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Opinion Columns

Carman: Latino voters could tip the scales in the 2020 elections … if they show up at the polls

The ballots started landing in mailboxes in Colorado last week just as the Democrats’ fear of commitment seemed ready to render voters utterly paralyzed with indecision. 

Democrats agree the country needs a Trump-buster in November, but who you gonna call?

The decisions of the overwhelmingly white populations in Iowa and New Hampshire provided little in the way of clarity.

Diane Carman

Iowa marginalized itself through its technological incompetence and, while 25.7% of the vote in New Hampshire went to Sen. Bernie Sanders, 52.6% of the vote went to three moderates – Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden.

So, I guess that leaves us pretty much back at square one and, with the Colorado primary and the Super Tuesday juggernaut bearing down on us, it’s time to stop dithering and commit.

This election could be dramatically different from the 2016 debacle. Never mind the legend of the power of the mythical angry white guys from the industrial Midwest; the sleeping giant in 2020 is the Latino vote. 

In Colorado, some 550,000 eligible voters identify as Latino (out of a total of about 3.4 million eligible voters in the state). Only 57% of eligible Latinos are registered to vote, however, leaving a whole lot of political power lying dormant.

Nationwide, Latinos account for 13% of eligible voters. Black voters represent 12.7% while white voters are at 66.7%.

So, the key to a candidate’s success with Latinos lies in earning their trust and mobilizing their power. More than half of eligible Latino voters stayed home in 2016, registered or not.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Clearly, an energized Latino community can change everything, and Sanders’ campaign is betting heavily on it.

Maria Handley has been a political organizer since before she was old enough to vote. She worked on campaigns for Bill Bradley and Howard Dean, was a Superdelegate for Hillary Clinton in 2008, and led the political organizing group Generation Latino from 2016 to 2018. 

This year, she said, it’s is all about the Bern.

Among Latinos, especially young Latinos, “Bernie has the highest support, and AOC is really helping him expand that,” she said.

The endorsement of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been huge, and Sanders has fueled that momentum by recruiting an army of Latinos to his nationwide campaign staff.

“His narrative hits home – that for young Latinos, they will be the first generation who will not do as well as preceding generations,” Handley said.

“The daily lives of Latinos are seriously impacted by federal policies. They want health care for their families; they want to be able to afford to send their kids to college; they want an end to immigration policies designed to break up families.”

Just as important, said Handley, who is the national director of Campaigns for Climate and Energy for The Wilderness Society Action Fund, is that Latinos all across the country are disproportionally affected by the impacts of climate change and are sick – literally – of their concerns being ignored. 

“While most of the candidates have done a really good job of calling out climate change, Bernie has been very vocal about making it a top priority,” she said. An even more important part of his appeal is that Latinos believe him. “No industry owns him, so he can be completely frank about where he stands. He’s created a movement that’s not about himself. It’s about everyone else.”

The polls confirm Handley’s assessment. Two-thirds of young Latinos rate Sanders favorably, according to data collected by the Latino Community Foundation.

“It’s fascinating, isn’t it,” Handley said, “how an old white guy resonates with Latinos and younger voters.”

The reason, she speculated, is that “he meets voters where they are at a time when they’re not getting ahead.” 

It all will be meaningless, though, if the legions of Latino voters are no-shows at the polls … again.

“It’s clear if Latinos and members of other communities of color don’t turn out, we’ll continue to have the Trump administration for another four years,” Handley said. “It’s that simple.

“When I think of how the Trump administration has made it OK to vilify our communities, if we want a change for our future and the future of our children, we have to turn out. We have no other options.”

But while she wants to see record-breaking Latino voter turnout, she’s hesitant to throw her support behind anyone yet.

Like so many other Democrats, she remains nervously undecided.

The decision is not an easy one. It doesn’t represent a stark contrast, as it did with Hillary and Bernie in 2016. This time it’s more complicated, more nuanced and the stakes seem stratospherically high.

“I loved Hillary,” Handley said. “She possessed the qualities of a true leader. She was competent, well-versed, experienced and knew the issues impeccably. I thought she was the right candidate in 2016. But clearly the voters didn’t agree.”

Handley sees strengths in Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She was a big Kamala Harris fan. Mayor Pete and Klobuchar have great personal stories and a lot of good ideas. And then there’s Bernie….

“I’m not sure yet,” Handley said. “I still have a few more days to decide.” 

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.