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Sanders' Focus On Latino Voters In California Pays Off

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., signs autographs to Latino supporters at a campaign event at Valley High School in Santa Ana, Calif., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.
Damian Dovarganes / AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., signs autographs to Latino supporters at a campaign event at Valley High School in Santa Ana, Calif., Friday, Feb. 21, 2020.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has made a big effort to reach out to Latino voters in California and it may have paid off for him in a primary win.

In the run-up to Tuesday's California presidential primary, polls found Latino voters were particularly excited about voting for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic race. Sanders, in turn, focused a lot of attention on Latinos, who make up about one-third of the electorate in the state. And his strategy appears to have worked — with Sanders leading the primary with nearly 34% of the vote as of the latest count on March 4.

At a rally in San Jose the weekend before the primary, Sanders supporters got pumped up for Tuesday's election. Among them was Abby Gonzalez, who said she has been “feeling the Bern” since she was a college student during the 2016 election.

“I just feel like his policies and his energy [are] still relevant and much needed,” she said.

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That’s exactly the energy Sanders’ campaign is trying to generate — with voters in general and Latinos in particular — as he vies for the Democratic nomination. The campaign had an extensive ground game in California leading up to the primary and reached out to Latino voters all over the state.

"In a place like California, where there's so many mixed-status families, the way in which the Trump administration has tried to launch a kind of wave of deportations is affecting families, businesses and communities."

— USC sociology professor Manuel Pastor

Christian Arana is with the Latino Community Foundation. He said the Sanders campaign made a concerted effort to reach Latinos in their communities.

“He went to places like Fresno City College, Roosevelt High School in East L.A.,” Arana said.

The campaign also offered a broad message to Latino voters, which was crucial. On the eve of the primary, the Latino Community Foundation, Univision and Latino Decisions released a poll of Latino voters.

“We found that lowering the costs of health care was the top issue for Latinos in the state,” Arana said. “It wasn't immigration, although immigration is a very big issue for us.”

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The Latino population is vast and diverse, and there are differences in voting patterns, particularly when it comes to age and location. For instance, while the poll found nearly half of those aged 18 to 49 favored Sanders as the Democratic nominee, just 28% of voters 50 and older supported him.

USC Sociology Professor Manuel Pastor said the divides grow when you consider the Latino populations in other states — such as Texas, which former Vice President Joe Biden won.

“Texas is a more conservative Hispanic voting population, one that's a bit more traditional,” Pastor said. “On the other hand, California has a younger, more left-leaning Latino population.”

Sanders faces additional challenges. Biden has proven he can count on support from other large voting blocks, including African Americans. And Paul Mitchell, with the bipartisan voter data company Political Data, said it remains to be seen whether Sanders can draw enough new voters to the polls to remain competitive in upcoming primaries.

“One of his big selling points was that he was going to be getting people to turn out that hadn't turned out in a presidential primary in years,” Mitchell said. “I think it's still an open question as to whether or not his candidacy was effectively doing that in the primary.”

And while support for Sanders is high, Pastor suspects Latinos will still come out to vote in the November general election regardless of whether he's the nominee.

“In a place like California, where there's so many mixed-status families, the way in which the Trump administration has tried to launch a kind of wave of deportations is affecting families, businesses and communities,” Pastor said.

That, plus growing income inequality, leads Pastor to believe a lot of Latinos will likely be willing to vote for almost any candidate who goes up against President Trump.

The 2024 primary election is March 5. Find in-depth reporting on each race to help you understand what's on your ballot.