The Iowa Caucuses May Look A Little Different This Year

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

Marlu Abarca, 23, a first-time Iowa caucus voter, said she will be caucusing for Bernie Sanders on Monday.

DES MOINES, IOWA — A crowd of nearly 60 Latino Iowans were listening on Sunday as Christian Ucles taught them how to caucus.

“They’re not expecting to see people like you — who look like you, whose last names are Alvarez, Lopez, Gonzales,” Ucles, the political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), told them. “This is the chance for them to start seeing more of us.”

Sunday’s mock caucus was one of several LULAC has been holding throughout Iowa this month in an attempt to explain the state’s notoriously confusing presidential primary process to first-time Latino voters. And there is good reason why many Latinos in Iowa might need to be shown how to participate. According to Joe Henry, LULAC’s vice president for the midwest, past Latino turnout for presidential caucuses has been dismal. Depending on who you talk to, only 1,000 to 2,000 Latinos came out to caucus in 2012, he said — less than 5 percent of eligible voters in the state.

But Henry expects things to be different this year. For the first time, LULAC raised enough money to organize a statewide “get out the vote”-type effort for Iowa’s growing Latino population. And Henry says their effort represents the first time anyone has formally asked the state’s Latinos to vote. In the past, most candidate- and party-driven turnout efforts have focused on what Henry calls “regular participants,” aka white people, who make up 91 percent of the state. Latinos make up just 5.6 percent.

“The political parties have never engaged with our communities in this process,” he said. “They’ve never valued our votes. So we’re engaging with our own community, and we’re expecting a big turnout.”

That big turnout he expects: anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 Latino caucus voters — more than Iowa has ever had in its history.

A Donald Trump piñata with the words "no hate" attached at LULAC's mock caucus event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016.

A Donald Trump piñata with the words “no hate” attached at LULAC’s mock caucus event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016.

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

Henry says he has good reason to expect at least 10,000 voters on Monday.

For one, there are just more Latino voters overall in the state. In 2008, he said, his group had identified only 23,000 potential voters. In 2012, they were up to 35,000. This year, LULAC has identified more than 50,000 Latino voters across Iowa, and all of them have received either direct mailings, robocalls, or live calls imploring them to go out and caucus.

The second reason is that Iowa’s growing Latino population is overwhelmingly young and politically engaged. Over 60 percent of Iowa’s registered Latino voters are under the age of 40, Henry said, and the median age is only 22.

“You’re seeing a younger generation that is stepping up to the plate,” he said.

Marlu Abarca, 23, is one of those younger voters. A first-time voter and a LULAC volunteer, she told ThinkProgress on Sunday that she has attended at least four caucus trainings throughout the state. And at each one, she’s encountered politically-engaged young people passionate about getting out the vote for their candidate.

“The majority of LULAC volunteers are millennials, they’re Latino, and they have been canvassing every weekend for months now trying to get registered Latino voters in the state to commit to caucus,” she said. “Knowing that other people in my generations are as as passionate and excited about the process gets me really excited.”

Latino voters listen to Christian Ucles, LULAC's political director, explain how to caucus.

Latino voters listen to Christian Ucles, LULAC’s political director, explain how to caucus.

Only time will tell whether Henry achieves his goal of 10,000 Latino voters turning out to the Iowa caucuses. But the real question is — will their votes make a tangible difference?

It is possible that they could, especially when it comes to Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. The most recent polling to come out of Iowa showed his opponent Hillary Clinton with a statistically insignificant three-point lead over him, and many note that Sanders’ best bet to close that gap is to get first-time voters to the caucuses.

Not only were many Latinos at Sunday’s mock caucus first-time voters, the vast majority were Bernie Sanders supporters. The room was a sea of Sanders shirts and signs, speckled by with only sporadic stickers for Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. There was no visible support for any Republican presidential candidate.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), a Latino congressman who travelled to Iowa to support Bernie Sanders, told ThinkProgress that he believed Sanders would be the main beneficiary of increased Latino turnout. He said Sanders’ wide-ranging messaging on issues like climate change, income inequality, and healthcare — not just immigration — would be what drives Latinos to caucus for him on Monday.

“I find it offensive when people talk to Latinos as though they’re one-trick ponies, like [immigration] is all they care about,” he said. “I think you’re going to see significant percentages of people of color voting for Bernie on the economic message, the immigration message, and the climate change message.”

Others, however, stood their ground against Sanders — especially supporters of O’Malley, who is holding at about 7 percent in Iowa polls. O’Malley has made immigration reform the center of his campaign, and first-time voter Karina Mendoza-Alvarez told ThinkProgress that because of that, she would caucus for him — and only him.

“He is the perfect candidate,” she said. “I’m going to hold strong for him.”