LAS VEGAS — They showed up at Desert Pines High School in Tío Bernie T-shirts to caucus on Saturday morning, motivated by the idea of free college tuition, “Medicare for All” and the man making those promises: a 78-year-old white senator from Vermont. For dozens of mostly working-class Latinos, Bernie Sanders seemed like one of their own, a child of immigrants who understands what it means to be seen as a perpetual outsider.
For at least one day, in one state, the long-promised political revolution of Sanders came to vivid life, a multiracial coalition of immigrants, college students, Latina mothers, younger black voters, white liberals and even some moderates who embraced his idea of radical change and lifted him to victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday.
By harnessing such a broad cross-section of voters, Sanders offered a preview of the path that he hopes to take to the Democratic presidential nomination: uniting an array of voting blocs in racially diverse states in the West and the South and in economically strapped parts of the Midwest and the Southwest, all behind the message of social and economic justice that he has preached for years.
His advisers argue that he has a singular ability to energize voters who have felt secondary in the Democratic Party, like Latinos and younger people, and that Nevada proved as much — and could set the stage for bigger performances, in primaries like California’s on March 3, especially if the field of moderate candidates continues to remain crowded and divided.
Sanders delivered his victory speech Saturday evening not in Nevada, but in Texas, one of the diverse powerhouses on the Super Tuesday calendar.
“They think they are going to win this election by dividing our people up based on the color of their skin or where they were born or their religion or their sexual orientation,” Sanders said in San Antonio, speaking of President Donald Trump and his allies. “We are going to win because we are doing exactly the opposite. We’re bringing our people together.”
In the entrance polls Saturday, Sanders led the field across many demographic groups: men and women, whites and Latinos, union and nonunion households, and across education levels.
The breadth of his appeal amounts to a warning shot at those in the moderate Democratic establishment he often rails against, many of whom have staked their hopes for a “Stop Sanders” effort on the idea that he has a political ceiling within the party and could not grow his base of supporters.
Instead, as the primary shifted to Nevada from the racially homogeneous electorates of Iowa and New Hampshire, it was Sanders who grew more formidable, while other candidates struggled. Strong showings in the first two states have not significantly helped Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar break through with nonwhite voters. Former Vice President Joe Biden has called himself the one candidate who can build a diverse coalition, but he was behind Sanders in the most diverse nominating contest so far.
Only Sanders, with his uncompromising message that working-class Americans affected by injustice can unite across ethnic identity, has shown traction in both predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire and the more black and brown Nevada.
His success in the early states has been consistent, and in Las Vegas on Saturday, caucusgoers said that his consistency in messaging was one thing that drew them to support Sanders.
“He’s been saying the same thing for 40 years — I trust him,” said Cristhian Ramirez, a 31-year-old technology support specialist who began volunteering for the campaign in November.
Ramirez, who brought several friends with him Saturday, scoffed at the idea that Sanders would face challenges in the general election. Like many supporters, Ramirez was first drawn to Sanders after his 2016 bid. “Why should we vote for a moderate? We already tried that last time and we lost.”
The strong showing in the first-in-the-West caucus state seemed to be a payoff for Sanders’ unique political philosophy and his campaign team’s electoral strategy, which bet big on grassroots outreach to Latinos and immigrant populations.
“We’ve been saying for a while, candidates and the Democratic Party need to engage Latino communities sooner and substantively,” said Marisa Franco, the executive director of Mijente, a community organization that has backed Sanders. “If you do that, they respond accordingly. And that’s what we saw tonight.”
While ideologically liberal voters and young people powered Sanders toward popular vote victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada’s early results showed the candidate’s brand of authenticity could have cross-cultural appeal, even as the campaign sparred over “Medicare for All” with the culinary workers union, the state’s largest union and one of the most powerful organizations in Democratic politics.
