Bernie Sanders sounded awkwardly gringo in naming the Latino politician he thanked for introducing him, and he bungled the Spanish title of his own event, dropping the “con” from “Unidos con Bernie.” Yet it only seemed to endear “Tio Bernie” to the Latino voters gathered in this Iowa town to see him.
In a state often criticized as too white to hold such political influence, Latinos are key to the coalition that Sanders is trying to assemble in his bid to win the Iowa caucuses that open the Democrats’ presidential-nominating contest on Feb. 3.
With Iowa very much up for grabs — no single Democrat has emerged as a dominant front-runner here — the state’s small but growing population of Latinos is getting unprecedented attention. Sanders is just one of the candidates investing heavily in appealing to the group, as Latinos become an increasingly influential and vocal presence throughout the state, organizing and winning local races in key communities.
For Democrats, it is an outsize effort to recruit in a demographic group that amounts to just over 6% of the state population — but is on track to be twice that within 30 years, according to the State Data Center of Iowa.
The number of Latinos has grown over the years as families decamped from Texas, California and other places, to Iowa towns that promised work in meatpacking plants and other agricultural industries. Like elsewhere, their interest in politics is on the rise given President Trump’s hostile posture toward immigrants and the strain of crushing healthcare costs on blue-collar families.
“In the last election we didn’t show up, and we were punished for that,” said Angel Ruelas, a 22-year-old Sanders supporter whose parents had moved to Muscatine from Mexico. “People are reacting to everything that is going on,” he added. “They definitely are more willing to go out to caucus and go vote.”
In party caucuses where fewer than 172,000 people voted in the last presidential cycle, the Democratic candidates figure that driving up turnout even modestly among the roughly 80,000 eligible Iowa Latinos could tip the balance. The Sanders campaign believes as few as 1,500 Latinos attended Democratic caucuses in 2016, based on its analysis of voting records.
“There is a vast pool of Latinos in Iowa who have never caucused before but are eligible,” said Ben Tulchin, a pollster for Sanders. “We can organize our way into having them play an outsize impact.” The campaign’s Iowa co-chairman is Nick Salazar, the state president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, known as LULAC, a national leader in organizing and registering Latinos.
Way out in Storm Lake, a northwest Iowa town where recent waves of immigrants are powering meatpacking operations, and nearly 20 languages are spoken in local schools, former Vice President Joe Biden has enlisted a millennial Latino to mobilize the community. Camilo Haller offers his experience — he lived in humble circumstances in Colombia with his grandparents, then was adopted at the age of 7 by his cousin and her husband, who were living in the U.S. — to empathize with potential voters he meets who might feel intimidated by the arcane caucus process.
“Something as simple as the word caucus doesn’t translate,” he said. “A lot of immigrants come from Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, where being involved in voting that type of way, very publicly, isn’t encouraged. It’s looked down upon and sometimes even not safe.”
Haller sometimes returns to the same households again and again to reassure the voters he’s recruiting. He recalled one couple that were skeptical when he first approached in August. Haller kept at it and they started to come around. He sealed the deal when he got them a personal audience with Biden at a campaign event. “I translated for them,” he said. “After that, they signed ‘commit to caucus’ cards, and now they’re fully in.”
Several campaigns are holding caucus-training sessions, sending Latino surrogates into communities with boxes of campaign materials in Spanish. They have pushed caucus officials to establish bilingual sites and arranged to have their own interpreters for caucus-goers at other sites.
“You can tell that they are trying,” said Alyson Glynn, 33, whose immigrant grandparents opened one of the first Mexican restaurants in Muscatine.
But as she waited for Sanders to take the stage, she said all the candidates have more work to do. “They don’t always 100% understand the struggles that Latinos go through. They’ve never been through it,” Glynn said, adding: “How are they going to know unless they let us ask questions and they’re willing to talk to us? That is why I love seeing these kinds of events.”
The lack of connection is a concern echoed nationally, in an election cycle in which Democrats’ ability to increase Latinos’ traditionally low voting-participation rates could determine whether or not their party takes back the White House.
“We think they all could be doing better,” said Rosalind Gold, chief public policy officer at the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. The group has been disappointed that candidates have declined invitations to some major national Latino forums and neglected to respond to surveys for voting guides. And they are concerned by the lack of Latinos in campaign leadership positions.
“The candidates really need to understand how the Latino vote is going to be critical not just for the primary season but the general election,” Gold said. “When you have a race that may be as close as 2020 is going to be, you can’t leave any vote on the table. You want to not just reach but really engage Latinos, so they care passionately about getting to the polls.”
The concerns were amplified by the recent departure from the race of former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, who had been the sole Latino candidate and a strong voice for immigration reform. Castro has been a persistent critic of Iowa’s influence over the nominating process, arguing that the first state to vote should not be one so lacking in diversity.
He recently endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. While national polls suggest she is less popular with Latinos than Sanders or Biden, Warren has been making inroads.
Her Latinx coordinator in Iowa, Stephanie Medina, is a child of Mexican immigrants. Medina is crisscrossing the state with a white board on which potential voters — and also ineligible non-citizen migrants who could influence their citizen friends and relatives to show up on caucus day — are invited to scribble down the issues they care most about.
“We are trying to build relationships with people,” Medina said. “We never stop contacting them.”
Sanders, flush with campaign contributions and endorsed by popular Latina congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, may have the most robust operation targeting Latinos in Iowa, and other states. The senator’s national strategy hinges on luring new voters into the process, and even in the whitest states, Latino communities offer potential.
The Sanders effort appears to be paying off. Sanders, a 78-year old Jewish native of Brooklyn who represents one of the whitest states in the country, Vermont, has popped up as the top choice among Latino Democrats in many polls nationally and in some key states.
His campaign learned in 2016 not to take any voters for granted — especially in Iowa. At that time it lacked the resources here to mount a Latino-targeting operation — there was no Unidos con Bernie, no Latino political celebrity on the scale of Ocasio-Cortez. Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders by a razor-thin margin.
“We didn’t have any of this in Iowa then,” said Tulchin. “We are picking up where we left off.”