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Iowa wrestles with how to make its caucuses more diverse

Fabiola Marin, 35, holds her three year-old son, Lisandro, as Marlu Abarca (not pictured) explains the process of caucusing during bi-lingual story time at the East Side Library in Des Moines.
Fabiola Marin, 35, holds her three year-old son, Lisandro, as Marlu Abarca (not pictured) explains the process of caucusing during bi-lingual story time at the East Side Library in Des Moines.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

DES MOINES — Marlú Abarca was leading bilingual story time at a library here, reading an animal book aloud and strumming “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” on a ukulele before launching into an explanation in Spanish of the state’s election process — a brief lesson in democracy more for the three immigrant parents in attendance than their children.

“Who has heard about the caucuses?” she said to blank looks in the room. Only one of the parents said he vaguely knew what they were, and none were aware that Iowa was about to vote first in the heated Democratic presidential race in a matter of days.

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“Well, today, we are going to practice how to vote as if we’re part of one,” she said, dividing the group of parents and children by their vote for their favorite days of the year.

The 2020 election will mark the first time that Latinos will be the nation’s largest nonwhite voting bloc, and in Iowa they are a small but growing part of the electorate. Yet, as candidates campaigned across the snow-covered state this week and campaign ads filled the airwaves, many Latinos and other people of color remain shut out of Iowa’s big political moment even as Democratic leaders are making a significant change to try to increase their participation.

Latino, Black, and Muslim voter advocacy leaders have pushed to increase this year’s turnout in a caucus process criticized for its nearly all-white participation. Their efforts will provide the first glimpse into if the Democratic Party can boost turnout this fall despite internal racial, ethnic, and generational divides.

But they can’t do it alone, the advocates said.

Marlu Abarca drew a map of the United States as she explains the process of caucusing and the electoral college to parents who attend her bi-lingual story time at the East Side Library in Des Moines.
Marlu Abarca drew a map of the United States as she explains the process of caucusing and the electoral college to parents who attend her bi-lingual story time at the East Side Library in Des Moines. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“We’ve been urging [Democratic presidential campaigns] to expand their universe — to please reach out to all voters,” rather than only those with the highest propensity to vote, said Joe Henry, the Iowa political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “We know for a fact in our community, that if you don’t spend time in our community, people will not engage.”

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Staffers with some of the presidential campaigns countered they have been doing as much as they can, knowing every vote is crucial in a race with no clear front-runner.

Democrats are undergoing a generational change that is much as about age as it is about race and ethnicity. In the 2018 congressional midterm elections, House seats across the country flipped from Republicans to Democrats, as large numbers of Republican voters stayed home in some states, and a younger and more diverse wave of Democrats went to the polls in a push to put more women and people of color in office.

Many of those new and younger voters were Latinos.

“The youth vote is the Latino vote in many ways,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political strategist who has worked on Republican and Democratic campaigns.

Now the Democratic Party is torn between staying the course and reaching out to older and more reliable voters, including Republicans turned off by President Trump, or energizing a younger base that has skewed further left.

Isabela (center) played as Marlu Abarca sat beside her during bi-lingual story time at the East Side Library in Des Moines.
Isabela (center) played as Marlu Abarca sat beside her during bi-lingual story time at the East Side Library in Des Moines. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The decision comes as voter advocacy groups have struggled for decades with a pervasive cycle related to low Latino turnout. National Democratic presidential campaigns are often too slow to reach out to Latino voters, if they reach out at all, leading to fewer Latinos at the polls. Latinos don’t vote, so campaigns don’t call or knock on their doors to try to get them to the polls.

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In Iowa, Latinos were only 3.4 percent of eligible voters in 2018, though they comprise roughly 6 percent of the population, according to state and census data.

But there have been some gains.

For the first time this year, the Iowa Democratic Party agreed to establish 87 satellite caucuses with translation and cultural services to reach different communities and types of voters. Henry and other LULAC leaders announced Thursday they have registered enough new voters so that Latinos will now represent one of every four potential caucus-goers next week in the 15 largest counties. Then, there are volunteers, like Abarca, the vice chairwoman of the Iowa Commission on Latino Affairs in Polk County, who have launched their own initiatives to educate voters.

“Not everyone grows up with parents who can vote,’” Abarca said of what motivated her to first get involved in Latino voter advocacy efforts 10 years ago and eventually organize, “Bilingual Story Time — Caucus Edition.”

Candidates Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg have pledged to revive the coalition of working-class white voters, young people, and minority voters — including Latinos — that fueled Barack Obama’s path to the White House in 2008.

But local leaders said they have not seen the type of voter mobilization and coalition building that they saw under Obama.

Ako Abdul-Samad, a state representative, said that despite candidates’ efforts, they have been slow to forge meaningful connections with communities of color like those in his Des Moines district, which is home to Somalis, Sudanese, Kenyans, Latinos, Black voters, and people from other diverse communities.

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When Obama was running in 2007, his staff rented offices from Abdul-Samad’s human resources nonprofit in the neighborhood — something no candidate has done since, he said. Those organizers knocked on the doors of people who were too busy to go to large rallies, too worried about putting food on the table and paying their bills. For many of them, English is a second language.

“They walked in those districts,” said Abdul-Samad, who endorsed Sanders. “And I know because I walked with them. If you want to win, you have to develop that ground game.”

Obama staffers in his first presidential campaign developed a national grass-roots organizing model that borrowed from social movement strategies. They did more than just register voters, former staffers said. They mobilized thousands of volunteers to work for a candidate with similar core values, encouraging them to take on leadership positions and bring in others.

Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School whose research inspired the model, said Obama had two things going for him: He could cross racial, ethnic, and class divides, and his volunteers were building commitments between people.

“We get tripped up when we think about shortcuts because we have new technologies, but that is not a replacement for building commitments," he said.

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Although Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg all seem to have borrowed from the model, none appear to be having as much success as Sanders, who has drawn the support of well-known political women of color and made Latinos central to his nomination strategy.

And his brand of populism has carried a specific resonance with young Latinos who have long felt disenfranchised from the party. “He says it is not just the system is rigged, it is the Democratic Party that is rigged, too,” Madrid said of Sanders’s message.

On Friday afternoon, Muslims gathered for prayer at a Des Moines mosque that will serve as a new satellite caucus site. After the service, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress in 2018, came to speak as people ate lunch. She urged them to come back on Monday night to caucus.

“This election cycle about us,” she said. “I am asking all of you to realize the importance of this election and place yourself in that room, so that our issues are on the table, and so that we are visible.”


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.