DES MOINES, Iowa ― A few minutes before Google engineer Michael Sayman stepped up to the lectern at El Malecon Event Center on Thursday night, the roughly 100 people who had arrived for the “Unidos con Bernie” event aimed at the city’s burgeoning Latino population had been dancing boisterously to the folk rock tunes of the East Los Angeles band Las Cafeteras.
But when Sayman, the Miami-born son of South American immigrants, shared the story of childhood hardship that had inspired him to traverse Iowa on behalf of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the crowd grew quiet.
Alternating between Spanish and English, Sayman tearfully recounted the pressure he felt as a gifted teenager to develop digital apps fast enough to help his parents keep their home during the Great Recession. They lost their house to foreclosure despite his best efforts.
“I’m here today because no kid should have to go through this,” he declared, drawing cheers from the crowd.
A well-documented component of Sanders’ strong position in the early-voting states of Nevada and California this election cycle is his popularity among Latino voters, whom his campaign has cultivated extensively.
The Sanders campaign has been quietly testing the strategy in Iowa’s smaller but growing Latino community, which at over 6% of the population is the largest minority group in the state. The Vermont senator’s campaign hopes its efforts to turn out the historically disengaged community will give it an edge in the Iowa caucuses on Monday.
“They have been there a long time. They have not been afraid of the smaller populations. … And they’ve been organizing.”
- Matt Barreto, Latino Decisions
Sayman’s speech embodies a key element of Sanders’ pitch to Iowa’s Latino voters ― and his appeal, according to supporters: that Sanders treats them, at least in part, like all American workers struggling to provide for their families in an increasingly unequal economy.
“We’re mostly working-class folks. We’re always at work,” said Nick Salazar, a co-chair of Sanders’ Iowa campaign and state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. “We have the same issues as the rest of the country even though it may impact us more.”
That message would be worth little though if the campaign, under the leadership of senior campaign adviser Chuck Rocha, had not gotten started early on the work of creating a bilingual network across the state to disseminate the narrative, hiring a diverse staff with what Rocha calls “cultural competency,” and recruiting influential Spanish-speaking surrogates like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Although rival campaigns have also innovated Latino outreach programs in Iowa, Sanders’ team sets the standard among those still in the race, according to Matt Barreto, a UCLA political scientist and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions.
“They have been there a long time. They have not been afraid of the smaller populations. … And they’ve been organizing,” said Barreto, who is not supporting any candidate in the primary. “That’s refreshing to see in a presidential campaign this early.”
The Architect Draws Up A Blueprint
Speaking in an East Texas twang honed in his working-class childhood, Chuck Rocha describes the path to Sanders’ side as if it were a spiritual journey. The son of a white mother and Mexican-American father, Rocha recalled never feeling quite “white enough” for his white neighbors or “brown enough” for his Latino ones. Throw in the experience of seeing his father and cousins laid off from a unionized Goodyear tire plant when the company offshored jobs to China, and you can start to see what Rocha saw in a populist like Sanders.
“There’s lots of people out there looking for somebody who’s going to speak truth to power, and you are accepted into their family ― and that was Bernie for me,” he recalled over tea in downtown Des Moines.
As a veteran of the 2016 campaign and close friend to Sanders consigliere Jeff Weaver, Rocha saw in the 2020 race an opportunity to make the Sanders campaign a model for how other candidates conduct Latino outreach. Even in the world of Democratic politics and organized labor, Rocha had long chafed at what he saw as the treatment of Latino outreach as a niche, last-minute box to check with the help of “Google Translate.” (Incidentally, the campaign of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg drew unwanted attention this week when BuzzFeed News reported that almost all of the Spanish-language version of its campaign website is still in English.)
So rather than silo the Latino outreach program into its own specialized branch of the campaign, Rocha set out to make the Latino “lens,” as he puts it, an integral part of every aspect of the campaign’s messaging. To that end, he has hired enough Latino staff ― 150 in total, including more than a dozen Dreamers ― to populate every department from the policy team in Washington to field organizers and political staff on the ground in Iowa. For example, the campaign’s Iowa political director Oliver Hidalgo-Wohlleben is the son of a Chilean refugee.
‘Nuestro Futuro, Nuestra Lucha’
Having the “cultural competency” ― and fluency in Spanish, which Rocha himself lacks ― has made Latino outreach a natural extension of everything the campaign does.
That integration is reflected in the formation of Sanders’ immigration policy platform, according to Rocha. The campaign enlisted staff members who are Dreamers ― undocumented immigrants who arrived as children ― to assemble a first draft of the campaign’s immigration platform.
The final plan would end up being more radical than that of any candidate still in the race. It calls for a moratorium on deportations, the dismantling of immigration enforcement agencies in their current form, and the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in Sanders’ plans to enact “Medicare for All” and make public college tuition-free.
It’s also apparent in the language that the Sanders campaign employs. Official campaign materials refer to “Latinos,” rather than the gender-neutral term “Latinx” favored by young progressives, because “Latino” is used more broadly, according to Rocha.
