who reject Bernie for his ideas," says Cynthia, a 17-year-old Rancho High School student and Sanders volunteer. Her confidence is brimming. "If people were more politically aware, they'd already know who Bernie was."

sanders grijalva hug

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), chair of the House Progressive Caucus, was the first member of Congress to endorse Bernie Sanders. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

This is an appealing narrative for the Sanders campaign in Nevada, because it presents their only problem as something they have the resources to solve: All they need is word of mouth, and they have an enthusiastic young volunteer core to accomplish that.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell how big the groundswell of Latino support for Sanders really is. The campaign presents its Nevada operation as a response to popular demand: There are 12 offices in Nevada, multiple staffers took pains to mention, more than any other presidential campaign. But political journalist Jon Ralston (considered the "dean" of the local press corps) thinks that's mostly hype: "Yeah, you have 12 offices, but if the lights aren't on in 11 of them..." he says airily.

Ralston is also skeptical of the campaign's claim that it's been endorsed by five Spanish-language publications in Nevada; when the campaign announced the first three endorsements, he called them "three Spanish-language newspapers nobody has heard of, including an ad mag and an online news aggregator."

And in other cases, the campaign's aggressive enthusiasm can look like straight-up aggression. A student government leader at the College of Southern Nevada, who was initially listed among the Sanders campaign's "steering committee," later said that she hadn't known signing up for the committee implied an endorsement of Sanders and that she would actually be supporting Hillary Clinton.

The most powerful union in southern Nevada, the Culinary Union Local 226, also harshly criticized the Sanders campaign for sneaking into employee dining rooms and canvassing for Sanders while wearing union pins — a move that, several advocates in Nevada stressed to me, could have gotten the union in serious trouble.

Can Sanders's Latino base motivate enough Latinos who can actually vote?

The Sanders campaign has a mixed record when it comes to conventional campaign tactics, which makes it all the more important that its word-of-mouth, passion-driven campaign succeed. The passionate Sanders supporters are the ones who are expected to spread the word to less politically engaged members of the community: that there is in fact a second Democrat running for president, and that he's the one who really wants to help them afford college and help their parents avoid deportation.

The Clinton campaign urges its staff and volunteers to focus on maximizing "voter contacts" — "the goal is that canvassers have knocked on your door four to five times in the last two months," Clinton communications staffer Jorge Silva tells me — and to develop spreadsheets of who needs a ride to the polls.

The Sanders campaign also wants to reach as many voters as frequently as possible, of course — but it urges its volunteers not to use their scripts when calling potential caucus-goers, and instead to share their personal stories of why they support the senator.

"We are the face of the political revolution," one staffer told the East Las Vegas volunteers, "and that's why we gotta call everybody and their moms, like, 10 times."

Spreading the word is obviously important as a force multiplier. But there's a more basic reason for the focus on evangelism: Many of Sanders's most passionate supporters can't themselves vote.

bernie sanders costume

A teenage Bernie Sanders supporter in full costume at a Las Vegas rally.

Some of the young volunteers can caucus — Cynthia, for example — will be 18 by Election Day in November, so Nevada law allows her to caucus in February. Furthermore, Nevada allows same-day voter registration for Democratic caucus-goers, something that was a major factor in helping Obama take more of the state's delegates than Clinton in 2008 (though he lost the popular vote).

But even with early eligibility and same-day registration, many of Sanders's most fervent Latino supporters aren't eligible to caucus. That doesn't stop them from organizing for the candidate, as staffers stress time and time again. But it could still set a ceiling for the candidate.

Sanders's best asset in the caucuses is the fact that his supporters are likely to be more informed about when the caucuses are and more passionate about showing up to them. Some of the most passionate of those supporters are young Latinos, of two very different types.

The first are the kind who have been involved in politics long enough that they don't tend to fall in love with politicians but feel they've finally found someone to trust: the Cesar Vargases and Liz Hernandezes of the world. They're noncitizens (like many of their peers in the immigrant rights movement), and they can't vote. The second are the kind who aren't otherwise interested in politics — who don't know what a swing state is — but who see Sanders as a politician worth paying attention to. Some of them are eligible to vote like Cynthia; others are simply too young.

At the East Las Vegas office, a campaign organizer tried to prepare a few young volunteers to call potential caucus-goers. When he turned to ask another staffer for clarification about something, one of the volunteers shyly raised his hand and gestured at the young woman next to him: "We actually kind of have to leave right now." Their ride had arrived.