Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders seems to have swept Latino voters in the Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, an affirmation of his months-long investments in outreach that could presage his success in primaries still to come in heavily Latino states.

Sanders is counting on Latino voters, the largest nonwhite contingent of voters in 2020, to carry him to the Democratic nomination. In Nevada, where Latinos make up about 19 percent of eligible voters, they helped hand him a big victory.

Entrance polls showed Saturday evening that just over half of Latino voters in Nevada had backed him, roughly four times as many as supported former Vice President Joe Biden. The rest of the candidates earned less than 10 percent of Latino support. (Historically, some entrance polls have undercounted Latino voters, which could skew the results.)

Sanders is trying to appeal to Latino voters with a progressive policy platform that speaks to their core interests: health care, jobs, and, for some, immigration. Starting last summer, he has invested heavily in spreading his message, in both Spanish and English, to Latino communities. And he’s hired Latino staff from the grassroots advocacy community and integrated them into every facet of his campaign.

It’s a marked change from his strategy in 2016, when he lost to Hillary Clinton in 10 of 11 states where Latinos made up a large share of eligible voters, including Nevada by a thin margin.

Before Saturday’s caucuses, Sanders swept the four Spanish-language caucus sites in Iowa and won 40 percent of the Latino vote in New Hampshire. But since Latinos make up only a small minority of voters in those states, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions from his performance among Latinos there.

The Nevada caucuses on Saturday were the first real test of not only Sanders’s support among Latinos but also his ability to inspire turnout. It’s not clear at this point whether Latinos have turned out in the numbers that Sanders was hoping for, but they have backed him overwhelmingly, suggesting that his coalition-building efforts have paid off.

Sanders is now eyeing other heavily Latino states — California, Texas, and Colorado — which will cast their ballots on Super Tuesday, which is March 3. By the time the Nevada caucuses had started, he had already moved on to Texas.

Why Sanders appeals to Latinos

The Nevada primary electorate is still majority white, but Sanders appears to have carried Latinos so overwhelmingly that it could secure him a sizable margin of victory. He also appears to be leading among whites with 30 percent support, but the race is among them is much closer.

It’s a remarkable shift for a candidate who just four years ago was consistently bested by Clinton among Latinos. Now, young Latinos know him as “Tío Bernie,” Spanish for “Uncle Bernie” — including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“I call him Tío Bernie. Maybe to my goddaughter he’s abuelo, but he’s my Tío Bernie Sanders,” she told the crowd at a rally in Queens in October when she announced she was endorsing him for the Democratic nomination.

Sanders has leaned into the moniker. His campaign has since organized soccer matches and house parties that it calls “Tamales for Tío Bernie.”

His Latino support is grounded in policies that appeal to Latino voters: immigration, health care, and the economy. His immigration plan, which he has framed in the context of his signature issue of worker solidarity, is arguably the most progressive of the Democratic field.

Sanders’s plan acknowledges that unauthorized immigrants are particularly vulnerable to abuse at the hands of employers because they might fear retaliation that could put them at risk of deportation. He consequently suggests redirecting funding from enforcing immigration laws against workers to holding their employers accountable for labor law violations. (The plan does not mention whether that will include preventing employers from hiring unauthorized workers in the first place.)

He suggests offering immigrant workers whistleblower protections if they speak up about workplace abuses and improving labor standards for farmworkers, domestic workers, gig economy workers, and those employed in other underregulated industries. He would also allow them to participate in Medicare-for-all and College for All, his bill to make public colleges and universities tuition- and debt-free.

Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas on February 18, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

To communicate that plan to voters, he has made the issue personal, speaking at rallies about his father, a Polish immigrant who came to the US as a teenager impoverished and unable to speak English.

“As the son of an immigrant…I will not tolerate the continued demonization of the undocumented in this country,” Sanders said in Reno, Nevada, on Tuesday.

It’s earned him endorsements from the prominent immigrant rights group Make the Road Action and the Latino mobilization group Mijente. Daniel Altschuler, managing director of Make the Road Action, said that the organization has been impressed by Sanders’s willingness to listen and learn from the grassroots advocacy community in putting together an immigration platform that reflects their priorities, including placing a moratorium on deportations and dismantling the immigration enforcement agencies.

But while immigration ranks high in terms of importance to Latinos, it historically hasn’t been their top priority overall, ranking behind health care and the economy. That’s held true this election cycle: Only 11 percent of Latino voters said that protecting immigrant rights is the most important issue facing the community, according to a February 18 Univision poll. And according to a 2018 Pew Research study, the majority of US-born Latinos say they aren’t concerned that a close family member could be deported.

