Politics

Bernie Sanders looks to young Latinos for edge in Nevada caucuses

Key Points
  • Bernie Sanders is looking to Nevada's large population of young Latino voters to propel him to victory during the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, the first nominating contest featuring a large minority population. 
  • Some of the most delegate-rich states that vote later, like Texas and California, also have large Latino populations.
  • The strategy has been public for months. But a day before regular voting begins, the impression from the ground is that it's working, possibly even better than expected -- as long as the young voters make it to the polls.
Bellagio hotel workers hold Bernie placards before casting their votes during the Nevada caucuses to nominate a Democratic presidential candidate at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada February 22, 2020.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Elizabeth Barajas Vasquez, an 18-year-old Bernie Sanders supporter, has been having some trouble convincing her classmates to vote in the Democratic caucuses here on Saturday. So, she said, she's started offering to buy them some food if they go.

The tactic worked with her sister.

"That's why we went early voting and volunteering on Tuesday," Barajas Vasquez said Friday during an interview in her government classroom at Del Sol, a public high school in Clark County.

Barajas Vasquez was one of the estimated 75,000 voters who cast a ballot in Nevada during the state Democratic party's first-ever experiment with early voting, which was conducted over four days ending Tuesday.

Barajas Vasquez, whose birthday was this month, is also one of the young Hispanic voters whom Sanders has for months been counting on to deliver him the edge he needs to beat his rivals decisively in the first Democratic nominating contest to take place in a state with a substantial minority population.

"At first I was looking at Warren, but I guess I just vibed with Sanders more," Barajas Vasquez said. "He seems to be very outspoken, which is a thing I am very big about. I don't think that we should stay silent when it comes to, like he says, political revolutions. I think the stances that he takes most directly affect me."

More than half of early voters, like Barajas Vasquez, were caucusing for the first time. No results will be released until at least Saturday, but Sanders organizers are bullish about the high-enthusiasm for early voting. Sanders has long said that his success will rise or fall with turnout.

Winning Nevada, particularly if he does it with the bulk of the Latino vote, could propel the campaign forward as it seeks to consolidate support in the delegate-rich March states. Some of the most important of those states, like Texas and California, also have large Latino populations.

The minority-focused, youth vote strategy has been public for months, even years. But a day before regular voting begins, the impression from the ground is that it's working, possibly even better than expected -- as long as the young voters make it to the polls.

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"I hope you all see the play now," Nina Turner, the campaign's national co-chair, said during a get-out-the-vote event Friday at the campaign's field office in East Las Vegas, a Latino-dominated area. "Because the senator is kicking butt."

Sanders dominates in national polling of those under 45-years-old and leads the race among Hispanic voters. In Nevada, where one in five Democratic voters in 2016 were Hispanic, the group skews young and has been growing, giving him an extra boost.

In another demonstration of support, Sanders also snagged more campaign cash from Latino contributors last year than any other candidate, at $8.3 million, according to an analysis of disclosure data conducted by the technology firm Plus Three.

Experts and activists have provided a variety of reasons for Sanders's success with Latino voters, generally attributing it to a combination of strategy and message.

"In Nevada, he worked very closely with local community organizations, hired people from the neighborhoods where there was high Latino density, to make sure the campaign had the feeling, the cultural relevancy, the language, the connection with people that would invite folks who have never really seen themselves reflected in politics," said Ana Maria Archila, a progressive activist and the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, in an interview.

Even some critics acknowledge that it's working.

"I have not seen any of the other campaigns even remotely doing as well as Bernie Sanders with Latinos," said Moe Vela, a Democratic strategist and former advisor to Joe Biden.

"That said, it breaks my heart as a Latino who has fought for our community nationally in my two White House tenures," said Vela, a former advisor on Hispanic issues to then-Vice President Al Gore. Vela said he has not committed yet to any candidate this cycle, but criticized what he called the "Sanders gimmick" of offering free public services.

Vela cautioned against reading too much into what a victory among Latinos in Nevada could mean for Sanders's chances in Texas and California, Latino-rich states that together account for more than a quarter of the delegates needed to win the nomination.

"Clearly, as people will see on Saturday, they will see it has been effective in Nevada," Vela said. "Will it be as effective with Latinos in California and Texas? Honestly, you have a much more multi-generational electorate in those states."

But Clarissa Martinez, the deputy vice president of policy and advocacy at the national Latino advocacy group UnidosUS, said in a phone interview from Texas that there are "two ways to look at this."

"The Latino community is a very diverse community, indeed it is not a monolith," Martinez said. "But we also know from our experience as a 50-year-old Latino organization, and having a network of nearly 300 community-based organizations across the country, that there is a great deal of affinity among Latinos on a series of issues."

Martinez noted, by way of an example, that Latino voters in Nevada, Florida and Texas consistently identified the same top three priorities, jobs and the economy, health care and immigration.

Sanders is forecast to win the most delegates in California and Texas, according to an analysis from the data website FiveThirtyEight. The website predicts that former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg will take the most votes in Florida, with Sanders in second place.

Organizers are quick to say that the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. And, for success there, one final hurdle for Sanders in Nevada will be making sure that enough young Latino voters turn out to vote.

"What we know about caucuses is that the people who show up are unencumbered," said Rebecca Gill, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. "They might not have kids -- they certainly do not have young kids. They tend to be older, they tend to be white, and they tend to be wealthier."

Barajas Vasquez, the high schooler, noted that many of her friends are also intimidated by the complicated-seeming caucuses process itself.

"It's funny when you're super involved with something and then you go out and you speak to your friends about it and they are not as involved as you are," she said. "It's so weird because something like that can take such a big impact on your life, and then to see somebody else not being as involved with it, it's weird."

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