As growing numbers of Latinos are voting, Sanders has gained their support in California simply by outworking the competition

Its Friday night, and the moments before US Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is due to appear at Fresno City College feel more like a rock festival than a political rally.

Vendors hawk swag hats with Feel the Bern and Eat the Rich slogans, T-shirts featuring the photo of the young Sanders being arrested at a protest while an already raucous crowd nods to songs about revolution and wave signs reading: Unidos con Bernie.

Sanders is here in California to shore up support for the Green New Deal, a plan to turn away from fossil fuels and invest in clean energy, creating jobs in the process. But the events opening speakers stoke the crowds energy and make plain the subtext for the visit: Sanders wants to claim the Latino vote. And recent polls show hes doing just that.

Bernie Sanders. Photograph: Nati Harnik/AP

Bievenidos a todos! Welcome everybody! screamed Alex Ramos-OCasey, Central Valley field director for Sanders campaign and the first speaker to introduce the presidential hopeful.

Ramos OCasey tells the crowd she was born and raised in Fresno, on the other side the tracks, by family members from Zacatecas, Mexico who said: Remember mija, we dont just vote for ourselves, we vote for everyone else who cant.

Like Ramos-O-Casey, nearly all of the speakers who introduced Sanders wove Spanish phrase into their speeches, pointing to their families and members of the communities who had come from abroad to find opportunity, but discovered in the Central Valley a new struggle over class and citizenship.

Its a message of social, economic and environmental justice and Sanders has been speaking it for decades. And here in Fresno its found an especially receptive audience.

Sanders came the the dusty Central Valley the inland agricultural center that produces a quarter of the nations food but has struggled to provide clean water and air for its rural residents to rally voters and clear a path to winning the Democratic nomination and a chance to face off against Donald Trump in 2020.

Numbers from recent polls put Sanders as a heavy favorite among the Latino voters a bloc that has tremendous sway in determining the outcome of the democratic primary in the state and across the nation.

Democratic candidates are due to meet in Long Beach over the weekend for the California Democratic Party Endorsing Convention, where theyll debate key topics with a special emphasis on issues important to Latinos voters. But noticeably absent from the attendees will be US Senator Elizabeth Warren and former vice-president Joe Biden an absence some say wont go unnoticed.

The candidates who fail to engage Latinos in California the largest Latino voting bloc in the country do so at their own risk, says Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, the CEO of Latino Community Foundation, a philanthropic group that invests in causes it believes will improve civic engagement among Latinos.

Latino turnout surge

Latino turnout has historically lagged behind other voting groups, but that appears to be changing under Trump. Latino turnout in the 2018 midterms hit 11.7m, nearly doubling from 2014, according to figures from Pew Research. A statewide poll released by LCF and Latino Decisions, which conducts research on political opinions, found that a historic 74% of registered Latino voters said they were certain they were going to vote in the 3 March presidential primary.

Organizers and political observers say Sanders has taken the lead simply by outworking the competition putting boots on the ground and opening five offices across the state since June, with plans to open 10 to 15 more by the years end.

We are knocking on doors others havent knocked on before. The campaign has focused on really meeting people where theyre at, said Anna Bahr, California press secretary for Bernie Sanders 2020. Weve got an office in the Central Valley, where no one else has really touched.

The stakes are high for Democratic candidates. California has 400 pledged delegates, more than any other state, which means that any candidate who wins California is boosted toward winning the nomination to represent the Democratic party. The fact the state now votes early in the process amplifies the spoils, setting them in a leadership position for the remainder of the primary.

Sanders narrowly lost the state to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but political observers say the fact that he ran once before will help Sanders name recognition this time around.

And with a record share of the 7.7 million eligible Latino voters expected to turn out for the 3 March election, the largest share of those votes already expected to go to Sanders, the Vermont senator sits in a coveted spot.

Latinos in California have a long history of organizing social and political movements that have made real change, uniting around the rights of farm workers and pushing for civil rights.

In Sanders, Latinos see the grit and scrappiness thats propelled their own causes, said Bahr, the campaign press secretary. Theyve seen the black and white photos of Bernie and I think they recognize someone whos an organizer and someone whos been on the picket lines. His campaign has always been about mobilizing working class people. He appeals to people who want to see real change against a system thats worked against them.

Bahr said the campaign has 40 staffers pounding the pavement in the state, has held more than 3,000 events and made contact with more than eight million potential voters. She estimates Sanders California operation is two or three times bigger than that of any other candidates.

Latinos make up 80 of the 400 staffers Sanders campaign has on the ground nationally, according to the New York Times. And that represetation keeps issues relevant to Latinos in focus says Christain Arana, LCF policy director.

If youre hiring Latinos on your staff, if youre talking about the issues we care about, and youre talking directly to us, of course youre going to rise to the top of the polls and you just might win the primary, Arana said.

Talking about the issues that matter to Latinos means not focusing exclusively on immigration, Arana says.

Sanders platform does include a progressive immigration plan, one that includes a pause on deportations until an audit of past practices and policies is complete and an expansion of the DACA protections afforded to some children of immigrants brought to the US at a young age.

Recent polls show that healthcare, affordable housing and fair wages all rank higher as issues for Latinos. Bernie not only talks about the issues that matter to the Latinos, he takes these messages directly to the communities most impacted, Arana said.

And there may be no place where the Green New Deal may have a more interested audience than the Central Valley, which ranks at the top of the nations list in terms of air pollution, and where an untold number of families go without clean water an issue partly borne of the chemicals produced by the agricultural industry that sustains the area and exacerbated by climate change.

The Central Valley is really a microcosm for whats happening in the rest of the world and concentrated example of the issues that young people care about, said Jasmine Leiva, senior organizer for 99Rootz, which mobilizes youth in the Central Valley to vote and become civically engaged.

Young people see all these things happening the need for clean water, for air free of contamination, for environmental justice and its energizing them to say, I want to be part of what makes the changes we need.



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