In a packed dance hall in San Antonio on Saturday night, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders took the stage to celebrate a major victory and to thank his supporters. He’d just been informed that he’d won the Nevada caucus by a wide margin, acquiring 47% of the vote. It was a historic victory, as no other candidate has won the popular vote of all three early states in any primary election. As the senator from Vermont emerges as the clear front-runner of the Democratic primary, he makes it a point in speeches like the one he gave in San Antonio, to recognize the diverse coalition that is building momentum behind his campaign’s success. But this isn’t a fluke. The Sanders campaign has done a lot of groundwork to create a powerful relationship between the candidate and the Latino voting population of early primary states and across the nation. Young Latino voters may have a powerful sway in the results of this election year, and the Sanders campaign isn’t taking that lightly.
During his 2016 run for the White House, Bernie Sanders was criticized for saying that the nation should move “beyond identity politics.” His point was consistent with the stance he’s taken as a member of congress for 30 years, pointing out that the needs of the working class speak more directly to the needs of the American people across all demographic spectrums. Santos Gonzales is a millennial voter and a Chicano who attended the Sanders rally in San Antonio. He voted for Bernie in 2016 and twice before that for Barack Obama. He says that he supports Sanders because of the consistency of his message. Although he’s a Mexican American who is fluent in Spanish and was a constituent of the former mayor of San Antonio and former presidential candidate, Julián Castro, Gonzales says that what is most important to him as a voter are the issues. “It’s not so much about identity,” says Gonzales. “I agree with all of Bernie Sanders’ ideas.” Gonzales cites Medicare for All, affordable college education, and student loan forgiveness as the top reasons he supports Sanders.
While candidates use Spanish as a tool to relate to Latino voters on the debate stage or choose to focus on the issue of immigration as a primary concern, American Latinos are feeling unheard by the Democratic party. Each candidate would be wise to include staffers of color to aid in creating authentic relationships with voters. Bernie Sanders employs senior staffers who understand the Latino community well, including Senior Advisor Chuck Rocha, National Political Director Analilia Mejia, and Latino Press Secretary Belén Sisa. Sisa is a DREAMer who isn’t able to vote in the 2020 election. She says she works for and supports Bernie because he is inclusive. She says that one of the goals of the campaign has been to impart a message of intersectionality, rather than identity. “He gives everyone a seat at the table,” she says. “His campaign is run by powerful and fierce women of color and we come from the community.”
Sisa claims that a lot of work has gone into Latino outreach in the early voting states on behalf of the Sanders campaign, saying that “cultural competency” of different communities is important. She says that the campaign was deliberate when trying to seek the support of Latino voters in Iowa ahead of the caucuses, sending organizers to encourage workers of a pork packing plant to turn up at their precinct after a long day’s work. This is why Sanders’ staffers and volunteers are succeeding at targeting the Latino vote because they have an understanding of the importance of focused outreach when it comes to communities of color.
The numbers reflect the success of this purposeful aim. Research done by the UCLA Latino Politics and Policy Initiative found that in Latino-majority caucus locations of Iowa, Bernie Sanders won a whopping 66.5% of the vote, leaving Joe Biden at a distant second with only 10.7% of the vote. As the Latino voting population grows across the nation, UCLA LPPI predicts that the “Latino electorate’s vote preference in Iowa is likely to influence the outcome of the 2020 Democratic primary,” particularly in states with a high rate of Latinx voters. Nevada has proven this to be true, where Sanders won a staggering 51% of the Latino vote. Now Texas and California wait in the wings for Super Tuesday on March 3rd. If the Sanders’ campaign has done as good of a job targeting those voters across the Southwest, he may just sweep the primaries through mid-March.
But Latino Americans of the Southwest only represent a percentage of the total Latino population in the United States. Florida and the Northeastern United States may present a challenge for Sanders, whose message of Democratic Socialism is unappealing to those who have immigrated to the U.S. from socialist countries in turmoil. Rosy Gonzalez Speers is the Founding Executive Director of Forward Florida. She says that while younger Latino voters may resonate with Bernie’s message, the term “socialism” would be a hard sell to voters over the age of 50 in the general election. “By using the word socialism, we are shutting ourselves out from a lot of voters,” she says.
For immigrants whose memory of revolution is associated with pain and fascist regimes, the word has negative connotations that will be hard to overcome. Republicans are using this fear to appeal to Latino voters in 2020. Donald Trump even addressed the issue in his most recent State of the Union address, saying “this country will never be a socialist country” in order to win over voters who associate socialism with economic destruction and violence. Gonzalez Speers says that the Carribean Latino voting population of the United States will need to hear a message of reform rather than revolution in order for Democrats to win the general election. While Bernie’s consistent message and authenticity appeals to some Latino voters, others find it to be the antithesis of their view of the United States.
The challenge will be to focus on the issues, as the Sanders’ campaign has done since the beginning, and to drive home the message that socialist tenets have been a thread in the American experience for generations. Social security, medicare, public education, and emergency services are all socialized institutions that are paid for by the American taxpayer. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was one such example of how social programs can be successful over time and improve the lives of generations of citizens while bolstering economic growth.
Dr. Matt Barreto is the cofounder of Latino Decisions, a political research organization. He says that the work the Sanders campaign is doing to mobilize Latino voters should be a blueprint for all candidates going forward, and he also echoes the concerns of Rosy Gonzales Speers about the connotations of socialism playing a role in the general election. Although the median age of Latinos in the United States is 28, and although Bernie’s message is resonating with younger populations, it may not be enough to win the general election. This will be largely determined by who actually shows up to vote because although Bernie has the support of millennial Latino voters, it’s typically older voters who turn out at every election. “More resources focusing on the over 50 crowds will be needed for whoever wins the primary election,” says Barreto. Because although the potential voting block of young Latinos is vast, it will all come down to voter turnout.
Bernie Sanders has an advantage when it comes to reaching Latino voters, and his message of fairness and better living conditions for the working class is clearly resonating. He’s been endorsed by prominent freshman Latina congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He’s even gained the honorary title of “Tio Bernie” amongst young Latino supporters and volunteers. But all of this will be for nothing if those same supporters don’t turn out to vote. Those who want an America like the one Bernie Sanders projects will need to take a note from Belén Sisa, who works tirelessly to gain the support of those she knows are eligible to vote. Because the message of hope will mean nothing if it’s not accompanied by a message of unity and solidarity. Each eligible American voter, Latino or not, will have the opportunity to be heard this election year. And the future of the nation depends on their willingness to show up.