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Op-Ed

There's a generational divide in California's Latino voting bloc

People who follow politics often insist that the Latino vote is not as monolithic as pundits let on. History says otherwise. Democrats have captured at least 60% of the Latino vote in every presidential election since 1984 with only one exception — 2004, when John F. Kerry barely missed the mark by receiving 58%.

Within the confines of the California Democratic Party, however, there’s a split that wasn’t apparent eight years ago: Younger Latinos are embracing an outsider, rejecting the establishment candidate favored by their parents and grandparents.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton won 67% of the Latino vote in the California primary against outsider Barack Obama. Latino men and women of all ages preferred Clinton. Heading into Tuesday’s primary, Clinton is once again the establishment candidate, but she is running a distant second to Bernie Sanders, her socialist rival, among the state’s younger Latinos. And she may lose the Latino vote outright to Sanders if younger Latino registrants make it to the polls Tuesday  in large numbers.

The final Los Angeles Times/USC survey conducted before the election shows Clinton and Sanders tied at 44% among eligible Democratic primary Latino voters surveyed, which includes those who decline to state a party preference. 

When respondents under age 50 are separated out, those younger Latinos choose Sanders over Clinton by 58% to 31%. Older Latino respondents, above age 50, still heavily support Clinton, 69% to 16%.

The Times/USC survey found that Sanders also has an edge in favorability ratings: 69% of eligible Democratic primary Latino voters surveyed said they have a favorable opinion and 16% an unfavorable opinion of the Vermont senator. The former secretary of State’s numbers are 67% and 33%, respectively.

In the past, Latino voters in California followed the guidance of Latino politicians, celebrities and talking heads. That establishment is as united as it’s ever been: Not a single Latino Democrat who currently holds elected office in California endorsed or worked for Sanders. But, evidently, younger Latinos don’t care. They’re behaving more like younger whites — who are also siding with Sanders — than their Latino elders, suggesting the Latino voting bloc may one day be indistinguishable from the Democratic electorate at large.

Other states with large Latino populations are showing the same trend.

Before the Nevada caucuses in February, the Silver State’s Latino establishment lined up behind Clinton. Dozens of Latino elected officials in California and neighboring states packed their bags and headed to Nevada to canvass on behalf of Clinton.

Despite the intense push to drive Nevada’s Latino voters toward Clinton, the young preferred Sanders, and the best she managed was a split down the middle. The 50-50 draw among Latinos in the caucus stands in contrast to the 68% of Nevada Latino voters who supported Clinton against Obama eight years earlier.

Sanders’ appeal among younger Latinos and Clinton’s slipping support may be an aberration based on the personalities of two specific presidential candidates. It might be a unique event, without lasting significance.

Or it might not be.

The generational rift could have far-reaching implications for future elections across California. Nearly 15 million Latinos live in California and they make up about 39% of the population. No state has a larger concentration of Latino voters.

The 2016 presidential primary may be remembered as the moment when younger Latino voters began to ignore the once-trusted ethnic surrogates who told their parents and grandparents how to vote and proved that, like young people in other demographic groups, they were open to radical reform. 

Mike Madrid is a political strategist.

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