Latinos, Sanders's secret weapon in Nevada, could make him unstoppable on Super Tuesday

LAS VEGAS — Bernie Sanders’s Nevada caucus campaign ended with a convincing win Saturday afternoon, thanks in large measure to a 37-percentage-point victory among Latino caucus-goers. But the seeds of that victory were sown five years ago when a staffer on Sanders’s first presidential bid had trouble reading a Spanish website.  

It was Memorial Day weekend 2015, about a month after the Vermont senator launched his long-shot challenge to Hillary Clinton. Sanders was short on resources; his staff was a skeleton crew, with no one who could translate Spanish. So the campaign summoned Chuck Rocha, the founder and president of Solidarity Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in reaching Latinos and blacks that was launched by Rocha in 2010. He charged Sanders triple his usual rate to work on the holiday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, with his wife, Jane, raises his hand as he speaks during a campaign event in San Antonio on Saturday. (Eric Gay/AP)

“I remember sending him an invoice for $824, which was a big invoice for me,” Rocha told Yahoo News in an extensive interview five days before the Nevada caucus. “Little did I know that that $800 invoice would turn into millions and millions of dollars of work for Bernie Sanders.”

In the summer of 2015, Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted two Sanders events, claiming the candidate wasn’t paying enough attention to racial issues. Jeff Weaver, the 2016 campaign manager, hired Solidarity Strategies to ensure that the senator’s work was, as Rocha put it, “reflective of the larger diverse communities.” Soon Rocha was consulting on minority hiring, outreach and advertising for Sanders. By the end of the race he was in charge of all of the campaign’s print communications. 

Marissa Johnson, left, of Black Lives Matter, points and yells at Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally on Aug. 8, 2015, in downtown Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Now Rocha, a 51-year-old self-described “Mexican redneck” who campaigns wearing a cowboy hat and driving a rented pickup truck, has become a leader of Sanders’s 2020 operation. While he remains in charge of his firm, Rocha officially joined the campaign last year as a senior adviser with a broad purview that includes general strategy, hiring staff and overseeing print ads and merchandise. Rocha also crafts the campaign’s Spanish-language ads on television, radio and the internet. If anyone is responsible for the huge Latino outreach effort that has helped propel Sanders to the front of the Democratic pack, it’s Rocha. 

The innovative program is a dramatic contrast to 2016, when Clinton had highly specialized minority outreach operations and Sanders struggled to woo voters of color

“This time around the Sanders campaign really has invested, and you see them everywhere,” says an operative who worked on Latino outreach for the Clinton campaign in 2016 and then worked with a 2020 candidate who left the race. “They are the ones who have consistently shown up at community events, in radio ads and newspapers. It’s very different from what they did in 2016. You have to understand the community first and then build your program around it — and I think they've done that." 

That strategy could help make Sanders the nominee. The last time the senator competed in the Nevada caucuses, in 2016, he lost to Clinton by 8 percentage points. The defeat blunted Sanders’s momentum after his near-victory in Iowa and his New Hampshire landslide, and it put Clinton on a trajectory to win the nomination.

Yet there was an upside for Sanders that day: The Nevada entrance poll showed him beating the former secretary of state by 8 points among Latinos. The exact percentages were later disputed — the sample size was tiny, and precinct-level data suggested that Clinton did better than the poll indicated — but the larger implication was clear. In a race against America’s best-known Democrat, Sanders could hold his own in the Latino community.

The revelation took the senator’s own team by surprise. 

“We didn't learn ’til the campaign was almost over how popular we were with Latinos,” Rocha said. “We had an idea, you know; 19-to-22-year-old Latinos thought Bernie was cool in ’16. But we didn’t realize that we could win their votes the way that we did, and we didn’t have enough time to take advantage of actually building the infrastructure to capture those votes.”

Bernie Sanders gets a hug from a supporter at a Nevada caucus watch party in Henderson, Nev., on Saturday. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The lessons of 2016 gave Rocha an advantage heading into 2020 — and it was an edge that paid off Saturday, when entrance polls showed Sanders topping his nearest rival, Joe Biden, 53 percent to 16 percent among Nevada’s Latino caucus-goers. The same statistical caveats from 2016 still apply today. But this wasn’t an isolated incident. In Iowa, the entrance poll showed Sanders winning 43 percent of nonwhite voters; the next closest candidate was Pete Buttigieg with 15 percent. In New Hampshire, Sanders was nearly as dominant, winning nonwhite voters by 18 points and Latino voters by 22, according to the exit poll. Across the board, national surveys also show Sanders with anywhere from 30 percent to nearly 50 percent of the Latino vote.

