SAN ANTONIO — At Hillary Clinton’s campaign office here, supporter and actress America Ferrera listened tearfully as a handful of young Latinos who had been brought to the U.S. as children spoke of living in constant fear of deportation.
African American and Latino surrogates have blanketed the state. Bill Clinton has made frequent visits to Texas, including a recent stop kicking off the state’s two-week early voting period to border towns including Laredo. And the candidate has locked down nearly universal support from state and local political leaders, which in Texas’s more rural communities is a key advantage.
After her landslide victory Saturday over Sen. Bernie Sanders in South Carolina’s Democratic primary, Clinton is trying to assume a sheen of inevitability as her party’s presumptive nominee. And no state is better suited to help her do that than Texas, the largest of 11 states that will hold Democratic nominating contests this week, on Super Tuesday. Here, she is looking for another sizable victory over Sanders — this time, to prove her ability to win big not just among African American voters but Latinos and whites, too.
With 222 delegates at stake in Texas, the state could significantly boost her overall delegate count — even without the party officials who have pledged to support her as “superdelegates.” It would make Sanders’s path to the nomination nearly nonexistent.
“The fact is that Texas is going to be ground zero,” said Texas State Rep. Cesar Blanco, a Clinton supporter who represents El Paso in the state legislature. “She’s got roots here. She did a lot of voter registration in south Texas at a young age. Latinos understand that and know that and remember that.”
Clinton has long been expected to do well among Texas’s African American voters. In South Carolina, she led Sanders among black voters by more than 70 percentage points in preliminary exit polls reported by CNN. That number was larger than her 54-point margin among black caucus-goers in Nevada last week — and also larger than Barack Obama’s 59-point win over Clinton with black voters in the 2008 South Carolina primary.
Less certain is whether she will do well among Latinos or whites. Sanders claimed a narrow victory among Latino voters in Nevada based on entrance polling — although the Clinton campaign has disputed that. Sanders has polled ahead of Clinton in states with larger white populations — but in South Carolina Saturday, Clinton defeated him even among whites.
The Clinton campaign sees an opportunity to win all demographics in Texas, which she won against Obama in 2008 largely on her strength among Latinos and, to a lesser degree, whites.
To do so, she hopes to turn on its head the conventional political wisdom that turnout helps Sanders. Her campaign has moved belatedly but aggressively to activate longstanding relationships with minority communities in the hopes that elevated turnout among those groups will deliver a sizable margin of victory over Sanders.
She has called upon longstanding loyalties dating back to the early 1970s, when young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham knocked on doors registering voters for George McGovern’s presidential campaign in poor, heavily Latino parts of the state.
Both Clintons have visited Texas a considerable number of times on the counsel of longtime friends and political allies who sounded the alarm in January that the campaign needed to move quickly to counter the inroads Sanders was attempting to make in the state, particularly among Latinos.
Sanders continues to draw passionate support from the state’s more liberal enclaves, notably Austin. While his campaign claims he is still contesting the minority vote in Texas, the candidate himself has focused his time on areas where the liberal, white vote is most concentrated.
On Saturday, he returned to Texas for the first time since July to rally a combined crowd of more than 17,000 in the Austin and Dallas areas. Both rallies were predominantly white, with sprinklings of younger Latinos and African Americans.
The increasingly hostile rhetoric of GOP candidates toward Latino voters could well help boost minority turnout — and help Clinton, said former Texas gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Wendy Davis.
“The prediction is that if the turnout does increase it will primarily come from historically disengaged voters such as our Latino voters,” said Davis, who has endorsed Clinton. “Its going to create a motivating reason for people to come out and make sure that she’s our nominee, believing that she is the repression best positioned to secure the nomination.”
Increasingly, as Sanders’s path in Texas appears to be narrowing, geographically and demographically, the campaign’s expectations in Texas are similarly contracting. Over the past week, the Sanders campaign has claimed that he can win five of Tuesday’s 11 states — and Texas is not among them.
“This has been our expectation across the country: We want to do as well as possible,” said Sanders spokeswoman Rania Batrice. “The overall approach has been that we’re going to do as much as we can to bring out as many people as possible.”
Meanwhile, Sanders’s campaign outreach in Texas — which once dwarfed Clinton’s — has been eclipsed.
Months ago, Sanders boasted a rare organizational head start on Clinton — deploying paid staff and opening offices in the state beginning in November. Since then, the campaign has opened seven offices across the state and has more than two dozen paid staffers on the ground.
It wasn’t until late January that the Clinton campaign began doing the same.
“They were working very hard, but they were getting no support from Brooklyn because Brooklyn’s strategy was: we contest and win Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, then we start working on other states,” said Garry Mauro, who was chairman of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign in Texas and is a longtime friend and confidante of the Clintons.. “It was very disheartening for some of our super volunteers to see Sanders people with organized volunteers and organizers on the ground actually holding meetings.”
“It wasn’t totally silent, but I’m sure glad that period of the campaign is over,” Mauro said.
The Sanders campaign has launched its own efforts to reach out to Latinos, focusing on younger voters who are amenable to Sanders’s message of free college tuition and countering economic inequality.
“Something that we’re seeing in Texas is something that we saw in Nevada: it was an energy that we’re seeing with young Latinos,” said Cesar Antonio Vargas, an immigration reform activist who signed on with the Sanders campaign and has been traveling across Texas and other Super Tuesday states to recruit Latino support. “They are the social media generation. They have a politician’s record in a 2 minute video on Facebook.”
“They’re informing the community their parents and grandparents,” he added.
A recent Washington Post/ Univision poll showed Sanders doing well nationally with younger Hispanics, but all other groups overwhelmingly support Clinton.
“There’s nothing written in stone that says that Latinos won’t vote for Bernie Sanders, particularly young Latinos that are in college,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin. “But he’s got to reach them and they have to know he’s there and they have to got to the polls.”
Texas’s Hispanic voters — and Democrats in general — are notorious for not showing up to vote in large numbers. And younger voters in general have proven to be an unreliable constituency for Sanders in other states — including South Carolina, where exit polls showed they did not turn out in elevated numbers.
“Hispanics always threaten to vote and never vote,” said Charles Soechting, former chairman of the Texas Democratic party who has endorsed Sanders.
Inside Sanders’s Houston campaign office, nestled in a tree-lined neighborhood, more than a dozen volunteers dialed away, on the hunt potential voters.
“I’m calling mostly 33 year-olds who don’t answer their phones,” noted Greg Hunt, 55, who had been diligently working the phones for Sanders for hours.
On the other side of the room, Noe De La Garza left half a dozen messages — some from an English-language script that he had hastily translated into Spanish.
“The policies of Bernie will do a lot more to help Latinos here,” he added.
As Super Tuesday approaches, he Sanders campaign has no ads airing specifically on Texas airwaves, a key voter outreach tool in a state where voters are far flung. Clinton, on the other hand, has blanketed television and radio in a dozen markets across the state — focusing heavily on Latino communities, including remote border towns.
The absence has also been felt by voters like Laura and Manuel Lopez both of whom looked favorably on Sanders’ candidacy early on, but have since settled on Clinton.
“I haven’t seen him,” said Laura Lopez, 42, of San Antonio. “I haven’t seen him coming here.
“I really haven’t heard anybody talking about him,” her husband Manuel Lopez, 37, chimed in. “I don’t know that he’s actually been to Texas.”
Sanders’ latest visit may also have been too little too late. He arrived a day after early voting in the state closed.
John Wagner in Austin contributed to this report.