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As Iowa Grows More Diverse, Democratic Candidates Are Taking Notice

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro marches with supporters during the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry, on Sept. 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall

Julián Castro went to Des Moines this week and told Iowans they shouldn't vote first.

"I'm gonna tell the truth. It's time for the Democratic Party to change how we do our presidential nominating process," Castro said at a town hall dedicated to his belief that the party should shake up who has the first say of who should be president. Iowa holds its caucuses in less than two months.

"Part of the reason for this," he continued, "is that I don't believe the two states that start the process — Iowa and New Hampshire — are reflective of the diversity of the country, or of our party."

Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio who was the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama, has been making this case for weeks now.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Iowa is more than 90% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the state's demographics are slowly changing.

The Latino population has been growing faster than the state's population as a whole for the past decade. Since 2009, the Latino population has grown by 46%, according to census figures. And according to projections from Woods & Poole Economics Inc., by the year 2050, Latinos will make up about 12% of Iowa's total population, roughly double the share today.

The state's Asian population is also fast growing; it's increased by more than 50% since 2009.

And Iowa's black population, which is currently 4% of the population, has grown by slightly more than 46% since 2009.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Organizers and voters in Iowa say that, compared to previous cycles, the 2020 campaigns have expanded their efforts to court Latino, Asian and black voters in the predominately white first-in-the-nation caucus state.

One of those organizers is Camilo Haller. He's a field organizer for former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign who's based in Storm Lake, in the northwest part of the state. Storm Lake's population is roughly 40% Latino.

That means organizers like Haller are not only explaining an unfamiliar, often-confusing process to would-be caucusgoers who have never participated before, but they're also working to demystify the process for some immigrants who may not speak fluent English.

"One of the biggest [challenges] is just a very simple language barrier. For example, the word 'caucus' doesn't translate," Haller said.

He added: "You can't just show up to someone's door and try to explain, you know, this decade-old system that can be quite complicated, in one sitting. It's taken a lot of reinforcement and a lot of normalizing — having organizers show up at your door, having bilingual organizers show up, having them do phone calls, and having them volunteer."

To that end, most of the candidates campaigning in Iowa are taking steps to make sure that language is not a hurdle. Some are hiring Spanish-speaking organizers, like Haller. They're also holding events that are specifically targeted toward engaging the Latino community.

During Latinx Heritage Month, Stephanie Medina, the Latinx constituency coordinator for Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign in Iowa, drove around the state with a whiteboard. At the top of the whiteboard, she wrote: "What issues matter to you? ¿Que asuntos le importan a usted?"

She wrote in a recent post on Medium that the exercise was a way to start a conversation about the everyday issues facing Latino families in Iowa, and to introduce Warren to them.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign, which says there is "enormous untapped potential" in the Latino community in Iowa, circulated a Spanish language digital ad earlier this year. It talks about Sanders' father's personal story of immigrating to the United States.

In the ad, a woman says, "Bernie has never forgotten his own family's immigrant roots. And that's why he's always fought for us."

"We can change the narrative"

Black voters have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party and in Iowa, like everywhere else in the primary landscape, candidates are working hard for their support.

The black population in Iowa is highly concentrated, with the majority living in five counties, including Black Hawk County. Waterloo, in the county, is the state's most densely populated city, and candidates seeking the support of black voters have been streaming through there.

Multiple organizers and voters in the area have said that the outreach to black Iowans in 2020, compared with past presidential cycles, has been "unprecedented," and in Waterloo, voters have grown accustomed to seeing multiple candidates come to the city within the span of a week.

Last week Warren and Biden both campaigned in Waterloo, ahead of a Friday forum that drew five additional candidates.

While showing up is important to Waterloo's black residents, what's equally important is where that is in the city.

Bridget Saffold has lived in Waterloo her whole life, in east Waterloo where much of the black population lives. This summer, she hosted a house party for Warren.

"It was not just historical for her to be in somebody's home in the black part of Waterloo in this, you know, area, but also that people got to have a first-time experience," Saffold said. "And these are people that have been voting for years."

And, as she and others observed, candidates are spending more time on the east side of Waterloo, and not just in black churches. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has an office there, around the corner from Saffold's home. And this week, businessman Andrew Yang will stop in Waterloo as part of his bus tour through the Hawkeye State.

Saffold said she thinks that her community is getting outsized attention from presidential candidates because they realize that even in Iowa, the black vote is powerful.

"If we don't come out, you know what the outcomes can be. But you know that if we do come out and we do support, we can change the narrative," said Saffold, who is still deciding who to back in the caucuses.

She also pointed out that while the state's black population is small, winning over a voter like her could pay dividends.

"I'm a single mom," she said. "However, I have a first-time voter in the home. So if you can get me, you don't just get me. You get two [caucusgoers]. So that makes a difference. So you don't just pull just that one person sometimes."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.