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Des Moines — Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is spoiling for an upset of Hillary Clinton in Iowa’s Democratic presidential caucuses Monday, and a key factor could be whether he taps into the Hawkeye State’s growing bloc of Latino and African-American voters.

Black and Hispanic voters usually are considered a strength of former Secretary of State Clinton’s campaign in other states. But in a tight race where as few as 140,000 participate in the Democratic caucuses, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have invested much time and effort to connect with potential first-time voters among these groups even though more than 90 percent of Iowans are white.

Clinton has a small lead of 47 percent to Sanders’ 44 percent in an average of recent polls, according to Real Clear Politics.

Veteran observers of Iowa’s caucuses say Clinton’s campaign has largely targeted reliable Democratic caucus-goers who religiously show up at their precincts every four years, while Sanders and O’Malley have made extra efforts to recruit new voters into the state’s complicated nominating process. Latinos make up 5.6 percent of the state’s population and blacks comprise 3.4 percent, according to U.S. census data.

“I guess we’ll see if it was a mistake by Clinton not to work harder to target groups who haven’t traditionally turned out,” said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

On the campaign trail, Clinton has framed her candidacy as a chance to continue the policies championed by President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black commander in chief. The 68-year-old former U.S. senator from New York has touted issues such as increasing access to medical care for the working poor as well as expanding civil rights for gays and lesbians.

Sanders, a 74-year-old democratic socialist, has emphasized his vision of a political revolution in America. At a museum dedicated to the “Music Man” musical in Mason City, he talked last Wednesday about curtailing the political influence of wealthy Americans and ensuring that bankers are not “too big to jail.”

Targeting minority voters

Sanders and O’Malley have participated in political events with minority voters in Iowa that Clinton skipped, irking some voters, said Christian Ucles, Iowa political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“Both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have done an extremely amazing job at reaching out to Latinos,” said Ucles, who personally supports Clinton. “In the Clinton outreach of their traditional campaign, a lot of Latinos are being left behind.”

Hagle said there have been been “grumbles” among Democrats for months that Clinton was not spending enough time in Iowa. When the former first lady was in the state, her events would be limited to “handpicked” voters, he said.

“If you’ve not showed up at events, that can be a problem,” Hagle said. “But not everyone runs that kind of a campaign.”

Clinton has targeted minority voters. In the central-Iowa town of Ottumwa, where about 11 percent of 25,000 residents identify as Latino or Hispanic, the Clinton campaign has held bilingual training sessions to teach Spanish-speaking voters how to participate in the caucuses, said Irene Munoz, a campaign volunteer.

Munoz said she has helped register new Latino voters and participated in countless hours of bilingual phone-banking. But she acknowledged Latino voters are split between the top two candidates.

“They like both of them. Bernie’s very popular, and Hillary’s very popular,” Munoz said.

C. Jean-Louis, a 26-year-old African-American from Des Moines, said he and his friends of color have noticed Clinton’s absence at key political events for black and Latino voters.

“These groups are demanding attention, and they have a strong scent for people who aren’t listening,” said Jean-Louis, who was leaning toward caucusing for Sanders.

In early January, Sanders and O’Malley attended a forum for minority voters at a church in Des Moines while Clinton was across town at an event with actress Lena Dunham, Jean-Louis said.

The O’Malley factor

O’Malley, a 53-year-old former Baltimore mayor who is polling in the single digits in Iowa, has emphasized issues appealing to first-generation Latino citizens. His campaign has fanned out into rural Iowa communities where there’s a demand for labor in agriculture, the state’s largest industry.

O’Malley has touted his record of giving Maryland drivers’ licenses to undocumented workers and signing a law granting in-state college tuition to the children of immigrants who entered the country illegally.

“If it weren’t for Gov. O’Malley, none of the other candidates would be speaking about immigration,” said Gabriella Domenzain, O’Malley’s deputy campaign manager.

Ucles said O’Malley’s efforts in rural Iowa could cost votes for Clinton and lead to a repeat of her 2008 loss in Iowa that eventually resulted in Obama winning the nomination.

“If O’Malley gets 5 percent of delegates, it will come from rural areas and Latino precincts, which ends up helping Bernie Sanders because it takes away from Hillary,” he said.

Unlike the Republican caucuses, Iowa Democrats take an initial vote in meetings among participants to assess a candidate’s viability. If O’Malley doesn’t get 15 percent of a hand-raising vote, his supporters will have to negotiate with their neighbors to generate more support or switch to the Sanders or Clinton camp, Hagle said.

That’s where Latino voters favoring O’Malley could help Sanders eek out a victory or nearly split the state’s delegates with Clinton, Ucles said.

“For them, Hillary is not their second choice, Bernie is their second choice,” Ucles said of Latinos.

Trading attacks

Sanders has sought to brand Clinton as a member of an American political aristocracy that has “rigged” the economy in their favor.

“What resonates with me is how he’s for the everyman,” said Alexis Johnson, a 22-year-old African-American college student from Forest City, Iowa.

Johnson attended a Sanders’ rally last Wednesday night when the second-term senator called for a minimum hourly wage of $15 and giving every mother three months of maternity leave.

“He wasn’t just up there saying ‘I’m for the middle class,’ he truly is for the middle class,” said Johnson, who is studying business at Waldorf College.

Clinton has panned Sanders’ call for scrapping Obama’s Affordable Care Act in favor of a Medicare-for-all universal health care system that eliminates private insurance companies. She said she wants to build on Obama’s signature domestic policy after her “Hillarycare” plan failed during her husband Bill’s first year as president in 1993.

“We share the same goal — we want to get to universal coverage — but (Sanders) wants to start all over again and plunge our country back into a very divisive debate about health care,” Clinton said Thursday at a Newton, Iowa, rally.

Amara Andrews, a 40-year-old African-American mother of three children from Cedar Rapids, said Clinton has a more politically realistic approach to governing than Sanders.

“Bernie Sanders, his values certainly speak to me,” said Andrews, an attorney who works in business development. “But in terms of electability, I think Hillary is much more electable. He’s a little bit too extreme.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood

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