Activists and leaders who have endorsed Sanders, particularly people who work with immigrant populations, argue that a focus on “Bernie Bros” — a caricature of his supporters as predominantly white and male — misses the scope of the campaign’s outreach to historically marginalized groups.
They praised Sanders for articulating a global frame of injustice that has led him to uncharted places among the Democratic field: He was the first to support a moratorium on deportations, has consistently highlighted the plight of the Palestinian people during debates, and has spoken about his own family’s immigrant experience as a way to connect with voters, something he rarely did during his 2016 run.
No demographic is a monolith, of course, and Sanders’ support comes with fissures along fault lines of age and educational attainment. But, if Nevada is any measure, he is well positioned to galvanize a cross-section of Latino voters in a way that earlier candidates have done with black voters in the Democratic Party, amassing an advantage that could help create a path to the nomination.
If the appeal evident in the Nevada results holds, a great prize may await Sanders: the delegate-rich states of California and Texas, whose diverse Democratic electorates include a high percentage of voters from immigrant backgrounds.
“If you have focused intention and ongoing support for Latinos and other voters of color you can win,” said Sonja Diaz, the executive director of the Latino Policy & Politics Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. “They did not take the Latino vote for granted.”
When early voting began last week, the Sanders campaign sent a neon truck blasting local Spanish radio out onto the Las Vegas streets, urging people to show up at dozens of early caucus sites. They attracted hundreds of people to a soccer tournament, then offered rides to caucus sites to anyone who showed up. After months of knocking on doors in largely Latino neighborhoods in Las Vegas, on Saturday morning the Sanders campaign said it sent text messages and phone calls to every Latino registered as a Democrat or independent in the state.
For months, the Sanders campaign has boasted that it was the first to organize and advertise in largely Latino neighborhoods, not just in Las Vegas, but in Des Moines, Iowa, and east Los Angeles. The campaign advertised in Spanish from its inception, focusing not just on voters who had showed up to previous caucuses but on those who voted in presidential elections.
Many people who showed up at the caucuses to support Sanders said his campaign was the only one they ever heard from. Latino political activists — including those backing other candidates — routinely applaud the Sanders campaign for doing the kind of expensive, labor-intensive outreach they have been trying to persuade other candidates to do for years. More than anyone else in the presidential race, Sanders is showing the power of Latino voters galvanized behind a single candidate.
Sanders’ appeal seems particularly strong in the West, where his ability to harness not just Latinos but also liberal black and Asian American voters could portend a strong showing in California, which will award more delegates than the four early voting states combined.
The Sanders team has long said that California, where early voting is already underway, is a cornerstone of its campaign. It has invested roughly $6.5 million in advertising there so far, including more than $1 million for Spanish language advertising. A poll from the Public Policy Institute of California released last week showed Sanders with 30% of the vote, and Biden in second, trailing by nearly 20 percentage points.
The support for Sanders in Nevada was particularly remarkable given the intense fight with the Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 housekeepers, bartenders, cooks and others who work in casinos here. Leadership for the union, whose membership is more than 50% Latino, declined to back any one candidate but spent the weeks leading up to the caucus criticizing Sanders’ Medicare for All plan because it would effectively eliminate the union’s prized private health insurance.
But in interviews in recent days, many rank-and-file union members said they supported Sanders precisely because of his health care proposal, saying they wanted their friends and relatives to have the same kind of access to care that they have.
On Saturday, Sanders won at five of the seven caucus sites on the Strip, a clear sign that the attacks from union leadership had largely been ignored.
Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of Center for Popular Democracy, a national collective of progressive groups that has endorsed Sanders, said she heard all day about people voting for the first time.
She also said that she expected states like California and Texas could turn out even better.
At a recent event in Las Vegas geared toward Latino voters, Archila said she asked the audience to “close your eyes and imagine a country where we are not a target,” citing Sanders’ support for a moratorium on deportations.
“People started to cry,” she said. “We have never known what it feels like to be in this country and not be under threat.”