Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally at Chicago State University in Chicago, Ill., Feb. 25, 2016.
Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

Young Latinos convert parents into supporting Bernie Sanders

Updated

CHICAGO — Lidia Rodriguez always assumed that she was a solid Hillary Clinton supporter.

Her decision was simple: She knew Democrats were more inclusive toward immigrants, and as the most experienced candidate, Clinton stood the best chance of winning the White House.

But days out from the Illinois primary, Rodriguez’s allegiances firmly shifted to a candidate she once barely knew. Her swift conversion to Bernie Sanders was kindled by a single factor: her 26-year-old daughter Brenda.

English is not Rodriguez’s first language. And like many parents who are new immigrants, she sought election guidance from her children, who tend to be more politically engaged and better assimilated into American life.

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And so when Brenda said that Sanders was the strongest candidate for their family, Rodriguez didn’t bat an eye. She would support him, too.

“It’s because you’re a trusted messenger, for everything — reading documents, translating, etc.,” Brenda said her mother later told her.

Their family is not alone. The clear enthusiasm among young people for the Sanders campaign is slowly having a double return within the Latino community— fired-up millennials with immigrant roots are going home to their families and convincing them to buy into Sanders’ revolution.

The presidential campaign: Bernie Sanders
The self-described democratic socialist is known for pushing change on income inequality, college affordability and criminal justice reform.

“Older Latinos are already established in the political system. But the young people voting for Bernie are having an influence on how their parents vote,” said Anahi Tapia, 26.

The dynamic factors into almost shocking results in Illinois, where according to the latest NBC News/Marist/WSJ poll out this week, Sanders is leading Clinton by 34 points with Latino voters, claiming 64 percent to her 30 percent. This, while he is still trailing overall in the state by six points.

“It’s all because of the grassroots. It’s the young millennials that refuse to be anyone’s firewall,” Cesar Vargas, a national Latino outreach strategist for Sanders, said of the campaign’s success.

The younger Rodriguez, Tapia and Yesenia Mata, all women in their mid-20s, took that grassroots message to heart when they banded together to create an unofficial Sanders outpost at the center of the Little Village, a Latino-heavy neighborhood in West Chicago.

They opened up their own makeshift field office in the space above the local liquor store, Morenos, owned by the father of a friend. When they started out two weeks ago the office was completely empty. They swiped tables and chairs from their parents’ homes to make the space feel more official.

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By the time volunteers started pouring in, most all of them millennials, they noticed a trend: Their community wasn’t familiar with Sanders, but they were defiantly against Donald Trump.

“Trump was the biggest new American initiative that has come in the last five years. He turned residents into citizens,” said Mauricio Roman, 28. “Because people talk more about Trump not being president, they’re more willing to listen to Bernie.”

Illinois’ Latino voter population is relatively modest, but growing. Hispanics make up nearly 11 percent of the electorate, all concentrated in the northern portion of the state surrounding Chicago. But crucially for the Sanders campaign’s success, nearly 44 percent of eligible Latino voters are millennials between the ages 18 and 33.

3/10/16, 11:24 AM ET

How Latino voters engage in the elections

Professor Roberto Suro explains how Latinos engage with their communities and discusses their patterns during elections.
There are still stark limitations to the strategy. Though millennial voters are a core age demographic behind Sanders’ support, it’s risky to rely on young people to convince their parents to vote against a candidate that older generations may feel is more electable.

Clinton has deep roots and high name-recognition within the Latino community, particularly in regions where Hispanics have established firm ties in the U.S. for generations. She maintains a solid lead in Florida, which also holds its primary on Tuesday. And the contest comes after she won nearly three-fourths of the Latino vote in Texas, which is more than 30 percent Latino.

That solid foundation with Latinos extends to Illinois. Clinton was born in Chicago and grew up in a nearby suburb. Meanwhile her surrogates — from civil rights icon Dolores Huerta to immigration reform champion Rep. Luis Gutierrez — have been sweeping through the Latino-heavy neighborhoods in recent days in a final push to get out the vote.

Cook County Commissioner Chuy Garcia, a longtime Sanders supporter who rose to prominence in Chicago by forcing a runoff election challenging incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel, readily admitted that the campaign was working at a disadvantage.

“A lot of Clinton’s support comes from name ID for Latinos,” he said. “They don’t know Bernie.” 

Speaking before a diverse group of volunteers in Joliet, a suburb out of southwest Chicago home to a growing Latino population, Garcia called on the young people especially to carry the momentum home to the neighborhood they were about to canvas in the pouring rain.

“If we win Tuesday, that’s a game changer,” he said. “New York, here we come!”

Bernie Sanders, Chicago, Illinois, Latino Voters and Latinos

Young Latinos convert parents into supporting Bernie Sanders

Updated