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Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders arrive to speak at a campaign rally in Santa Monica, California, on July 26, 2019.
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Latino voters might have saved Bernie Sanders’s campaign

He held his own in Texas and California on Super Tuesday, thanks to Latinos.

Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders spent months courting Latino voters, hoping to create a wave of support that would carry him to the Democratic nomination.

On Super Tuesday, their votes helped insulate him from former Vice President Joe Biden’s sudden surge.

Latinos make up about a third of the electorate in Texas and California, the two states that allotted the most delegates on Wednesday night. In both states, his efforts to reach out to Latinos paid off.

Washington Post exit polls show that Sanders carried the Latino vote overwhelmingly: he had 49 percent of Latino support in California, where votes are still being counted but Sanders leading by an almost 10-point margin, and 39 percent in Texas, where he lost narrowly to Biden. By comparison, Biden won 19 percent of Latino voters in California and 26 percent in Texas.

That support wasn’t enough to secure Sanders big victories in both states. But because the Democratic Party decides on its nominee by allocating delegates, it was still crucial. States aren’t winner-take-all, so it’s possible to rack up a lot of delegates even if you lose a state.

Latino support saved Sanders from bigger delegate losses to Biden, Matt Barreto, a professor at UCLA and co-founder of the research firm Latino Decisions, said.

“Without Latino voters, Sanders would have really had a terrible night,” Barreto said. “Biden had a good night already, but Sanders was able to hold his own with a really big win in California and breaking even in Texas. All of that strength for him was Latinos and young voters who came out.”

In 2016, Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in 10 of 11 states where Latinos made up a large share of eligible voters. This time, he’s made a stronger push.

Sanders has been trying to appeal to Latino voters with a progressive policy platform on immigration, but that isn’t the only issue that motivates them. He has also been speaking to their core interests, including health care and jobs. Starting last summer, he has poured resources in spreading his message, in both Spanish and English, to Latino communities. And he’s hired Latino staff from the grassroots advocacy community and integrated them into every facet of his campaign.

It wasn’t enough to carry him to a sweeping victory on Tuesday. But depending on how the delegate counts shake out in California and Texas, it could have kept his campaign alive.

Sanders’s Latino outreach strategy, explained

Just four years ago, Sanders was consistently bested by Clinton among Latinos. Now, young Latinos know him as “Tío Bernie,” Spanish for “Uncle Bernie” — including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“I call him Tío Bernie. Maybe to my goddaughter he’s abuelo, but he’s my Tío Bernie Sanders,” she told the crowd at a rally in Queens in October when she announced she was endorsing him for the Democratic nomination.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she calls Sen. Bernie Sanders “Tío Bernie” when she endorsed him last October.
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sanders has leaned into the moniker. His campaign has since organized soccer matches and house parties that it calls “Tamales for Tío Bernie.” He has been investing in this kind of outreach at the local level long before other campaigns showed up.

That has likely aided Sanders in inspiring greater turnout among Latino voters, which Barreto said was higher on Super Tuesday than it was in 2016.

“You can be the perfect messenger and have the perfect message that Latinos care about, but if you never spend the money to go tell the Latinos out there, it doesn’t matter what your positions are,” Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to Sanders’s campaign who also worked on his 2016 run, said.

In California alone, Sanders spoke personally to upward of 110,000 people, and his campaign knocked on more than a million doors and made more than 5 million calls, Anna Bahr, a Sanders spokesperson, told Vox.

Monterroso said that he has seen enthusiasm for Sanders among young Latino voters in California, in particular. Indeed, as my colleague Katelyn Burns writes, Washington Post exit poll data shows that he carried 57 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29, and 52 percent of those aged 30 to 44.

“We’ve put in a lot of time and energy — we have put in our offices in predominantly Latino communities, and we’ve been on the ground for the better part of a year,” Bahr said. “I think that there is a resonance — the way that the senator organizes, the very nature of the grassroots campaign — all of that resonates with the political history and legacy of Latinos in California.”

And in Texas, Sanders set up offices and had people on the ground in heavily Latino border districts that have long been neglected by politicians at the state and national level due to historically low rates of voter engagement. He was visible in those places, and that fostered a sense of inclusion that played in his favor on Tuesday night.

He consequently won in high-density Latino districts, including El Paso, San Antonio, and across the Rio Grande Valley:

He has hired Latino staff, who number more than 200 nationwide. The campaign set out to hire people from nonprofits and social justice movements in particular and, at the state level, hired primarily from within the state to ensure that outreach was conducted through a “lens of cultural competency,” Rocha said. Latinos or people of color hold senior positions across every department, from national political director Analilia Mejia to national deputy director of states Neidi Dominguez.

