March 14, 2016
Downtown Miami is no stranger to celebrity sightings, and based on the commotion, you’d think there was a bona fide A-lister on his way. After all, a busy intersection with fangirl T-shirts and signs inviting drivers to honk for a certain man who could become president actually works at eliciting horn blasts in the traffic-lit night. On this particular night, the man in question is not even scheduled to arrive for another week, but dozens of Latino supporters are already shouting his name — “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” — in Florida’s second-biggest city.
Many political pundits expected the Bernie Sanders campaign bus to be parked next to Vermont’s crickets by now. But the senator from the Green Mountain State has done well enough in recent primaries, including a stunning upset in Michigan, to turn heads — and to keep car horns blaring. Still, Sanders faces severe challenges wooing certain voters and establishment Democrats if he’s to beat Hillary Clinton. His latest strategy: putting the full-court press on Latino voters just ahead of the Florida primary on Tuesday, with its possibly game-changing delegates still up for grabs in spite of an opponent who’s leading in the polls.
This particular pro-Sanders rally is but one example of the surprising affection the Brooklyn-accented septuagenarian has engendered among young Latino voters in different pockets of the country. The Democratic Socialist won Hispanic voters by eight percentage points over Clinton in Nevada’s exit polls, and he carried 10 of the top 15 Latino counties in his Colorado romp. Some of the issues that matter most to Latinos in Florida include low wages, high college debt, immigration concerns and an Affordable Care Act that for many here, has proven unaffordable. “Latinos are a huge influence in South Florida,” says Miami-based entrepreneur Indiana Sanchez, a former Miss Nicaragua who is leading a nonpartisan effort to register disillusioned voters, many of whom are Hispanic. And their importance hasn’t been lost on either Democratic presidential nominee, who most recently tussled over immigration during Wednesday’s debate.
When Hillary Clinton was counting on Latinos to be her firewall, Bernie was counting on them by … talking about the issues that mattered to these communities.
Lucy Flores, a former Nevada congresswoman
Today, Sanders is looking down south after having previously written off Florida as a lost cause. Tuesday was his first event here in his 10-month presidential run, though since then, emboldened by his 1.5-point win in Michigan and the possibility that he could win Florida too, the Vermont senator has been adding events to his schedule. In some ways, the states are virtual carbon copies, demographically speaking. Whites make up roughly 80 percent of the population in both, and African-Americans about 15 percent. But almost a quarter of Floridians also identify as Hispanic or Latino (in Michigan, only about 5 percent do), which can only help Sanders. He needs to keep white supporters and hope that Florida’s African-Americans vote more along the lines of Northern Black voters from Michigan and less like Southern Black voters from South Carolina. If all of that happens, the Sanders campaign — including Latino Outreach Director Arturo Carmona — hopes the Hispanic vote could tip the scales in the senator’s favor.
Team Sanders has been pushing hard in recent days, from airing a national Spanish-language ad on Univision to organizing a last-minute press call to tackle “Latino issues and immigration,” in which Hispanic staffers and surrogates dogpiled on Clinton while arguing that Sanders had shown his support more consistently. “When Hillary Clinton was counting on Latinos to be her firewall, Bernie was counting on them by … talking about the issues that mattered to these communities,” said Lucy Flores, a former Nevada congresswoman and Sanders supporter. Those Hispanic voters who do feel the Bern say his promises of universal Medicare, a $15 minimum wage and free college tuition motivate them: “I want a better future for my son,” says 29-year-old Amy Polanco, mother to an 11-year-old and who plans to support Sanders on Tuesday. “That’s what drives me to vote.”
But while college kids across the nation are swooning for Sanders, “in terms of the larger community, some people still don’t know who Bernie is,” says Victor Nieto, organizer of Cuban-Americans for Bernie. “It worries me.” As it should. Sanders will need Hispanic supporters to show up in droves if he wants a shot to win Florida — a recent Mason-Dixon poll showed that Clinton has more than a 50-point lead with the Hispanic voters in this state. Clinton also still has huge leads with Black voters, who made up 19 percent of the total in that election, the last without a Democratic incumbent. She also has loyalty from Florida’s Jewish voters (despite Sanders being Jewish). Then there are her attacks on his vote against a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007.
For Sanders’ part, he and his staffers argue that his opposition to that bill was joined by a number of prominent Hispanic organizations and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Yet here in Miami, not everyone is a fan of Sanders’ ideology — particularly some Cubans. That’s unlikely to hurt him as much in Tuesday’s primary, but come a general election, it could spell trouble. “My parents fled from Cuba,” says 17-year-old Alner Cabrera, who said he — and 18 of his friends — are voting for Ted Cruz. “We don’t want a socialist in here.”
*Taylor Mayol contributed reporting.