To date, the Democratic Party has awarded only 2.5 percent of its 3,989 pledged delegates, so Sanders’s growing strength with Latinos hasn’t made much of a dent in the delegate math. But that’s about to change on Super Tuesday (March 3), when nearly 40 percent of the remaining pledged delegates will be doled out. 

The good news for Sanders is that Super Tuesday’s two biggest prizes are California (415 pledged delegates) and Texas (228 pledged delegates) — states that also boast the largest Latino primary electorates in America (31 percent and 32 percent, respectively).

The calendar, in other words, is about to heavily favor the candidate who’s leading among Latinos. Mathematically, it could even make that candidate unstoppable.  

The Sanders campaign has been preparing for this moment since last summer. On Saturday, the candidate skipped the usual in-state victory party in Nevada and traveled instead to Texas for a series of rallies. Two polls released this month show the senator leading in the Lone Star State for the first time. The day before the caucus, Sanders opted to leave Nevada to campaign in California, where the latest surveys show him ahead of the competition by more than 10 points overall and by more than 20 points among Latinos. Along with Texas and California, Rocha noted that Florida and Arizona primaries are both coming up, are heavily Latino, and are “loaded with delegates.” 

“The math is right,” he said. 

If Sanders wins both California and Texas, he will likely amass an insurmountable lead in the delegate count — and Rocha’s innovative Latino outreach effort will be a big reason why. Rocha believes campaigns have long botched their Latino outreach efforts by relying on largely white teams, insufficient investment and messages that aren’t “culturally competent.” He has sought to mount a push for Sanders that is historically diverse, large and involves a tailored advertising blitz. 

“People say Latinos don’t vote. It’s because motherf***ers don’t ask them to vote,” said Rocha.

 

Supporters of Sanders cheer outside his campaign rally in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

With his East Texas drawl and colorful sayings, Rocha is a natural raconteur who veers between swagger and self-deprecation. He’s clearly fond of telling his personal story. It begins in the town of Tyler, where he was born to two teenagers: a Mexican immigrant father and a white mother. After Rocha’s dad left five years later, he grew up eating “government cheese” in a mobile home on the grounds of his mother’s parents’ farm.

When Rocha was 18 years old, he had a child of his own. The experience led him to reconnect with his own father, who got him a job at the local tire factory. The gig ended up being Rocha’s entrée into union organizing — and ultimately, politics. 

“Nobody in my family was involved in politics at any level,” Rocha said. “Nobody in my family had ever really graduated from high school, much less college. I was not a rabid activist in any way. I just wanted to get off my regular job to do union work, if I could, so I could drink more beer.”

Rocha became an officer with the local chapter of the rubber workers union, which merged with the United Steelworkers of America in 1995. Through the union hall, Rocha also began working on Democratic campaigns. In 1998 the national union summoned Rocha to Pittsburgh to serve as political director at the age of 30. 

A decade later, Rocha left the union to start his firm. His career survived a potentially fatal setback in 2013 when he pleaded guilty to one felony count of embezzling from the union during his tenure as political director. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and fined $2,000 after paying about $12,000 in restitution. Rocha describes the case as a partisan prosecution but also admits he “totally messed up” his expense reports, and he’s well aware the issue could have made him a liability for a presidential candidate. 

“I am a convicted felon,” Rocha said. “And when you work in politics, that's not cool.”

Rocha claimed he tried to work for Clinton’s 2016 campaign before Sanders entered the field but wasn’t hired because his conviction came up during vetting. He nearly choked up while recounting the early meeting where he told Sanders and Weaver about his background. According to Rocha, they were both adamant that he shouldn’t spend his life paying for a past mistake.

 

Chuck Rocha. (via Twitter)

“I’m not politically afraid of this story at all,” Weaver said in 2016 after Politico highlighted Rocha’s conviction, adding that he wanted the world to see that Sanders believed in giving a former felon a chance. “Please, I’m asking you to print.”

Staff diversity has, in turn, become the cornerstone of Rocha’s Latino outreach efforts for Sanders. He said the campaign has “Latinos in senior management in every department of the headquarters and in every state” — including 76 Latino staffers in Nevada alone, where Sanders also opened 11 offices and spent more than $3 million on Spanish-language advertising. Despite the encouraging signs from 2016, not everyone on Sanders’s campaign thought that a substantial investment in the Latino electorate — which typically turns out at a rate of less than 50 percent — would pay off. But Sanders himself was a believer, according to Rocha.

“It's something he talks to me about every time he sees me,” Rocha said of Sanders. “‘How is it going? What are we doing?’ He wants to know because he’s such an organizer. … He wants new people to vote, and he knows that there’s a treasure trove in the Latino community.”

