Sen. Bernie Sanders may be popular on college campuses and in liberal coastal cities, but the leading challenger to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination is still struggling to gain a foothold among the Latino voters who play a crucial part in the contest.
On Monday, the Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist traveled to the heartland in an effort to change that.
Some 400 convention-goers at the National Council of La Raza’s annual meeting in Kansas City packed a room to hear Sanders talk about his own experience as the child of immigrants, take some shots at Donald Trump and lay out his agenda.
His policies for boosting the quality of life of undocumented workers and other struggling newcomers to the country put him to the left of Clinton. She was also scheduled to speak at the event, as was former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, whose long shot bid for the nomination has been overshadowed recently by the surge in support for Sanders.
“I know something about immigration,” Sanders told the audience here. “My dad came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket, without much of an education.”
Sanders talked about members of his family who perished in the Holocaust and the hard work of his parents which enabled him to go to college. He invoked the pope and Martin Luther King Jr. in explaining his abhorrence of racism.
“We are making progress in this country, and there will be no turning back,” he said. “Let me be clear in stating that no one, not Donald Trump, not anyone else, will be successful in dividing us based on race or our country of origin.”
He talked about his own activism on behalf of undocumented workers and presented an agenda for immigration reform “so people can have the protection of law and participate fully and openly in American society.”
Some of the policies Sanders proposed are more aggressive than Clinton’s. Unlike the front runner, who prefers to lay out her plans at a level of generality, Sanders does not avoid boring into details and acknowledging the price tag of some of the programs on his agenda.
In Monday’s speech, he proposed expanding the Obama administration’s executive action on immigration that permits people brought to the country illegally as minors, so-called Dreamers, to remain in the United States. Under his proposal, which is similar to Clinton’s, the parents of Dreamers would also be eligible. He also repudiated provisions in the immigration reform legislation passed by the Senate in 2013 that called for tougher border enforcement, which Clinton has not done as specifically.
His pitch was embraced warmly by the crowd here. Despite that reception, Sanders has a steep hill to climb.
Clinton has long been popular among Latino voters. Latinos supported her by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1 over Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries. She has built a deep network of ties with leaders in the Latino community over many years, and in the current campaign she began focusing on issues of concern to Latino voters – immigration, in particular – immediately after announcing her run.
The Clinton campaign also has a Latino outreach network that is vast and experienced, with multiple ties to Latino leaders on Capitol Hill, in labor unions and in local communities.
One of the big questions for the Sanders campaign is whether he will be able to compete with that in a meaningful way.
Sanders, so far, has emphasized gaining traction in the early voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa, where voters are overwhelmingly white. His message has been focused on them.
“Clinton has a following and is beloved in [the Latino] community,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “The more Sanders gets drawn into having to play in the early states, the more he is not building a bridge” to Latinos.
For more on the 2016 campaign, follow @EvanHalper.