Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ big win among Latinos in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses underscores the potential for the nation’s largest minority group to reshape the next stage of the Democratic presidential race.
Almost all of the states with a large Latino population will vote in just the next four weeks: Nevada led the way Saturday, followed by Texas, California and Colorado on March 3, or Super Tuesday, and Arizona, Florida and Illinois on March 17.
Cumulatively, the seven states with large Latino populations looming on the calendar will elect nearly half the Democratic delegates at stake in February and March.
This clustering will provide Latinos their best opportunity to influence the choice of the 2020 Democratic nominee. And it represents a key opportunity for Sanders, who has devoted enormous effort to organizing among Latinos after most of them backed Hillary Clinton during their 2016 contest for the nomination.
That effort paid off in Nevada where entrance polls showed Sanders winning a stunning 53% of Latino voters, three times as much as the next closest competitor (former Vice President Joe Biden at 17%).
That marked a significant expansion of Sanders’ coalition beyond the universe of younger and very liberal voters who powered his bid in 2016 and provided the core of his support in the Iowa and New Hampshire races that kicked off the 2020 race.
Sanders’ team now expects he will benefit not only from improved performance among Latinos, but greater participation in the primaries from them too, as they turn out to express their opposition to President Donald Trump.
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“You are going to see much more intensity in the Latino community and I think that’s going to have a big benefit for him in a whole host of states,” says Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders.
Both in 2008 and 2016, Latinos came together to provide a critical mass of support for Clinton. In each of her two presidential races, she carried almost exactly three-fifths of all Latino voters, according to cumulative analyses of all the exit polls conducted in each contest.
Although Sanders won the youngest Latino voters, the analysis found, his support declined steadily among older generations.
Until Nevada, no candidate this time appeared to consolidate nearly as much support among Latinos. “I think it’s a much tighter contest this year than in 2016,” said Matt Barreto, managing partner and co-founder of Latino Decisions, a Democratic polling firm that focuses on Latino voters, a few days before the Nevada results.
Biden has been attracting the second most support among Latinos, though former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, fueled by a barrage of Spanish-language television advertising, is quickly establishing a beachhead too, Barreto says. Bloomberg did not compete in the Nevada contest.
So far, the campaigns and media alike have focused more attention on the group of Southeast states with large African American populations that will also be voting over the same period. That list starts on South Carolina on February 29 and runs into mid-March through states including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina. Biden, in particular, is relying on those states to recover from his extremely weak showings in the first two contests.
The potential impact of Latinos, mostly in Southwest states, that will be voting at the same time has generated much less discussion.
“I really do think there is almost a total denial of the emerging Latino vote in the United States,” said former Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who played a leading role on immigration issues until retiring from the House in 2018. “People say statistically they say we will outnumber any minority group, but when I read my favorite newspapers, watch my favorite newscasts, we’re absent.”
The upcoming voting rush
From Nevada through March 17, the Democratic primary calendar will run through seven of the 12 states where Latinos constitute at least 10% of the total eligible voting population, according to recent figures from the Pew Research Center.
New Mexico, the state where Latinos comprise the largest share of eligible voters (at almost 43%), doesn’t vote until June. But all of the states that rank next on the list for Latino presence are voting in this upcoming rush. That includes California (30.5% of eligible voters), Texas (30.4%), Arizona (23.6%), Florida (20.5%), Nevada (19.7%) and Colorado (15.9%). Latinos represent almost 12% of eligible voters in Illinois, the other state voting soon with a large concentration of that population.
In a Democratic primary, the Latino share of the vote in most of those states will likely be larger than their share of the overall eligible population. Barreto said all indications in polling points to high Latino turnout in the upcoming primaries.
“There is a very high level of interest,” he said. “When you get to the Super Tuesday states we are expecting extremely high turnout in California and Texas.”
The seven Latino-heavy states voting through March 17 will award 1,207 pledged delegates to the Democratic convention. That’s 46% of the 2,603 total pledged delegates that will be awarded in primaries and caucuses through February and March.
After this cluster of states vote, Latinos won’t weigh in again in large numbers until the primaries on April 24, when Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York, with eligible voting populations ranging from 11 to 15%, will hold their contests.