Rocha’s ads for Sanders aren’t straightforward translations of his English messages; they are written specifically for Latinos and focus on the aspects of Sanders’s platform that most resonate with that audience, including raising the minimum wage, eliminating student debt, reinstating the DACA program, breaking up ICE and the Border Patrol and placing a moratorium on deportations to allow for an audit of past immigration policies.

The pitch is also heavy on Sanders’s own immigration story, which has been much more central to his 2020 campaign than it was in 2016; in fact, the first Spanish-language ad that Rocha ran in each medium focused on Sanders’s father coming to the United States from Europe “broke” and unable to speak English.

“Guess what? That's my grandfather’s story,” Rocha said. “That’s Latinos … somebody in our family. It’s their story.”

But while the overarching messages may be similar, the Sanders camp also adjusts its ads for different audiences within the Latino community. Ads targeted at Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans have slightly different scripts; print and radio ads designed to reach older Latinos have a different emphasis than digital commercials. And some ads aimed at Latinos aren’t in Spanish at all. In Iowa, where the population skews toward more recent immigrants, the campaign largely spoke Spanish; on Spotify, where they’re aiming for young Latinos, many ads are entirely in English. 

Because Rocha’s own Spanish is “horrible,” he mainly relies on a 30-year-old undocumented immigrant named Luis Alcauter to design and write them. (Sanders speaks the language haltingly; Rocha told The Hill that he discourages his Anglo clients from using Spanish on the trail “because it normally does not go well.”) Rocha describes Alcauter as his “right-hand man.” He may also be the brash Rocha’s polar opposite: a soft-spoken Mormon who came to California’s Central Valley from Mexico as a teenager.

“It’s an incredible opportunity and a lot of responsibility to make sure that I represent my community and I talk to them and they’re able to understand,” Alcauter told Yahoo News.

Alcauter and the other Latinos on Sanders’s team aren’t just helping with campaigning. They’ve also influenced policy and helped craft Sanders’s immigration platform.

“We care about the issue, and it affects our lives,” said Alcauter. “So we wanted to make sure that we gather together, we put our minds together and we work on something that we're going to be proud of.”

It’s a clear example of one of Rocha’s core beliefs — that minority outreach work should be fully integrated into larger operations.

“We do all of this without a Latino department,” Rocha explained. “I was sick and tired of Latinos being window dressings for campaigns ... of seeing Latino outreach programs that were siloed off, underfunded, understaffed and never listened to.” 

According to Belén Sisa, another undocumented staffer, this integration is emblematic of Sanders’s approach to politics.

“It shows what a Bernie Sanders presidency will be,” Sisa told Yahoo News. “It will be the people who were in the frontlines fighting for these things for years who are going to be putting together the solutions.”

Besides advertising, the Sanders campaign is reaching out to Latino voters personally. Bilingual staffers and volunteers are deployed to voters’ homes and have mailed out handwritten notes. Rocha has used databases to identify phone numbers that likely belong to Latinos to receive bilingual texts. 

Sanders signs autographs for Latino supporters at a campaign event at Valley High School in Santa Ana, Calif., on Friday. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Over the past eight months, Sanders’s Nevada campaign hosted a slew of community events while also dispatching its massive volunteer army to knock on doors around the state. The day before the caucuses, the Sanders campaign announced that it had visited 500,000 homes in the state.

Jose Mariscal-Cruz, a 23-year-old Mexican-American from Reno, told Yahoo News that he made at least 2,000 of those visits. He took a year off from college to work as a field organizer for the Sanders campaign in Las Vegas. On Monday, Yahoo News followed Mariscal-Cruz as he campaigned among the colorfully painted bungalows in the heavily Latino neighborhood of East Las Vegas. He was accompanied by José La Luz, a prominent Puerto Rican labor activist from New York who served as a surrogate for Sanders in Nevada ahead of the caucus. The pair visited about 40 homes to deliver  their fluent, finely tuned message to potential voters. 

At two of the homes, Spanish-speaking elderly residents indicated that they were from Guanajuato in Mexico. Mariscal-Cruz rattled off his own family ties to the  region, and La Luz piped in with a few lines from a ballad about the area by the famed Mexican singer Pedro Infante. The song brought a smile from a woman named Maria who said she and her husband had already voted for Sanders. 

“We have a lot of faith,” Maria said. 

“With faith, we can move mountains, God willing,” La Luz replied. “We know that the vote of our people is the vote that will be the difference.”

