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Why Sanders May Start Losing More Latino Voters To Biden

Over the course of the Democratic primary, Latinos have been a crucial part of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s base. His campaign has made a concerted effort to win their support, with resounding success thus far: According to entrance and exit polls, he won 50 percent of Latinos in Nevada, 50 percent in California and 39 percent in Texas. And three of the states that vote on Tuesday — Arizona, Florida, and Illinois — have large Latino or Hispanic populations, which could be good news for Sanders.

But there are signs that he may lose strength with this group in the next round of primaries — and at least part of the racial divide that’s emerged in the contests so far may shift. As the newly dominant national front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden may have new openings to win over Latinos in Arizona and Illinois — in particular, older Latinos. Additionally, Sanders is especially weak among Hispanic voters in Florida, where his support for socialism and praise of aspects of the communist revolution in Cuba may have hurt him.

“Sanders is continuing to perform well among Latino voters in states like Washington, but it’s not like Latino voters overwhelmingly dislike Biden,” said Matt Barreto, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the co-founder of Latino Decisions. “The question is whether Latino voters start seeing Biden as the true front-runner in this next round of states and start to shift toward him, or if they are staying with Sanders.”

Sanders still has a good shot among Latinos in Illinois and Arizona

It might not be enough to help Sanders win Illinois or Arizona — according to our model, Biden has a 49 in 50 (98 percent) chance of winning Illinois, and a 29 in 30 (97 percent) chance of winning Arizona — but Sanders still seems likely to outperform Biden among Latinos in both states. In Illinois, a new Emerson College poll showed Sanders leading Biden 56 percent to 42 percent among Hispanic or Latino likely voters, despite Biden’s 20-point lead in the state overall; Gravis Marketing found a similar split. And two recent polls of Arizona — one sponsored by Telemundo and the other by Univision/Arizona State University — each gave Sanders a single-digit lead among Hispanic or Latino Democrats there. A third Arizona poll, by local firm OH Predictive Insights, did give Biden a big lead among both Hispanic or Latino Democrats and Democrats overall, but it was conducted almost entirely before former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race.

Another good sign for Sanders: The Latino populations in these two states skew young compared with a state like Florida, more similar to other heavily Latino states where Sanders has already performed well, such as California and Nevada. That’s helpful for Sanders because he is extremely popular among young voters, including Latinos — he won 71 percent of Latinos under the age of 30 in California, according to the exit polls. And it will likely be difficult to convince many of those younger supporters to switch their allegiance to Biden, according to Vincent Casillas, a Democratic strategist who lives in Chicago and worked on Hispanic communications on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

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Casillas pointed out that Sanders has the support of several progressive Latino politicians from Illinois — most prominently, Rep. Chuy Garcia — who are popular among younger voters. And although Casillas is a Biden supporter, he admitted that Sanders has a big edge when it comes to voter outreach among Latinos in Illinois. “The age divide is going to be a big problem for Biden here — there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Casillas said. “Sanders has done a great job of organizing and energizing young Latinos here in Illinois. He’s way ahead of Biden in terms of outreach to this group.”

But Biden has at least one advantage in Illinois that plays less of a role in other states — his affiliation with Obama, who lived in Chicago for years and is still very popular with the Latino community there, according to Casillas and others. “Obama is still number-one in Illinois and so I think you may see some Latinos, maybe older Latinos in particular, just naturally migrate toward Biden’s campaign because of his affiliation with Obama and the fact that he’s winning other states.”

In Arizona, meanwhile, an eagerness to support the candidate who can beat Trump may nudge some Latinos into Biden’s column. Eduardo Sainz, the Arizona state director for Mi Familiar Vota, a Latino civic engagement organization, said that Latino Democrats in Arizona, like Democrats across the country, are eager to support a candidate who can win a general election against Trump, because so many Latinos are first or second-generation immigrants. “Many people are feeling a lot of fear under this administration, so I’ve seen that defeating Trump is a top priority for many Latinos in Arizona,” he said.

