Bernie Sanders' secret weapon could make him unstoppable

Bernie Sanders, the Democratic frontrunner to take on Donald Trump, had a secret weapon at the important Nevada caucus on Sunday – and it could make him unstoppable on Super Tuesday, where the nomination could almost be decided.

The Vermont senator’s big win in Nevada was in part thanks to a 37-percentage-point victory among Latino voters.

But the seeds of that victory were sown five years ago when a staffer on Sanders’s first presidential bid had trouble reading a Spanish website.  

It was Memorial Day weekend 2015, about a month after Sanders launched his long-shot challenge to Hillary Clinton. He was short on resources; his staff was a skeleton crew, with no one who could translate Spanish.

So the campaign summoned Chuck Rocha, the founder and president of Solidarity Strategies, a consulting firm specialising in reaching Latinos and blacks that was launched by Rocha in 2010. He charged Sanders triple his usual rate to work on the holiday.

“I remember sending him an invoice for $824, which was a big invoice for me,” Rocha told Yahoo News in an extensive interview ahead of the Nevada caucus. “Little did I know that that $800 invoice would turn into millions and millions of dollars of work for Bernie Sanders.”

For Sanders, it’s looking like money well spent and is shaping up to be his secret weapon in this election campaign.

Supporters cheer as Bernie Sanders arrives for a campaign rally at the University of Houston on February 23. Source: Getty

Lessons learned in 2016 loss to Hillary Clinton

In the summer of 2015, Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted two Sanders events, claiming the candidate wasn’t paying enough attention to racial issues. Jeff Weaver, the 2016 campaign manager, hired Solidarity Strategies to ensure that the senator’s work was, as Rocha put it, “reflective of the larger diverse communities.”

Soon Rocha was consulting on minority hiring, outreach and advertising for Sanders. By the end of the race he was in charge of all of the campaign’s print communications. 

Now Rocha, a 51-year-old self-described “Mexican redneck” who campaigns wearing a cowboy hat and driving a rented pick-up truck, has become a leader of Sanders’s 2020 operation. While he remains in charge of his firm, Rocha officially joined the campaign last year as a senior adviser with a broad purview that includes general strategy, hiring staff and overseeing print ads and merchandise.

Rocha also crafts the campaign’s Spanish-language ads on television, radio and the internet. If anyone is responsible for the huge Latino outreach effort that has helped propel Sanders to the front of the Democratic pack, it’s him. 

The innovative program is a dramatic contrast to 2016, when Clinton had highly specialised minority outreach operations and Sanders struggled to woo voters of colour

But things are different this time around. In Nevada, Sanders rode to a massive victory, in part, on the back of the Latino vote, with entrance polls showing more than half of them supported him.

With early voting underway in Texas, Sanders is holding four rallies in the delegate-rich state this weekend before travelling on to South Carolina. Source: Getty

Texas, California could push Bernie over the edge

In the coming weeks, other major states with large Latino contingents will vote including Texas, California and Colorado before Arizona and Florida.

As CNN points out, cumulatively, the seven states with large Latino populations looming on the calendar will elect nearly half the Democratic delegates at stake in February and March.

The calendar, in other words, is about to heavily favour the candidate who’s leading among Latinos. Mathematically, it could even make that candidate unstoppable.  

If Nevada is anything to go by, that could bode well for Sanders.

If Sanders wins both California and Texas, he will likely amass an insurmountable lead in the delegate count — and Rocha’s innovative Latino outreach effort will be a big reason why.

“This time around the Sanders campaign really has invested, and you see them everywhere,” says an operative who worked on Latino outreach for the Clinton campaign in 2016 and then worked with a 2020 candidate who left the race.

Bernie Sanders greets supporters during a campaign rally in Santa Ana, California. Source: Getty

“They are the ones who have consistently shown up at community events, in radio ads and newspapers. It’s very different from what they did in 2016. You have to understand the community first and then build your program around it — and I think they've done that." 

That strategy could help make Sanders the nominee. The last time the senator competed in the Nevada caucuses, in 2016, he lost to Clinton by eight percentage points. The defeat blunted Sanders’ momentum after his near-victory in Iowa and his New Hampshire landslide, and it put Clinton on a trajectory to win the nomination.

It’s still very early days, but with Sanders broadening his appeal to add to a very committed base, and the moderate Democrats squabbling over the rest of the votes while saying the others should drop out of the race, the 78-year-old Vermont senator has a very viable path to a showdown with Donald Trump later this year.

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