In most states, delegates are allocated based on the results in each congressional district. And, though many might assume that Latinos are concentrated in a few large cities, in these upcoming states at least they are geographically dispersed in a manner that will magnify their influence. In all, according to the Pew figures, Latinos constitute at least 15% of the eligible population in 110 of the 154 congressional districts across those seven states, including 31 of the 36 in Texas.
“It is really incredibly geographically spread out,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “You need to not only be going into the urban areas to reach (Latinos).”
While this widening geographic reach underscores Latinos’ potential impact in the next stage of the Democratic race, it’s been less certain they will coalesce enough behind any one candidate to significantly reshape the contest.
Nevada raises the possibility that Sanders could unify them to a much greater extent than seemed possible only a few weeks ago. His support among Latinos younger than 30 reached a head-turning 72%, according to the entrance polls.
Sanders leads top tier in outreach
While some Latino groups have complained that none of the Democrats have focused as much on their communities as they expected, Sanders has exceeded the other top tier contenders in outreach. His campaign made unprecedented efforts to mobilize the modest but growing Latino population in Iowa.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of his most prominent surrogates, held a bilingual town hall in Nevada and other supporters hosted another one in Houston last weekend. In California, Sanders’ state director and political director are Latinos, and his deputy state director is Latina.
Sanders also is far outpacing the other candidates, apart from the two self-funding billionaires in the race, in television advertising in the Latino-heavy states impending on the calendar. As of Friday, Sanders had spent $1.7 million on television in Nevada, roughly twice as much as both Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg trailing slightly behind those two, according to figures from Kantar Media/CMAG provided to CNN. Businessman Tom Steyer, who is self-funding, has dwarfed all of them in Nevada television spending at nearly $14 million.
In the other states with big Latino populations looming on the calendar, only Sanders and the two billionaires are on the airwaves at all. Neither Biden, Buttigieg, Warren nor Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar had purchased any television ads in Texas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida or Illinois as of Friday. But Sanders has spent more than $7 million in California and Texas combined and another $441,000 in Colorado.
Importantly, Sanders is spending significant sums not only on English- but also Spanish-language advertising, especially in California. There, the figures show he’s placed nearly $2 million in Spanish language ads, almost exactly as much as Bloomberg. (Bloomberg is significantly outspending Sanders on Spanish-language television in Texas, Arizona and Florida, however.)
Polls show Sanders’ work paying off
In January, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found Sanders drawing almost 40% of Latinos there, compared to about one in four for Biden. The latest Texas Tribune/University of Texas survey there put Sanders narrowly ahead of Biden (31% to 24%), according to results provided to CNN. Sanders also led Biden by a similar margin among Latinos in a national Pew Research Center poll from late January.
Stephanie Valencia, the co-founder and president of EquisLabs, a Democratic firm that specializes in studying Latino voters, said her group’s own research has found that the investments the Sanders campaign has made and his name ID over the past four years “has helped him to garner some serious support within the community.”
Valencia’s polls found a surge of positive feeling toward Sanders among Latinos in Nevada, immediately before his strong showing with them there. The striking Nevada result in turn could encourage more Latinos in other states to take another look at Sanders, further expanding his support.
As these results suggest, in the Latino community, Biden can’t count on the same reservoir of goodwill toward the Obama presidency as he’s drawing on among African Americans. Although Latino groups grew warmer toward Obama in his second term – when, among other things, he instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to protect from deportation millions of young people brought to the US illegally by their parents – in his first term, the large number of deportations and the sublimation of immigration reform to health care reform rankled some leaders.
Biden apologized for the deportations in an interview with Univision last weekend. While “there are a lot of positive feelings about Barack Obama” among Latinos, Gutierrez said, Biden’s links to him are “going to be a much stronger card in the African American community.”
The most encouraging sign for Biden in Saturday’s Nevada results was that he maintained a double-digit lead among African American voters, according to the entrance polls. That would serve him well in South Carolina and the other Southeast states with large black populations that follow soon after.
But if Sanders can sustain anything close to the lopsided advantage with Latinos that he displayed in Nevada, he will still hold the high card in the cascade of early March contests now looming before the Democrats.