The Sanders campaign has already set up similar ground operations in California and beyond. During a debate watch party Wednesday at Sanders’s East Los Angeles field office, L.A. County Area Director Daniel Andalon and L.A. County Area Field Director Lewis Myers stepped outside to discuss how the operation in America’s most Latino metropolis has expanded over the last eight months.

“I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” said Andalon, a longtime operative who managed Hilda Solis’s winning 2014 campaign for county supervisor. “In the summer it was just us. We were meeting at McDonald’s and Denny’s and working out of our homes, much to our wives’ chagrin.”

Sanders at the UnidosUS "Vision 2020: A Conversation With the Candidates'' on Aug. 5, 2019, at the San Diego Convention Center. (TNS via ZUMA Wire)

According to Andalon, “Sanders has not spared any expense here.” That means opening four offices in L.A. County alone — including East Los Angeles, where the population is more than 96 percent Latino. 

“We’ve knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors and made millions of phone calls out of this office,” Myers explained. “Last weekend we knocked on 62,000 doors. The weekend before that was 58,000 doors.”

As a result, Andalon said, “we’ve been able to broaden Bernie’s base to include “a lot more brown faces.”

Both Andalon and Myers said they haven’t seen their rivals competing for Latino votes in the area, with less than two weeks until the vote. 

“There is no one who is running a program this robust,” Andalon said. 

For Sanders, the hope is that California as a whole is a similar story to Nevada. The campaign is the largest in the field, with 105 staffers and 22 offices statewide — “most of them,” according to California State Director Rafael Návar, “in heavily Latino communities,” with “more in the [blue-collar] Central Valley than any other region.” Sanders’s own travel to the state has followed a similar pattern. According to a tally compiled by the Sacramento Bee, Sanders has held far more public events (37) in the state than any other candidate. 

“Bernie came to Coachella for an office opening — a place no presidential candidate has come to since JFK,” Návar told Yahoo News. “That’s just not a place you have a presence usually. We’re in every congressional district and we’re playing for every delegate in the state. We’re not just focused on the urban hubs.”

In 2016, Sanders hoped to make a last stand against Clinton in California’s June primary, but he lost by more than a dozen points in part because she trounced him in the state’s top Latino areas. Sanders’s team also wasn’t sophisticated enough to focus its efforts on the less-populated, less-contested inland areas where they could claim a disproportionate number of delegates, some of which are awarded by congressional district. Ultimately, Sanders carried just eight of California’s 53 districts, allowing Clinton to widen her delegate lead and clinch the nomination. But Návar insisted that “having that experience means we have a lot stronger strategy than in the past. 

“In 2016, we weren’t here until a month before the election. This time we’ve been very strategic about where we’ve homed in and are building up our base,” he said. 

And Sanders’s campaign isn’t just courting Latinos in states like California and Nevada. Latinos make up just about 6 percent of the population in Iowa, which was the first state to vote in caucuses on Feb. 3. Still, Rocha mounted a Latino outreach effort there. According to a report from the UCLA Latino Politics and Policy Initiative, Sanders won a majority of the vote at Iowa’s high-density Latino caucus locations. That edge helped Sanders win more votes than anyone else in the crucial first state.

 

Rocha said the results in Iowa helped soothe skeptics of the campaign and gave him “some job security” by demonstrating that the campaign had not “spent all this money for nothing.” Rocha and his team plan to continue targeting smaller Latino populations in other key states, such as Wisconsin.

For Rocha and the other Latinos on his team — particularly the undocumented immigrants — the effort is deeply meaningful. Over lunch at a Mexican café in East Las Vegas, Sisa said the experience was beyond her “wildest dreams” — an opportunity to make the case that “immigrants deserve better, regardless of being documented or not.” 

“I think no one [else] has been bold enough to say, ‘You may be undocumented, but you deserve health care,’” Sisa said. “‘You may be undocumented, but you deserve tuition-free college’ — because we all deserve those things.”

With his decisions to limit legal migration, end the DACA program and separate undocumented immigrants from their children, President Trump loomed large over the conversation. 

So, it turns out, did his plane. In keeping with his strategy to shadow the Democratic primary by holding rallies in each early voting state, Trump visited Las Vegas during caucus week. As Alcauter left the café, he pointed to the sky. 

“Look,” he said. “It’s Air Force One.”

As an undocumented immigrant, Alcauter said he believes Trump “from day one has been fighting against me.” But if the campaign is successful, Alcauter could go from feeling targeted by the president to being on his staff and taking flight with Sanders on Air Force One. 

“I definitely dream about it,” Alcauter said. “That’s the reason we’re doing the work we’re doing.”

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