Likewise, the campaign employs some poetic license when translating its English slogan “Not me. Us.” into Spanish. The Spanish-language slogan ― emblazoned on everything from Spanish newspaper ads to Rocha’s hoodie ― is ever-so-slightly different than its English counterpart. The slogan, “Nuestro Futuro, Nuestra Lucha,” means “Our Future, Our Fight.”
A Spanish-language campaign pamphlet, which features a photo of Sanders with Salazar and Salazar’s wife, Rosa, lays out in English and Spanish key Sanders campaign planks, including Medicare for All or “Medicare para todos.” Only the back of the pamphlet references immigration in the context of reminding voters of Sanders’ own journey “as the proud son of an immigrant,” who arrived in the U.S. “without a nickel in his pocket and didn’t speak English.”
“When people say, ‘What is Bernie Sanders’ strategy to win the Latino vote?’ I say, ‘It’s pretty simple: We plan on going to the Latino vote and asking them to vote for Bernie,’” Rocha said.
‘No Greener Pastures’
Finding the right avenues to convey Sanders’ message to Latino Iowans, however ― and then repeat it over and over again ― is especially important when courting a disproportionately young, working-class population with infrequent voting habits.
The numbers vary, but by Rocha’s count, there are about 68,000 Latino Iowans eligible to vote. Of that group, some 32,000 have a regular voting history.
But participation in the Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, which require voters to arrive at a set time and sometimes spend hours corralling into different corners, is by its nature low throughout the population.
Latino participation follows that trend. An estimated 4,000 Latinos have caucused in either party’s caucuses, and about half of those have done so on behalf of a Democrat, according to Rocha.
Rocha sees the daunting figures as an opportunity rather than a challenge. “Bernie Sanders’ philosophy ― and this campaign’s philosophy ― is to bring new people out to vote,” he said. “And there was no greener pastures, starting with the very first state, than the Latino vote.”
The Texas native knew that establishing a relationship with local Latinos would take time though, so he began filling the mailboxes of Latino residents with literature and the airwaves of Spanish-language radio stations with ads, and buying real estate in Spanish-language weeklies like “La Prensa Iowa” as far back as April. Sometimes the campaign’s advertising relationship yielded useful earned media opportunities, such as when Sanders, while in Des Moines for a New Year’s Eve rally, sat for an interview on the radio show “La Q Buena.” (The show provided real-time translation of the interview into Spanish for its listenership.)
Notwithstanding the relatively cheap advertising rates in Iowa’s Spanish-language media, the campaign spent $1 million on Latino outreach efforts alone through November 2019, Rocha estimated.
The campaign’s most potent Latino outreach tool is New York’s Ocasio-Cortez, whom the campaign has featured in Spanish-language digital ads. The political rock star, who has toured the state twice for Sanders since endorsing him in October, is predictably an especially big hit with Latino audiences. Last weekend, while touring the state for Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez met privately with Latino community members in Marshalltown, where many agricultural and industrial jobs are performed by Latino immigrants and their descendants. During a previous visit, she recorded a Spanish-language video appeal for would-be caucusgoers on behalf of El Trueque Iowa, a Des Moines-based online news outlet that is unabashedly in Sanders’ corner.
Latino families see in her a success story to which they aspire for their children and grandchildren, according to José Zacarias, a former city councilman and school board member in West Liberty, the state’s first majority-Latino town.
“She is a miracle,” said Zacarias, who is supporting Sanders a second time this cycle.
Is It Working?
It’s not clear how much of Sanders’ slight lead in an average of the pre-caucus polls is due to the support he enjoys in Iowa’s Latino community. The population is small enough that caucus polls do not separately measure its opinions.
Attendance at public campaign events is an incomplete indicator of support. But at the Des Moines rally on Thursday and a smaller “Unidos con Bernie” event in West Liberty on Wednesday, English speakers heavily outnumbered Latinos.
As with much of Sanders’ performance, his success among Latinos hinges on his ability to convince infrequent voters to participate in the notoriously demanding caucuses.
Newly adopted reforms to the caucus process that allow for “satellite caucuses” in more convenient locations and at varied times may improve his chances. LULAC alone is administering five satellite caucus sites in Des Moines, Iowa City, Fort Madison and Muscatine, where Salazar is helping run the caucus. Other satellite caucuses, such as those hosted by labor unions representing poultry and meatpacking plant workers in Ottumwa, are likely to feature a sizable number of Latino caucusgoers. The Sanders campaign has tried to make sure that locations with a large Spanish-language population have bilingual “precinct captains,” as campaign-affiliated volunteers at caucus sites are known.
Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa Democratic campaign consultant who is unaligned in the presidential primary, is “pretty skeptical” that Sanders’ Latino get-out-the-caucus plan will succeed.
But, Link added, “They’ve done some amazing things organizationally in the past. If anyone can pull it off, it’s them.”