During the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders lost 10 of the 11 states where Latinos made up 15% or more of the population. This time around, he notched a big win in Nevada, where 30% of the population is Latino. He was also victorious in delegate-rich California, where he garnered 49% of the Latino vote.
Although Biden has made gains, Sanders still received very strong Latino support last week in Illinois and Arizona, which will be particularly important in the upcoming presidential election. (He lost among Florida Latinos, who skew older and include many anti-socialist Cubans and Venezuelans who dislike the Vermont senator.)
Moreover, lessons learned from the Sanders campaign will be vital for the Democratic nominee this fall — almost certainly Biden.
Although Sanders’ policy proposals such as Medicare for All, tuition-free public college and an increase in the federal minimum wage would disproportionately benefit Latinos, there is a generation gap in Latino support for his candidacy.
Blanca Estevez is a political refugee from El Salvador who was raised in Arkansas and works as a political organizer in the South. She is also an elected leader of The National Political Committee (NPC), a branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Estevez said it was difficult to convince her parents to support Sanders. She started by introducing her mother to some of his campaign volunteers, which eased her fears about the prospect of a President Sanders, who bills himself as a democratic socialist.
“We had to reeducate our parents,” she said. “It takes time and it’s tough, but once you get there they are all in.’’
Estevez believes Sanders has gathered more support from the Latino community since the last presidential election because his campaign has become more inclusive. Taking into account the missteps of the past, Sanders has doubled down on outreach to minority communities. “[The Democratic Socialists of America] endorsed Bernie early on in 2019,” said Estevez. “We knew how to organize and how to talk to our communities and how to talk to our neighbors and I think that’s what changed.”
“The main reason for [Bernie’s Latino vote] is that … young Latino Americans are recognizing that there’s really not much of a future for them in this country,” said Dustin Guastella, director of operations for Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia.
“There’s only one candidate who’s actually saying ‘It doesn’t have to be this way, and ordinary working people can have a decent livelihood.’ I think that has had a huge impact and I think the underreporting of Bernie’s significant support among younger Latino voters has been just a criminal problem on the part of the mainstream press.”
Guastella likened the generational divide within the Latino community to similar divides in other communities, noting that recent immigration status is more of a predictor of support for Sanders than age. “If you’ve been here for years, then your voting patterns will start to look similar to Americans,” he said. “Older voters are going to be conservative, younger voters are going to be more progressive.”
The median age of U.S. Latinos is 29, he added, and “what’s significant is that younger, recent immigrant voters in the United States are gravitating toward Bernie in a big way. I think this is kind of what’s different about Sanders’ candidacy is that he’s getting immigrant voters who don’t typically vote, to actually commit for the campaign and to get involved.”
But exit polls indicate that young voters have not shown up to vote in the primaries. Even in Sanders’ home state of Vermont, voters under 30 accounted for only 11% of the turnout, four percent less than in 2016.
Virginia Rejas, a Queens Latinos for Bernie member from Jackson Heights, hosts weekly events like phone banks, debate watches and canvasses for Sanders.
Rejas has been a Sanders supporter since the last presidential cycle when she was ineligible to vote due to her citizenship status. “After Trump got elected I made sure to prioritize my citizenship, Rejas said. “My parents and I will be voting in this election.”
According to Pew Research, about half of the nation’s 60 million Hispanics are eligible to vote, and 62% of registered Latino voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party while 34% say the same about the Republican Party.
Rejas said she was able to inspire her parents, who were Clinton supporters in the last election, to vote for Sanders. “I think that many of us young Latinos have taken the time to educate family and friends that are older and are more afraid of the term socialism,” she said. “They are not aware of the fact that they are currently enjoying socialist programs such as the social security funds, public schools, the fire department, Pell grants and Medicare for senior citizens.”
Rejas believes the events of the last four years, such as the detention camps at the border, have influenced more Latinos to vote. Raquel Moreno, a volunteer at one of Rejas’ phone banks for Sanders, shares the same sentiment.
“I think a lot of Latinos don’t vote because they think their voices don’t matter,” said Moreno. “Latinos are the ones that made Bernie win in Nevada so we do count as people and our voices need to be heard. Don’t complain when you have Trump for president because you didn’t do anything to change it.”
While many Latinos are not able to vote due to immigration status, they still have allies who care about their causes. Amanda Vendor is a teacher at New York’s International High School for Health Science, which serves newly arrived immigrants and provides small classes that give special attention to these students.
Vendor is also a Sanders supporter and has been a volunteer since 2016. She believes that the difference between the Sanders campaign in 2016 and now is that they have organized a lot better and are on the ground more.
“I see that Bernie has really reached out to the Latino community and he’s been especially speaking out on issues of immigration and stopping the deportations,” said Vendor. “This really resonates with me as a teacher of new immigrants. Most of my students this year have come from rural areas of Central America and they’ve been pushed out by climate change. That’s one of Bernie’s key issues.”
“He values everyone’s vote,” she added. “Especially people who have been alienated from politics, and I think that’s certainly a lot of new immigrants, who feel that their issues are not being heard or addressed by the other candidates.”
Currently, Biden leads Sanders in delegates — and the former Vice President is virtually sure to win the Democratic nomination. Each candidate needs 1,991 to win the nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic convention in July.
Sanders lost the Florida primary by more than 30 points to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and by almost 40 points to Biden this year. This helped tip the scales nationally for Biden.
But Biden’s success nationally among Latinos is not a sure thing. Just this past Tuesday, The Hill named five Latinas Biden could name as his running mate, “Picking a Latina vice presidential candidate could … balance out a ticket for a white candidate in his 70s who would also have to choose between shoring up his moderate credentials or reaching out to progressives in the party,” the paper wrote.