Latinos boosted Sanders on Super Tuesday. A lesson for the Biden campaign?

Suzanne Gamboa

NBC News

Mar 4, 2020

"Bernie Sanders proved that if you invest in the Latino community, they will show up and vote for you in huge margins," says a senior Sanders campaign staffer.

People wait to vote in the presidential primary at Santa Monica Public Library in Calif., on March 3, 2020

AUSTIN, Texas — Latino voters boosted Sen. Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday, coming through for him after a big investment in the community by his presidential campaign.

Even though it was not enough to deliver Texas for him, Sanders won 41 percent of the Latino vote in the state, according to the NBC News exit poll. That’s a big jump from 2016, when he won 29 percent.

California’s primary remained too close to call on Wednesday morning, but NBC News exit polls showed him winning 49 percent of the Latino vote there.

Sanders entered Super Tuesday having scored heavy support from Latino voters in Iowa and Nevada and appearing to have energized Latino support in California and Texas.

The line is long at the University of Texas (@BeALonghorn) Perry Castañeda Library voting center where we found 2 government majors who were about to vote in their first presidential election. Some 800,000 Latinos turn 18 each year and about 95% are citizens eligible to vote. pic.twitter.com/oiCron4uK4

— NBC Latino (@NBCLatino) March 3, 2020

Texas is the home state of Chuck Rocha, a senior Sanders adviser, in a campaign that has raised more money than any other candidate from the Latino community. The campaign has put a lot of those resources back into turning out Latinos, "particularly younger voters.

In a tweet Wednesday morning, Rocha posted an image from The Washington Post with the racial breakdown of the Texas vote. It showed Sanders with a greater share of the Latino vote than former Vice President Joe Biden.

“Thank you for believing in me when I said we could get #Latinos to vote for @BernieSanders in a big way!” he said in the tweet.

Texas exit poll results. Thank you for believing in me when I said we could get #Latinos to vote for @BernieSanders in a big way! It almost single handily delivered the state. #txprimary #NotMeUs #UnidosConBernie pic.twitter.com/eHM4ZEVsDf

— Chuck Rocha (@ChuckRocha) March 4, 2020

"Last night Bernie Sanders proved that if you invest in the Latino community, they will show up and vote for you in huge margins," he told NBC News.

There was a question mark on how Sanders would do in Texas because of the more moderate or conservative views of some Texas Latinos.

In 15 Texas counties that are more than 70 percent Latino, Sanders won 30 percent of Latino votes, followed by Michael Bloomberg with 23.5 percent and Biden with 21 percent, according to an analysis by the University of California, Los Angeles Latino Politics and Policy Initiative.

The analysis did not include the state’s five biggest counties — where almost half (47 percent) of the state's Latinos live.

Kathie Rojas, 22, of Austin, said she had supported Sanders in the last election and hasn’t strayed from that support. She was in line at an east Austin library where voters were waiting about an hour or more Tuesday morning.

“He’s very genuine. He does care about people. He cares about the Earth. I think that’s a major thing. The fact that our current president doesn’t acknowledge that that is a huge issue is really concerning,” Rojas said.

She said she’s been impressed by Sanders’ political director Analilia Mejia and with the campaign’s wooing of Latino voters.

“You can tell people have really taken the time to learn this time around,” she said.

Although votes still were being counted, Sanders was expected to have done far better with Latinos in California, where the community leans more left.

Edgar Ortuño, 23, of Orange County, California, switched from no party preference to Democrat so he could vote for Sanders early. Because it is a party primary, Sanders' name only appeared on the Democratic Party ballot and was available only for party members.

“I really feel like Bernie is the Democratic candidate that should win,” Ortuño told NBC News. He said Sanders “cares about the future of, not only this country, but the Earth and the people that are living in it, whereas other candidates are just thinking about the now.”

Sanders' campaign targeted voters registered with no party preference because many Latinos choose that category.

Despite Sanders' performance with Latino voters in Texas, Biden won 58 percent of the African American vote, key to winning the state.

Juan Proaño, founder of Plus Three technology firm and a Democratic consultant, said that shows Sanders’ vulnerability.

“Biden won by appealing to African American voters and playing at the margins of the Latino vote,” Proaño said.

Janet Benavides Zarate, 41, who lives in the Austin bedroom community of Pflugerville, Texas, cast her ballot for Biden. She said she was torn between Biden and Sanders and decided between Monday and Super Tuesday to go with Biden.

She said part of her preference for Sanders was his outreach to her and other Latinos. "It was kind of between the two. They were neck-and-neck and both seemed they'd be someone strong," Benavides-Zarate said. A regular voter, she said she wanted to go with the candidate who would ultimately win.

Biden has to do a 'much, much better job' with Latinos

Historically, black voters have turned out to vote a higher rates than Latinos.

Albert Morales, political director for Latino Decisions, said the race will get more difficult for Sanders, particularly in Florida and in Puerto Rico.

Morales said they polled in Puerto Rico recently, "and it’s just not favorable territory for him."

Biden’s campaign money has increased after his South Carolina victory.

But Biden is going to have to do a “much, much better job” reaching out to Latinos should he be the nominee, Morales said.

Thirteen percent of Latino primary voters would not commit to supporting the Democratic nominee in November, the NBC News exit poll showed.

Young Latina loses congressional bid, but sees a win

In a Texas down-ballot race that had excited young Latinos, Jessica Cisneros, 26, who made national headlines by waging a strong campaign to unseat Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in South Texas, did not win.

Cuellar garnered 51.8 percent of the vote to Cisneros' 48.2 percent, with all voting locations reporting Wednesday morning. But she said to supporters that "the movement scared a machine."

Some see the increased turnout among Latinos as pivotal ahead of November's elections.

In the end, “the person who should be worried now is Trump because the Latino vote in Texas is now flippable,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, co-founder of Voto Latino, which has been working to turn out young Latino voters for two decades.

“The fact that it was a close contest between Biden and Bernie shows how far left Texas has come and how youthful it is,” she said. “When you open a space for Latino youth, they come out.”

NBC News reporter Nicole Acevedo contributed from New York.