And voting for Biden is likely no big stretch for Latino Democrats. Even if he’s not quite as beloved as Sanders, most Latino Democrats in Arizona like the former vice president just fine. In a December poll by Equis Labs, 50 percent of them had a favorable opinion of Sanders, while just 14 percent had an unfavorable one; Biden was viewed favorably by 44 percent and unfavorably by 27 percent.

But Sainz has also observed an age divide among volunteers for his organization that leads him to believe that many young Latinos will continue to support Sanders. “From our older volunteers, I am increasingly hearing that they want to make sure that we beat Trump and based on what they’re hearing they think Biden has a better and better chance, so their vote is going to Biden,” he said. “But the younger demographic are pretty much either undecided or voting for Sanders.”

Even if Sanders wins Latinos in Arizona and Illinois, though, his victories might be less decisive than in states like California. “Now that Biden has gained front-runner status, I don’t think we’ll see as many dramatic wins for Sanders among Latinos,” Barreto said. And perhaps most importantly, Biden is still forecasted to win both states in spite of Sanders’s strength with Latinos.

But Sanders seems likely to lose Hispanic voters in Florida

On the other hand, Hispanic voters are likely to contribute to a massive Biden win in Florida. Biden is leading Sanders there by an average of more than 40 percentage points and has a >99 percent chance of winning there according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast. And according to most recent polls, Biden is leading among Hispanic or Latino Floridians by large margins (if not quite as large as statewide) — in stark contrast to other states.

Biden leads among Hispanic voters in Florida

Top Democratic candidates’ support among poll respondents who identified as Hispanic or Latino (depending on the poll) in seven recent Florida polls

Pollster Dates Biden Sanders
Mason-Dixon/Telemundo March 4-7 48% 37%
Florida Atlantic University March 5-7 45 25
St. Pete Polls/Florida Politics March 6-8 68 17
University of North Florida March 5-10 65 28
Gravis Marketing March 10-12 49 46
Emerson College March 11-12 64 28
Point Blank Political March 11-13 45 41

Includes the most recent poll by each pollster that has surveyed the race since Super Tuesday.

Source: Polls

It’s a good reminder that Hispanic or Latino voters nationwide aren’t a monolith. Like other voters, their political views often vary along other demographic dimensions, such as age and ethnic origin. For instance, the Hispanic population in Florida skews older — 35 percent are older than 44, compared with 24 percent in each of Arizona and Illinois — putting Sanders at a natural disadvantage.

And in Arizona and Illinois — as well as California, Nevada and Texas — the Latino population is overwhelmingly Mexican American. But Florida is far more diverse. A plurality (29 percent) of the Hispanic population there identifies as Cuban American, and there are hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan Americans and Nicaraguan Americans as well. Sanders’s brand of democratic socialism is distinct from the policies of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, but he did support Nicaragua’s communist government in the 1980s. And according to Barreto, some of the Hispanic population in Florida may be “very uncomfortable with the socialism that has been practiced in their countries in Latin America,” and could be wary of supporting a self-identified democratic socialist like Sanders.

Sanders certainly did himself no favors among Cuban Americans when he told 60 Minutes recently that “it’s unfair to simply say everything [former Cuban President Fidel Castro did] is bad,” citing Castro’s literacy program. The remarks led to a swift backlash, especially in Florida. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, one of two Hispanic Democrats who represent Florida in Congress, tweeted, “I find Senator Bernie Sanders’ comments on Castro’s Cuba absolutely unacceptable.” Two weeks later, she endorsed Biden.

Overall, Sanders now looks extremely unlikely to win the Democratic nomination for president, and cracks have emerged in his previously solid base of Latino support, but whether Latino voters move decisively into Biden’s column on Tuesday remains to be seen. If it does happen, it could be a symbolic final blow to Sanders’s campaign.

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Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.