Nine years ago, frustrated with the lack of thoughtful coverage of Latino issues, I started a website to dig into the nuances of what I believe is the most important and misunderstood electorate of our time. I then watched as Bernie Sanders courted this vote through two presidential-election cycles—in particular, younger Latinos—tapping into a group that will likely change the face of the Democratic Party for years.
I’ve also followed Joe Biden. Although he generally enjoys Latino support—he receives, depending on the poll, 45 to 62 percent of their vote—he should boost those numbers. A survey released in August (before Kamala Harris joined the ticket) showed that only about 64 percent of young Latino voters would definitely vote in November. Biden will need these voters to show up at the polls on Election Day, especially in battleground states. He should take note of why and how his onetime opponent energized this group.
In the California primary, Sanders won Latino voters under age 29 by a margin of 71 percent to 5 percent for Biden; among young white voters, Sanders won 47 percent to Biden’s 5 percent. The pattern was similar in Texas, and even as the race wound down in March, Sanders won the Latino vote in both Illinois and Michigan.
On the surface, the fact that Sanders’s popularity among young people, which was widely documented, also included young Latinos was no surprise. His progressive stances on a number of issues, including workers’ rights, health care, student debt, and income inequality, drew in many voters under 35, no matter their demographic. However, Sanders’s appeal among young Latinos was also a result of his campaign’s specific outreach to the group. As Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, told my podcast, In the Thick, a few months ago, Sanders was courting a crop of new, young Latino voters who feel part of U.S. Latino and Latin American progressivism.
The Sanders campaign saw great success in coordinated efforts to mobilize and reach Latino voters. For instance, Sanders went into underserved Latino communities that rarely see politicians reach out to them. He also held Latino-specific events, such as soccer tournaments in Iowa’s immigrant communities and “tamales for Tío Bernie” events in Nevada and Texas. At first glance, activities like these might seem trivial and pandering, but they mattered to the community, especially in a state like Iowa, which has a small, but growing Latino community.
Sanders understood that Latino voters are not a monolith and that they care about more than the handful of issues that the American media have identified for them. During the primary, particularly the debates, the media and many of the other candidates seemed to view the Latino voter only through the prism of immigration or a few location-specific issues. For example, they seemed to regard the third-rail issue of Cuba in the context of the Cold War or Miami’s exile community. Cuban politics are a controversial subject, and Cuba is a complicated country. But Sanders’s primary opponents focused too much on his 35-year-old comments about Fidel Castro, in which Sanders pointed out the late leader’s positive attributes. They used the comments as a cudgel, thinking it would galvanize voters against him. That line of attack may have worked with older Cuban Americans. But a Florida International University poll showed a “stark, almost seismic division” in views among different generations of Cuban American voters, with younger people no longer taking a hard-line view of the Cuban government.
The American media’s focus on Cuba ignores a diverse group of Latino voters who have been shaped by their families’ experiences in other countries. Latin America and the Caribbean consist of more than 20 countries, and each one has its own history and unique challenges. Although that fact is obvious, I feel like a reminder is necessary. Sanders took a broader view of Latin America, and of Latin Americans.
Last year, before the pandemic began to dominate our news feeds, young Latinos were following with deep interest the historic political events happening in Latin America. How do I know that? Because, unlike many other outlets, I publish for a bicultural audience, and we covered daily developments in Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador, and other parts of the region. Our editors consistently heard from our readers that Sanders was the only candidate taking the time to publicly address events that mattered to them. “Bernie gave us the hope that for once we did not have to pick and choose between our love for either of the places that made us who we are,” Belén Sisa, the former national Latino press secretary for the 2020 Sanders campaign, told me during the primaries.
For example, while other Democratic candidates said little about last year’s events in Chile, Sanders joined young Latinos in solidarity against the repression of Chilean protesters. While other Democrats took a more moderate, neoliberal position on Venezuela, Sanders made a call not to invade the country. He also called the right-wing ouster of former Bolivian President Evo Morales a coup.
As one Latina community organizer in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Southwest Detroit told me about Sanders’s views on Latin American and U.S. Latino progressivism, “That’s where [his campaign] feels revolutionary. That’s where you see the images of Bernie fighting on the front lines, and that’s where we feel it.”
The Biden campaign has recently made several hires—including the polling company Latino Decisions—to help reach Latino voters. It is also targeting ads to specific regions and ethnicities, using narrators with appropriate accents, such as Mexican American in Arizona and Cuban American in Florida. Although Biden does not endorse universal health care or abolishing ICE, the new Biden operatives are trying to highlight where Biden and Sanders overlap. “Part of our work is spreading the message that Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden agree 75% to 80% of the time,” Chuck Rocha recently said in an article in The Guardian.
Mijente, one of the country’s top immigrant youth groups, which endorsed Sanders, has been working to push Biden “out of his comfort zone,” to some success, achieving a call for a 100-day moratorium on deportations and an end to private detentions, if he gets elected, for example.
The U.S. Latino electorate has 32 million eligible voters this cycle, including many who are voting for the first time. Sanders earned their vote; now it’s time for Biden to do the same.