AUSTIN, Texas — As soon as California moved its primary to Super Tuesday, it was clear Latinos would be crucial in choosing the Democrats’ presidential nominee.
Bernie Sanders is heading into the 14-state primary contest on Tuesday having dominated the Latino vote in the first three states to vote, including Nevada, giving him the early lead in the delegate race.
Now there is potential for Latino voters in California and Texas, which rank first and second in the number of Latinos eligible to vote, to bolster and widen that lead.
“What we saw in Nevada, Bernie was the first candidate to be able to expand his coalition," said Oscar Ramirez, a Democratic strategist with Fulcrum Public Affairs. "He won the majority of Latino votes there. He was the first candidate to be able to grow beyond his base."
But Ramirez added that the Latino electorate varies by state, “and Nevada is very different from Texas.”
“California is more similar to Nevada,” Ramirez said. “He’s likely to have a lopsided win in California. In Texas, it’s more unclear about how much of a margin he has with the Latino vote.”
A total of 919 delegates are at stake in the Super Tuesday states with large Latino populations: California, Texas, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina.
The candidates were scrambling to hold rallies and events in several of those states, in some cases for the first time as they divided their time with South Carolina, which holds its primary on Saturday.
Analilia Mejia, national political director for Sanders, said Sanders’ campaign is doing well with Latinos because it has treated them as base voters.
“We haven’t treated them as an afterthought," she told NBC News. "It’s been at the core of our outreach.”
Mejía said the campaign has sought endorsements from organizations trusted in the community, such as the Texas Organizing Project, that have worked on issues of systemic racism, inequality, mass incarceration and other issues.
“What we’ve been seeing, in 2018 and 2020, is Latinos will vote when they hear a message that resonates with them and when they are reached out to and talked to,” said Crystal Zermeño, director of electoral strategy for the project, with endorsed Sanders.
But recent visits may come too late for some candidates. Early voting has already been taking place in California, Texas and North Carolina, which means many Latino voters already made their choices.
Voting for Sanders 'adds up'
Steven Espinosa, 37, of Bakersfield, California, said he mailed his ballot in recently and he posted a video about it on Twitter.
“We voted for Bernie Sanders. Why?” he says in the video with his daughter. “Well, we’re Latino. We are working class. … I’m a veteran of two wars, and if you do a math equation that’s just the way it adds up.”
Espinosa, a construction worker, had voted for Sanders in 2016, and he was his top choice again, although he said he was a fan of Andrew Yang and excited to see a Latino, Julián Castro, in the race.
He said he believes other candidates are promising to make some changes, but it's Sanders who can make the wholesale change in the country that needs to happen.
“Everything is an ecosystem,” he said. “You can’t create change by changing one thing. Everything affects each other.”
A University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs poll released Thursday showed Joe Biden and Sanders tied in Texas. It also showed Sanders leading Latinos who were polled with 30.3 percent, followed by Biden at 18.9 percent and Elizabeth Warren at 16.8 percent.
Mike Bloomberg, who has been spending heavily in the state and targeting Latinos, was at 12.1 percent, below the 15 percent threshold to qualify for delegates.
Touting Biden's experience 'on Day One'
This month, Biden picked up the endorsement of Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, who represents a Houston district and was one of the managers in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. She is one of the first two Latinas from Texas to serve in Congress.
Lawrence Romo, who served in the Obama administration as head of the Selective Service System, the independent federal agency that oversees military draft registration, has been volunteering in Texas for Biden since he jumped in the race.
Romo, 63, of San Antonio, noted the tribulations Biden has faced — with the death of his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash, and the death of his son from cancer 43 years later — but said he's also backing him because of his 30 years of experience in the Senate and eight years as vice president.
“He knows how to do the Senate bipartisanship," Romo said. "He can bring experience to the presidency on Day One because on Day One he knows what needs to be done.”
He said Biden can win the Electoral College in November and help down-ballot candidates as well, something critics say Sanders won't do.
Backing the billionaire
Regina Estrada, 39, general manager of Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop, in Austin, Texas, cast her ballot early for Bloomberg, switching from her early favorite, Biden.
“What I need is someone who is going to reach out to those Trump supporters who are not agreeing with where he stands and bring them over," Estrada said. "I’m looking at the candidates that can best make that happen."
Estrada has been promoting voting among customers of her family’s business since 2010 when she started giving a free taco to patrons who came in with “I Voted” stickers. She expanded to using social media and networking with friends and then in 2016 created “Eat Tacos and Vote” T-shirts.
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She said she often hosts candidates at the restaurant and will sometimes wear their T-shirts. Bloomberg is the only candidate whose campaign approached her, and she allowed his campaign to park his bus at the restaurant, she said.
“A lot of people say Michael Bloomberg is buying his way in," Estrada said. "If I was a billionaire and I wanted to beat Trump and I had means and connections and leverage to do it, I’d do it."
Warren has been trying to raise her profile with Latinos. Her surrogates staged a tour to five Texas cities focused on Latinos and she started a Latinas en la Lucha camapign, showcasing endorsements from Latinas such as Arizona Mayor Regina Romero, the state's first Latina and first woman mayor.
Warren picked up an endorsement from Harris County Judge Lena Hidalgo, who beat the odds and naysayers to be the top administrator of the nation's third largest county. Warren also recently unveiled a border plan.
At the Nevada caucuses, Julián Castro told NBC News "the nomination is still completely up for grabs" and that Warren will compete for Latino voters.
One challenge in California is that many Latinos do not identify with a party when they register to vote.
But the Democratic Party requires cross-over voters to request a Democratic ballot to vote in its primary.
Aware that any extra step in the process can mean losing voters, the Sanders campaign “has been working months and months on communications, asking people who have no party preference to request a ballot,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to the campaign.
Christian Arana, policy director for Latino Community Foundation, said that in California, his group has been spending money to educate Latino voters on how the voting process works.
“I actually had to teach my mom how to vote by mail,” Arana said.
He said his group often starts with basics, explaining what the president does, like appointing Supreme Court justices and sending troops to war.
“Our mission is to unleash the power of Latinos, and here we are with this big civic moment. We are making key investments to make sure every single Latino registers to vote and understands the process,” Arana said.
The group is a nonprofit and does not endorse, but it is funding voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts at youth-focused Latino-led organizations. Sanders has found strong support among younger Latinos.
Overlooked no more?
Amanda Renteria, former national political director for Hillary Clinton, said the race for Latino votes has drawn the campaigns to the Central Valley of California, which often is overlooked.
She said she believes Sanders will win the state because he has the operational ground game there, coupled with momentum and energy.
Bloomberg has been cutting into Biden’s support among moderates, and while Warren has support from women’s groups, she has yet to visit the Central Valley as other candidates have, Renteria said.
Renteria said “the math is there” for Sanders to be the big winner on Super Tuesday.
“If he can get to the 15 percent you need in each state, that means he’s picking up votes in every single one of those Super Tuesday states,” she said.
Can Sanders take Texas?
“Tejanos are not like people from Nevada, not at all," said the Texas Democratic Party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa. "It’s a different type of Latino in a lot of different respects.”
He said what he’ll be watching for on Tuesday is whether Sanders suppresses the vote of more moderate Latinos, while attracting support from working-class Latinos.
“I know he has the ability to generate an enormous amount of interest among young Latinos, and I’ve talked to a lot of them, kids of mine for example,” he said. “I don’t know who they vote for, but they like him.”
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