“We wanted to break the status quo of the wrong way we think campaigns have been run forever where Latinos had been used as window dressing, given no authority, and being siloed off in departments where they only talk to each other and not the rest of the campaign,” Rocha said. “There’s no Latino outreach department. It’s literally integrated in every part of the campaign.”

Why Sanders appeals to Latinos

Sanders’s Latino support is grounded in policies that appeal to Latino voters: immigration, health care, and the economy. His immigration plan, which he has framed in the context of his signature issue of worker solidarity, is arguably the most progressive of the Democratic field.

Sanders’s plan acknowledges that unauthorized immigrants are particularly vulnerable to abuse at the hands of employers because they might fear retaliation that could put them at risk of deportation. He consequently suggests redirecting funding from enforcing immigration laws against workers to holding their employers accountable for labor law violations. (The plan does not mention whether that will include preventing employers from hiring unauthorized workers in the first place.)

He suggests offering immigrant workers whistleblower protections if they speak up about workplace abuses and improving labor standards for farmworkers, domestic workers, gig economy workers, and those employed in other underregulated industries. He would also allow them to participate in Medicare-for-all and College for All, his bill to make public colleges and universities tuition- and debt-free.

To communicate that plan to voters, he has made the issue personal, speaking at rallies about his father, a Polish immigrant who came to the US as a teenager impoverished and unable to speak English.

“As the son of an immigrant ... I will not tolerate the continued demonization of the undocumented in this country,” Sanders said in Reno, Nevada, last month.

It’s earned him endorsements from the prominent immigrant rights group Make the Road Action and the Latino mobilization group Mijente. Daniel Altschuler, managing director of Make the Road Action, said that the organization has been impressed by Sanders’s willingness to listen and learn from the grassroots advocacy community in putting together an immigration platform that reflects their priorities, including placing a moratorium on deportations and dismantling the immigration enforcement agencies.

That plan also likely helped him in border districts in Texas and California that know the issues associated with immigration intimately and who want to see the next president prioritize immigration reform, Ben Monterroso, a senior adviser to Poder Latinx, a Latino voter mobilization group, said.

“Sanders is being viewed as someone who can finally find a solution to the immigration issue,” he said.

The Sanders campaign set up offices and canvassers in heavily Latino border districts throughout Texas.
Mark Felix /AFP via Getty Images

But while immigration ranks high in terms of importance to Latinos, it historically hasn’t been their top priority overall, ranking behind health care and the economy. That’s held true this election cycle: Only 11 percent of Latino voters said that protecting immigrant rights is the most important issue facing the community, according to a February 18 Univision poll. And according to a 2018 Pew Research study, the majority of US-born Latinos say they aren’t concerned that a close family member could be deported.

That might be because only about a third of Latinos in the US are immigrants, a share that has steadily declined since 2010. Latinos who are voting are, by definition, citizens, meaning that they don’t necessarily have a personal stake in US immigration policy.

The Univision poll also reported that a quarter of Latinos nationwide see lowering health care costs was the most important issue facing their community, and 83 percent support Medicare-for-all, one of the cornerstones of Sanders’s platform. It’s no surprise that health care is top of mind for Latinos: Only about half of them are covered through private health insurance policies, the lowest of any census group, and 20 percent of Latinos under the age of 65 are uninsured.

Creating more jobs and improving incomes were the top priorities for 19 and 12 percent of Latinos, respectively, in that same Univision poll. Sanders has promised to raise the minimum wage to $15 and would offer college debt forgiveness and tuition-free public university, which could be important for first- and second-generation immigrants in the Latino community who haven’t yet been able to accumulate wealth.

It’s these kinds of bread-and-butter issues that Sanders has invoked to inspire Latino turnout.

“Bernie will bring people of all backgrounds together around a progressive agenda that guarantees fundamental economic and civil rights to all, including universal health care, a good job with a living wage, affordable housing, a healthy environment, and a secure retirement,” Belén Sisa, a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign, said.

Latinos of different national origins, however, might view him differently.

For example, some Latinos might be alienated by Sanders’s identity as a democratic socialist. Sergio Garcia-Rios, a professor at Cornell University who studies Latino political participation, said that Latino immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua who remember what it is like to live in a socialist country might be wary of endorsing a candidate who espouses a similar political ideology.

But Sanders is nevertheless polling well among Cubans — his favorability rating among Cubans is 47 percent favorable to 42 percent unfavorable, according to the recent Univision poll. By comparison, 67 percent of Mexicans rated Sanders favorably.

As Sanders looks ahead to the primaries in Florida, where there is a large Cuban and Venezuelan population, his support among Latinos will again be put to the test.

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