Last year, Nevada college student Ivan Soto was one of about 800,000 Latinos in the United States who turned 18 and became eligible to vote.
He and other millennials — those born in the 1980s and 1990s — make up nearly half of all eligible Latino voters and are increasingly seen as crucial to unlocking the Latino vote.
A fervent Bernie Sanders supporter who learned about the Vermont senator’s campaign on Reddit and through Google searches, Soto reflects a growing generational divide in the Latino community that mirrors divisions in the wider electorate: Although many young Latinos are flocking to the Sanders campaign, many of their parents are backing Hillary Clinton.
“The leadership that is older is all Clinton, but the younger Latinos, they’re with Sanders,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, whose organization has been working in Nevada ahead of the state’s Democratic caucus on Saturday.
Gonzalez said the rift is present in his own family. “My daughters are Sanders people,” he said. “My wife is with Hillary.”
How that division plays out will go a long way toward determining who wins the caucus. The contest has shaped up as a crucial test of Sanders’ appeal to minority voters, whose backing he will need as the Democratic race moves from Iowa and New Hampshire, overwhelmingly white states, into a series of much more diverse arenas.
Like their white counterparts, whose activism online and on university campuses helped propel Sanders from a long-shot candidate to the winner of last week’s New Hampshire primary, younger Latinos who back Sanders say they are drawn to him because he dreams big.
Soto, who woke up early Sunday to see Sanders speak at a high school here, said he liked the candidate’s proposals to reduce deportations of immigrants in the country illegally as well as his promises for campaign finance reform and free college tuition.
“He’s not the same old, same old,” said Soto, who called Sanders a “role model.”
On the campaign trail, Sanders frequently argues that his proposals to redistribute wealth and tax Wall Street appeal across ethnic lines. In Las Vegas, he praised civil rights gains won by a variety of groups in recent years. But, he said, “it’s clear to me that in one area not only have we not made progress, we are losing ground. And that area is economic struggle.”
Clinton has levied a counter-argument, telling minority voters that she cares about a broader range of issues than Sanders does.
“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton said Saturday at a union hall in Las Vegas. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow … would that end racism?”
The former secretary of State sat down with Dreamers at a North Las Vegas high school in her first public event in Nevada after she announced her candidacy in April.
Afterward, Rancho High School teacher Isaac Barron, who is also a councilman in North Las Vegas, endorsed her campaign.
But despite the attention from the Clinton campaign, Barron said, most of his students are in the opposite camp.
“Most of them are Bernie kids. There’s no doubt about it,” he said.
Potentially offsetting that deficit among younger Latinos, Clinton’s campaign has been making a big push to turn out older Latinas, many of whom say they have fond memories of Bill Clinton’s presidency and who would like to see a woman in the White House.
That may be a smart bet. Previous election data suggest that older Latinos are more likely to vote than young Latinos.
In 2012, just 38% of registered Latino millennials voted, compared with 55% of older Latinos, according to the Pew Research Center.
Young Latinos trailed other millennial groups too, with 48% of white millennials and 55% of black millennials voting in 2012. (Asians had a similarly dismal turnout, with just 37% voting.)
Young Latinos also lag behind other groups in voter registration. Several star-studded registration campaigns are seeking to change that before November. Last week, the group Voto Latino flew in “Ugly Betty” actress America Ferrera to help sign up new voters across the state.
The focus of voter registration efforts now is “all on younger voters,” said Gonzalez, who heads one of the nation’s largest Latino voter registration groups.
“There aren’t any old unregistered Latinos of any relevance,” he said.
Getting younger Latinos to register and vote requires getting over some major hurdles, Gonzalez said. Although older people may vote according to union affiliation or because a leader in their community makes an endorsement, that’s not how younger voters operate, he said.
“Latinos are in flux,” he said. “We’re younger, and we’re less negotiated through institutions. We can’t be brokered.”
Olivia Diaz, 37, has observed that firsthand. She proudly remembers casting a ballot for Bill Clinton in her first presidential election. Now a state assemblywoman, she is working hard to elect Hillary Clinton.
“She’s always been with us,” Diaz said on a recent night to a roomful of mostly older Latinas who were calling voters in Spanish at a Clinton campaign office in a predominantly Latino neighborhood.
But Diaz can’t deliver the vote of her younger brother, Alejandro, 21, an engineering student who is wild about Sanders.
“He’s passionate and he’s consistent,” he said of Sanders.
Both are seeking to influence the rest of their family.
“What people underestimate is the conversations that happen in the families,” said Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who was in Nevada campaigning for Sanders over the weekend. “Young Latinos influence their parents.”
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