That might be because only about a third of Latinos in the US are immigrants, a share that has steadily declined since 2010. Latinos who are voting are, by definition, citizens, meaning that they don’t necessarily have a personal stake in US immigration policy.

With that in mind, Sanders hasn’t relied on his immigration policy to appeal to Latino voters.

The Univision poll also reported that a quarter of Latinos nationwide see lowering health care costs was the most importance issue facing their community, and 83 percent support Medicare-for-all, one of the cornerstones of Sanders’s platform. It’s no surprise that health care is top of mind for Latinos: Only about half of them are covered through private health insurance policies, the lowest of any census group, and 20 percent of Latinos under the age of 65 are uninsured.

Erika Márquez, a Nevada resident and DREAMer who came to the US without papers from Mexico as a child, said that Sanders’s fight for better wages and his health care plan signal that he will fight for Latinos: “There’s something about him that conveys trust,” she said.

Not all Latinos are backing Medicare-for-all: The Culinary Workers Union, which is Nevada’s largest union and represents thousands of Latino workers, had disseminated flyers opposing the plan as one that would take away its members’ union health care. But that didn’t seem to affect the results, with many union members appearing to defect from their leaders, as my colleague Sean Collins writes.

Creating more jobs and improving incomes were the top priorities for 19 and 12 percent of Latinos, respectively, in that same Univision poll. Sanders has promised to raise the minimum wage to $15 and would offer college debt forgiveness and tuition-free public university, which could be important for first- and second-generation immigrants in the Latino community who haven’t yet been able to accumulate wealth.

It’s these kinds of bread-and-butter issues that Sanders hopes can inspire Latino turnout.

“Bernie will bring people of all backgrounds together around a progressive agenda that guarantees fundamental economic and civil rights to all, including universal health care, a good job with a living wage, affordable housing, a healthy environment, and a secure retirement,” Belén Sisa, a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign, said.

But Sanders’s performance among Latinos in Nevada — of which about 70 percent are of Mexican heritage — might not be predictive of his performance in other contests to come. Nevada is more heavily Mexican compared to the rest of the nation, where the Latino population is only 59 percent Mexican. Latinos of different national origins might view him differently.

For example, some Latinos might be alienated by Sanders’s identity as a democratic socialist. Sergio Garcia-Rios, a professor at Cornell University who studies Latino political participation, said that Latino immigrants from Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua who remember what it is like to live in a socialist country might be wary of endorsing a candidate who espouses a similar political ideology.

But Sanders is nevertheless polling well among Cubans — his favorability rating among Cubans is 47 percent favorable to 42 percent unfavorable, according to the recent Univision poll. By comparison, 67 percent of Mexicans rated Sanders favorably.

Sanders’s Latino outreach strategy

But more important than Sanders’s platform is his investments in outreach at the local level long before other campaigns showed up. His bilingual advertisements showed up at their doorsteps, on the radio, at their workplaces, and online starting as early as June 2019.

“You can be the perfect messenger and have the perfect message that Latinos care about, but if you never spend the money to go tell the Latinos out there, it doesn’t matter what your positions are,” Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to Sanders’s campaign who also worked on his 2016 run, said.

The campaign spent millions on outreach in Nevada alone. The first advertisement they put out in Nevada was in Spanish and the first office they opened was in the heavily Latino neighborhood of East Las Vegas (they now have 13 throughout the state). Sanders is also focusing on California, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas.

He has hired Latino staff, who number more than 200 nationwide, including 76 stationed in Nevada. The campaign set out to hire people from nonprofits and social justice movements in particular and, at the state level, hired primarily from within the state to ensure that outreach was conducted through a “lens of cultural competency,” Rocha said. Latinos or people of color hold senior positions across every department, from national political director Analilia Mejia to national deputy director of states Neidi Dominguez.

“We wanted to break the status quo of the wrong way we think campaigns have been run forever where Latinos had been used as window dressing, given no authority, and being siloed off in departments where they only talk to each other and not the rest of the campaign,” Rocha said. “There’s no Latino outreach department. It’s literally integrated in every part of the campaign.”

Still, galvanizing turnout among Latinos will be key to the success of Sanders’s strategy, and it remains to be seen whether that will come to fruition. In the 2018 midterm elections, there was a 50 percent increase in turnout among Latino voters, and if that trend continues, it could play in Sanders’s favor in both the primary and the general election if he wins the nomination.

He acknowledged that turnout in Iowa, which was about on par with 2016 levels, wasn’t as high as he had hoped it would be. But Democrats are already predicting record-breaking turnout among Latinos in Nevada — and based on entrance polls at Saturday’s caucuses, he’s leading them by 36 percent.

“There will definitely be more Latinos than have ever caucused before,” Rocha said.

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