How Bernie Sanders hopes to win Latino voters with his own immigrant story


Bernie Sanders comes from a state with a Latino population of less than 2%. Yet he appears to be generating some early excitement among a small but vocal group of younger Latino voters who are plastering social media with his already famous hashtag #feelthebern.

But how much buzz is he really generating among Latinos? And will it crescendo long enough to translate into votes on Election Day?

Those are the questions facing the campaign of the Democratic presidential hopeful from Vermont who has surged in the polls as an insurgent candidate. While Sanders is increasingly attracting enthusiastic crowds on the campaign trail in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s going to need more than the white, progressive vote to carry him through to the Democratic nomination.

That issue is central to his presidential aspirations, as Democrats are pinning their electoral hopes on mobilizing African-American and Latino voters. Can the socialist from the Green Mountain state get the job done?

A July poll by Univision showed it’ll be a challenge; nearly 70 percent of Latino voters said they knew little about Bernie Sanders.

It’s a reality the Sanders’ campaign acknowledges, as Hillary Clinton makes early strides to shore up Latino support. But Sanders isn’t ready to cede the Latino vote without a fight.

Last week, the 74-year-old Senator appointed Latino outreach director Arturo Carmona, who comes to the campaign after serving as executive director of the advocacy group, the largest online Latino organizing group in the United States.

Carmona told me the fact that Sanders is largely unknown to many in the Latino community could actually be a positive. “We have a fresh opportunity to introduce a dynamic candidate, but most importantly a very powerful story,” Carmona said.

Part of Sanders’ strategy to connect with Latinos is to play up his own immigrant story. Sanders’s father came to the United States as a teenager and worked most of his life as a paint salesman. Sanders told that story during a speech at last summer’s annual convention of the National Council of La Raza, drawing frequent applause from the crowd.

“I know something about immigration, because my dad came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket, without much of an education, and without knowing the English language,” Sanders told the crowd of Latino activists.

“Like immigrants before and since, he worked hard to give his family a better life in the United States. He never made much money. We lived in a three-and-a-half-room rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York. But he worked hard. My mom worked hard. And they were able to create a situation where their two kids went to college.”

Carmona says voters can expect to hear more about Sanders’ backstory in the weeks ahead.

“The story of Bernie Sanders really resembles the story of a vast majority of Latinos in this country. It goes to the heart of the Latino story.” — Arturo Carmona, Latino outreach director for Sanders campaign

But connecting with Latino voters could be harder than just storytelling. Sanders has stumbled in the past when talking about racial issues, like when he struggled to respond to Black Lives Matter activists who said he he was overlooking the role race plays in economic inequality.

Sanders landed his first meaningful Latino endorsement on Wednesday from from Arizona Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, a longstanding member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. But Clinton is already pulling more big-name endorsements, from the likes of Salma Hayek, Marc Anthony, labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, and Rep. Xavier Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic caucus.

Sanders’ campaign insists it’s ready to step up to the Clinton challenge.

“This is nothing new for the campaign, this type of challenge,” Carmona said. “If you’re talking to the folks in Washington, that’s one thing. If you’re talking to everyday voters, you hear a totally different story. Voters are increasingly tired of the establishment, they want change and they want new leadership.”

Carmona said Sanders will be taking a “a grassroots approach with a strong digital connection” to woo Latino voters.

Part of that strategy will be continue improving Sanders’s social media game, which he has already dominated out of the starting gate. Carmona says it’s a grassroots approach similar to his previous work at

“I’ve spent the last 15 years really dealing with everyday Latino voters and families, with organizing them at the grassroots level, organizing them digitally and mobilizing them by the tens of thousands,” he said. “I’ve learned that the Latino community is very sensitive to ensuring that we have authenticity.”

And Señor Sanders certainly has plenty of that.

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