2020 Election
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‘We Went All in.’ Inside Bernie Sanders’ Plan to Win by Reaching Latino Voters

7 minute read

Luis Gomez is in a back room hidden behind columns of tires at his family’s tire shop in Des Moines. He’s got his tablet open and he’s scrolling through his Facebook friends to see who he can call to ask about their caucus plans, but the timing is tricky. It’s 9:00 on a Tuesday morning and a lot of people are at work. He’s wearing a “Bernie Beats Trump” button, a permanent fixture on his coat.

Gomez, a 31-year-old Mexican immigrant, is in the country as a legal resident, so he can’t participate in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. But he’s hoping that his citizenship paperwork is finished in the coming months so he can vote in the general election and, ideally, cast a ballot for Bernie Sanders. In the meantime, he’s doing everything he can to ensure the Vermont Senator is the nominee. He’s organized a soccer tournament that included a Spanish-language caucus training program and regularly makes calls at night after he tucks his kids into bed.

“He’s the first person that I’ve ever encountered that has given me hope for democracy,” says Gomez. “His ideals are what democracy should look like.”

Sanders’ pathway to victory in Iowa depends on getting new voters out to support him, especially voters that are often left out of the political process. And one group they’re taking special care to reach is the Latino community. In Iowa, this strategy has meant a blizzard of bilingual mailers, a variety of Spanish-language ad buys, and integrating Latino organizers into the staff’s DNA. Chuck Rocha, a top adviser on the campaign, estimates that by caucus day, the campaign will have spent $1.5 million in bilingual outreach in Iowa alone.

The Sanders game plan is to “go in and do something that’s never been done,” Rocha says, “which is talk to a big group of Latinos in a state like Iowa that a lot of people think don’t have enough numbers to make a difference.”

The campaign has reached out to the Latino community early and often. By July of last year it was sending out Spanish-language literature to Latino voters throughout the state. In the months since, those voters have been contacted multiple times, with issue-specific mailers, and targeted via social media, television and radio. Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), says Sanders has the strongest Latino outreach of any campaign.

The Latino population in Iowa makes up approximately 6% of the state, but it’s growing rapidly—a trend I can personally attest to. When I immigrated to Iowa as a kindergartner, I was many of my teachers’ first Mexican student. By the time I moved away from Iowa in my early 20s, my small hometown of Webster City had a Mexican grocery store on its main street.

Nevertheless, Latinos make up a relatively small voting bloc. LULAC estimates that the total Latino population in Iowa is 194,432 and that there will be 52,311 total registered Latino voters in the state in 2020; of those, the number of registered Democrats is just over 23,000. (The Sanders campaign estimates the population at 195,614 and registered Latino voters number at 64,281, it says.)

Rocha argues small numbers can make a big difference at a caucus. But the campaign’s push to turn out Latino voters is part of a national strategy, not a local one. If the campaign‘s efforts to turn out Latinos in Iowa are successful, it may be a sign of what’s to come in states like Nevada—which also votes in February — and California, where Latinos represent a much larger share of the population.

To reach Latino voters ahead of the caucuses, the campaign has gotten Spanish-speaking supporters in places like Miami to make calls to Latino voters in Iowa. The goal is not only to motivate Iowa Latinos; it’s to ensure that volunteers outside of early states feel involved early while making the most of their resources.

“They are consistent. They know where to go and how to work it,” says Mitch Henry, the co-founder of the Iowa Asian & Latino Coalition. (The Coalition originally endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris; Henry went on to endorse Sanders individually after she dropped out of the race.) “That’s the big thing to me: they’re organizers. The other people may be campaign workers, but with the Sanders campaign, they’re organizers, they know how to work outside of the box.”

Making Latino inclusion and outreach a central part of the campaign has been done with Sanders’ blessing, with Rocha at the helm. “I’ve been very intentional about this work to make sure that we learned from the last campaign,” he says, alluding to Sanders’ slow start at building a diverse coalition in 2016.

Sanders himself has made a point of personally stopping by local events that matter to this community. Sanders was the only top-tier presidential candidate to appear at a LULAC presidential town hall in October. The previous month, he stopped by a lotería in Iowa City to call out the numbers.

“We don’t have to chase him down and try to get him to sign up. If we have a fiesta going on, lotería or some type of forum, he shows up,” Nick Salazar, the LULAC Iowa state director, told TIME. In November, Salazar became a Sanders 2020 Iowa campaign co-chair. He says his endorsement came in large part because of the Senator’s Latino outreach.

It helps that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Sanders. As the highest-profile elected Latina in the country, her imprimatur packs a powerful punch. She has since served as one of Sanders’ most prominent surrogates, a role which has included hosting Spanish-language town hall on his behalf in Nevada, and appearing in campaign literature and ads.

“Even if you cannot caucus in 10 days, you still have something to give,” Ocasio-Cortez told an audience at a recent Iowa City rally. “Maybe you can babysit for your neighbor while they go off after a long day of work in order to caucus. Maybe you can have a conversation with people and change somebody’s mind before you go in there. But we all have something to give, and all of us have power in this moment.”

Gomez said he’s been inspired by listening to Ocasio-Cortez speak this way. When he calls his friends and colleagues to ask about their caucus-night plans, he zeros in on logistics: Do you know when you’re having dinner? Do you have a ride? Do you know who’s watching the kids?

“Even though I can’t vote, there are people around me who can,” he says. This is a central idea in Sanders’ campaign: Vote because you’re fighting for someone else.

In the days ahead of the Iowa caucus, Rocha said 44,000 Latino households in Iowa were mailed a final, personal letter from Sanders and a bumper sticker that says “Nuestro futuro. Nuestra lucha.” Our future. Our fight. It was the 15th mail piece they had received, and Rocha hopes it’s enough to drive them to the polls.

Record caucus turnout in Iowa was roughly 240,000 in 2008, but the Iowa Democratic Party expects to exceed that next week. “What matters is voter turnout,” Sanders said at a town hall in Storm Lake on Sunday. The math is simple, he explained. “If there’s a high voter turnout, we win.”

It could well be the Latino community that ultimately tips the scales.

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Write to Lissandra Villa/Des Moines at lissandra.villa@time.com