Sanders' bond with Latinos gets first test of many in Nevada

LAS VEGAS (AP) — When the Bernie Sanders for President campaign set up shop in Las Vegas last July, its first move was to open an office in the city’s east side, the heart of the Latino community. Staffers decorated the stark space with brightly colored paper banners known as “papel picado" and threw an office opening party with a mariachi band and appearance from Sanders himself.

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Three times a day canvassers spill out of its doors to walk the streets, knocking on doors, calling out at neighbors in Spanish and talking up Sanders — or as he is known to some Latino supporters, “Tio Bernie.”

A self-declared socialist from Vermont, Sanders is sometimes pigeon-holed as the hero to white college students and lefty boomers. But his campaign believes his outreach to diverse voters, especially Latinos in places like east Las Vegas, will be the secret to his success.

That focus was clear Saturday, as early voting kicked off in Nevada. Sanders' campaign hired a truck with an electronic billboard on the back to drive around east Las Vegas, encouraging Sanders supporters to go cast early caucus ballots.

Four years ago, Sanders' failure to muster enough support from minority voters was partly to blame for his losing the Democratic nomination. This time around, he has transformed his outreach to Hispanic voters, hiring high-level Latino advisers, beefing up Spanish-speaking canvassing and digging deep into Latino neighborhoods to find voters open to his populist message.

There are signs that Sanders’ work has begun to pay off. In Iowa, Sanders won two-thirds of the roughly 1,000 votes at caucus locations in majority Latino areas, according to a study by professors at the University of California-Los Angeles. While reliable polling on Latinos is scarce, a Fox News survey of Nevada Democrats in early January found Sanders had stronger support among Latinos than among whites in the state, tying Biden for the lead among the group.

But the first real test of the strategy is Nevada's caucus on Feb. 22, the third contest on the presidential nominating calendar and the first with a sizable population of Latino voters. Following quickly are California and Texas, states that are 40% Hispanic and represent nearly half the delegates up for grabs on so-called Super Tuesday on March 3. Arizona and Florida vote two weeks later. Strength among Latino voters could serve as a solid foundation of support that helps Sanders rack up delegates deep into the nomination process.

Leslye Olivas and her fiance, Miguel Jaramillo, stood holding signs reading “Families Belong Together” at a Sanders rally Saturday in a high school gym as a quartet of guitarists played mariachi music to warm up the crowd. Olivas, 25, who works as an office administrator at a casino, said her support of Sanders comes from “his consistency and he's persisted. He has a lot of track record of wanting to help minorities and help everyone.”

The affection has been somewhat surprising for some Latinos activists who were frustrated with Sanders after he helped kill a 2007 immigration bill, warning it would drive down wages. But for many Latinos, like other voters, their knowledge of Sanders starts with the 2016 run, when he championed immigrant rights and promised an economic revolution.

“I just feel he’s very fair, what he’s running for and how he’s running,” said Eloisa Sandoval, a college student in Las Vegas who recently welcomed Sanders canvassers to her yard and signed a card pledging to caucus for him. She said Sanders' proposal for free college “would be fantastic."

Sanders' emphasis on good jobs, single-payer health care and free college comes up constantly with voters, said Susana Cervantes, his Nevada field director.

“Almost every parent’s dream, especially immigrants, is for their children to access higher education. It represents social mobility, social economic mobility and it’s a part of the American dream,” she said.

It wasn't enough for Sanders to win Nevada in 2016. In its post-defeat autopsy, Sanders' campaign found it had won the votes of Latinos in almost every state it competed, albeit sometimes narrowly, said Chuck Rocha, a senior Sanders strategist. It decided to build on that foundation.

In his 2020 announcement speech, he stressed his impoverished parents' immigrant roots to draw a connection with Latino voters only a generation or two away from the immigrant experience. The campaign recruited high-profile surrogates like New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez — who held a Spanish-language town hall in Nevada late last year — and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. It marshaled Latino supporters from around the country to send text messages in Spanish to Latinos in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the four early states.

The campaign hired Latinos in high positions across every department, Rocha said. It spent millions of dollars on bilingual communications. Those ads landed on the Latin pop Pandora channels that young Latinos might listen to, but also the weekly Spanish-language newspapers and Univision current affairs shows their parents or grandparents read and watch. It all cultivated the image of Sanders as part of the family — a “tio” or uncle — as the popular campaign shirt read.

Other campaigns have taken notice. Rep. Tony Cardenas of California has endorsed Joe Biden and predicts Latinos will rally around a proven leader like the former vice president. But he said Sanders' outreach has been noticeable.

“He’s going to do better with the Latino community than he did four years ago," Cardenas said.

Latinos do not vote as a solid bloc. Families in the Southwest who have lived in the country for centuries often vote differently from recent arrivals in the Midwest or Cuban immigrants in Florida and New Jersey whose experience with socialist leaders abroad can make them especially suspicious of a candidate who describes himself, as Sanders does, as a socialist.

In 2018, Latinos comprised about 11% of the Democratic electorate. About two-thirds of Latino voters backed Democratic candidates in the midterms, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of voters in that election.

And though Sanders' team believes its candidate has forged a bond with Latinos, polls show they tend to be more centrist than non-Hispanic Democrats.

"They’re still more moderate and make the Democratic electorate more moderate than in some other states,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, who noted that many Latinos in his state would not identify as progressives, much less socialists.

But Sanders’ competition for these voters is intensifying quickly. Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg recently began his own effort, “Ganamos con Mike,” or “We Win with Mike.” Bloomberg has used his personal fortune to air Spanish-language spots from Puerto Rico to California. Meanwhile, Biden has racked up endorsements from several Latino members of congress. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, coming off a virtual first-place tie with Sanders in Iowa and a strong second-place finish in New Hampshire, has ramped up his outreach to all voters uncomfortable with Sanders' liberal positions, including his “Medicare for All” proposal, and is running Spanish-language ads in Nevada, as is billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer.

But for some voters, including Jose Silva, a 20-year-old student who works with an environmental nonprofit in Las Vegas, Sanders has already closed the deal.

Silva immigrated from Mexico and became a citizen last year. After turning out for Sanders’ rally with Ocasio-Cortez in December, he celebrated what he said felt like a truly diverse campaign.

“These ideals that he has aren’t just for old white people. They’re for all colors,” Silva said.

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Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.