LAS VEGAS — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is threatening former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead with Latino voters in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, with the winner set to potentially reap a huge collection of delegates that could prove crucial to deciding who emerges as the Democratic challenger to President Donald Trump.
Both men held town halls in Las Vegas this weekend ahead of a Nevada Democratic Party dinner here on Sunday night, and both used the opportunity to highlight their support in the first state to vote with a significant Latino population. Biden is relying on support from Latino and Black voters to keep his campaign alive and collect large sums of delegates to the Democratic National Convention even if he struggles in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders’ strength with Latino voters is a direct threat to that strategy.
“I think the Latino vote will be the single most important part of the delegate map for any candidate this year,” said Chuck Rocha, a top strategist for Sanders’ campaign. “We’ve made [Latino voters] a part of the general strategy. In other campaigns, it’s been an afterthought. We’re not doing that to prove a point. We’re doing it because it’s smart politics.”
Rocha noted Latino voters are a growing presence in Iowa and South Carolina, and a key bloc in Nevada. But the real prize will come on Super Tuesday. Colorado, Texas and California ― all of which are more than 20% Latino, according to census data ― will combine for more than 700 delegates. And other Super Tuesday states, including Oklahoma, North Carolina and Virginia, are home to sizable Latino populations.
Their electoral importance means basically every campaign is aggressively courting Latino voters. One of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s first campaign trips was to Puerto Rico, and her campaign has hired Latino state directors in California, Texas and Florida. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is struggling with voters of color, has hired a Latinx outreach director based in Las Vegas. Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, who would be the first-ever Latino major-party nominee, has escorted an asylum-seeker to a check-in with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and is counting on Latinos to turn around his struggling campaign. Despite these efforts, public polling of Latinos generally shows Biden and Sanders in the lead.
A Noticias Telemundo poll conducted in late October found Biden earning the support of 26% of Hispanic Democrats nationally, while Sanders collected 18% and Warren was at 10%. Every other candidate was below 5%. A Latino Community Foundation poll of Latino voters in California found 31% planned to vote for Sanders, while 22% are planning to back Biden and 11% will back Warren. Here in Nevada, a Nevada Independent poll found 33% of Hispanic voters in the state backed Biden, 24% backed Sanders and just 11% backed Warren. (One recent poll does break the Sanders vs. Biden duopoly: A Telemundo poll of Texas found Biden earning 33% of the vote of Hispanic Democrats in the state, with Warren at 16% and Sanders at 11%.)
‘Even when I was a little kid, he was fighting for me.’
Sanders spent almost the entire weekend courting Latino voters, starting with a rally in East Los Angeles with the punk-funk band Ozomatli on Saturday, then with a candidate forum on Latino issues at a California Democratic Party event, and ending with a town hall on immigration at the East Las Vegas Community Center.
The 400-person town hall, packed with college students and young adults, highlighted how Sanders’ support among Latinos is driven by ideologically motivated young people, who have dubbed him “Tio Bernie.” Sanders talked extensively about his new immigration plan, which includes the abolishment of both ICE and Customs and Border Protection in their current forms, a moratorium on deportations and the reversal of Trump’s travel ban and policy requiring asylum-seekers to apply from Mexico.
“We will stop the demonization of undocumented people in this country,” Sanders told the crowd, calling both Trump a “racist” and a “xenophobe.” “We will not have agents of the federal government ripping tiny babies from the arms of their mothers.”
Sanders has more than 80 Latino staffers across the early states and his Washington, D.C., headquarters, and both his political director and California state directors are Latino. Rocha said the staff diversity helps the campaign understand the differences between communicating with Latinos in Iowa, who are frequently recent immigrants, and Chicanos with a long history of activism in Los Angeles. And he noted young Latino staff members, including DACA recipients, helped Sanders craft his immigration plan.
Will Lizarraga, a sales manager, was typical of the crowd at the town hall. Wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of progressive YouTube show The Young Turks, Lizarraga cited Sanders’ long-term support for “Medicare for All” and other liberal policies.
“It’s his track record,” Lizarraga said. “Even when I was a little kid, he was fighting for me.”
Lizarraga, a U.S. permanent resident, is scheduled to get his citizenship sometime in February. He hopes to become a citizen in time to cast a ballot for Sanders at the Feb. 22 caucus.
‘The words presidents speak matter.’
Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who has endorsed Biden, gave a simple reason for backing the former vice president: He trusts him.
Biden was the first candidate to meet with the CHC after launching his campaign, Correa said, and promised to “put his back into” passing comprehensive immigration reform.
“He said ‘Absolutely, I’m your person. I’m going to put my political capital into backing immigration reform,’” Correa recalled.
Biden is counting on that trust, formed over a long political career, to help him with Latinos. In his appearances both at a town hall and at the Nevada Democratic Party’s First In The West dinner, Biden began by mentioning his long history of campaigning in the state, dating back to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s first campaign for the Senate in 1986, and running up to his work to elect the Senate’s first-ever Latina, Catherine Cortez Masto, in 2016.
“He has a record of being a consensus-builder,” said Correa, a moderate Democrat. “He’s the kind of guy who represents putting politics aside, who represents putting the partisan labels aside, who wants to get work done for the American people.”
But Biden’s diverse coalition requires tending. While Sanders was able to spend virtually the whole weekend focused on Latino voters, Biden’s town hall took place at a majority-Black elementary school, and he flew to rural Elko for a town hall on Sunday afternoon.
At the town hall in Las Vegas, Biden presented his more mainstream vision for immigration policy, promising to “immediately” reunite families at the border and work to protect DACA recipients and attacking Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
“He said, ‘I’m running to get rid of those Mexican rapists,’” Biden said at the town hall. “The words presidents speak matter.”
Sanders, meanwhile, implicitly criticized Biden earlier in the weekend, saying at a Univision forum it was not necessary for the Obama administration to deport more than 3 million people.
Of course, Sanders’ own record on immigration isn’t flawless: He opposed a 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill because he objected to guest worker programs that he — and his labor unions — worried would create an underclass of workers.