Sanders strikes all the right notes to win over Latinos, but few of them are listening

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015, in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015, in North Las Vegas, Nevada.  (ap)

If a candidate holds a rally for Latinos and none of them show up, did it happen in the first place?

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, held a campaign rally in Las Vegas on Sunday night that was aimed at Latinos – a voting bloc that is increasingly crucial for winning the White House.

Held in a Hispanic neighborhood and featuring mariachis, slogans that said “Unidos con Bernie” (“We’re with Bernie”) and “Somos el 99%” (“We’re the 99 percent”), and with the candidate repeating his vow to extend immigration initiatives beyond what Pres. Barack Obama has pushed, and to get more legal protection for agricultural workers, the rally promised to win over a large number of Latinos.

The wrinkle: Nearly none of the audience was Hispanic.

“I do notice it’s very white,” one audience member, Nathan Rudig, told The Guardian. “He’s going to need the Latino and African-American vote.”

Political experts say there are several reasons Sanders is not faring better among Latinos. They include the fact that in Hispanic-heavy places like Nevada, he is starting his outreach much later than Hillary Clinton, who is the front-runner among likely Democratic voters.

An impreMedia/Latino Decisions poll showed that 41 percent of Latino registered voters in battleground states know little, if anything, about Sanders.

The Guardian noted that of 14 Latinos it randomly asked about Sanders at a strip mall in the city, 13 said they did not know who he was.

“That’s a big hurdle,” Sylvia Manzano, of Latino Decisions, told the newspaper. “He has a really tough task in terms of reaching voters.”

Another big challenge is that Clinton is very popular among Latinos, who gave her their support by a 2-to-1 margin, the last time she ran to be the party’s nominee in the 2008 presidential race.

“She has been consistent,” Manzano said of Clinton. “Her standing with this population remains really strong.”

In October, a Monmouth University poll found that Clinton enjoyed a favorability rating among Latinos of 71 percent, compared to Sanders’ 42. Clinton had even bigger support from African-Americans. Clinton was viewed favorably by 87 percent blacks, Sanders by 42.

“The overall Democratic primary electorate is composed of white liberals, union members, more moderate whites, African-Americans and Hispanics, with the size of each of those groups varying by state,” Bloomberg News quoted Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, as saying. “Bernie has the white liberals but has no place else to grow—especially as unions fall in line behind Hillary Clinton.”

Sanders recently named two high-profile immigrant activists, Cesar Vargas and Erika Andiola, to his campaign to work on Latino outreach.

Earlier this year, Clinton named a former so-called Dreamer – as undocumented immigrants brought as minors to the U.S. are known – to a top post on her campaign.

Both candidates have pledged to reform immigration if they win the White House, surpassing the reach of Obama's 2014 executive actions on immigration.

Sanders reiterated that promise at a forum in Nevada on Monday, also attended by Democratic candidate and former Maryland governor, Martin O’Malley.

“We cannot and we should not sweep up millions of men, women and children – many of whom have been in the United States for years – and throw them out of the country,” Sanders said at the forum.

He vowed to use his powers as president to give relief to certain undocumented immigrants.

“As president, passing a legislative solution to our broken immigration system will be a top priority,” Sanders said. “But, let me be clear: I will not wait around for Congress to act. Instead, beginning in the first 100 days of my administration, I will work to take extensive executive action to accomplish what Congress has failed to do and to build upon President Obama’s executive orders.”

It's a message that could win over a lot of Latino voters, if Sanders could only get them to hear it. 

One problem is that Clinton has promised many of the same things to Latino voters, and her campaign established a “ground” presence in Nevada in April, with about two dozen paid staff members who have been working the phones, reaching out to voters and going door-to-door.

The Sanders campaign opened its first office in Nevada just last month.

"It's going to be hard for him to win, given that he’s setting up his campaign infrastructure this late in the game," said Andres Ramirez, a Las Vegas political consultant, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's going to be hard to overcome the traction she’s already got."

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