Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders sparred over immigration policy Wednesday night in a fight for Latino voters that unfolded days ahead of Florida's crucial primary, which could help decide the Democratic presidential nomination.
The Univision/Washington Post debate in Miami simulcast by CNN was the fourth one-on-one showdown between the two. Moderators Karen Tumulty, Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos largely focused on immigration reform, racism and electability, issues important to Floridians heading to the polls ahead of the state's March 15 primary.
At one point, a Guatemalan woman in the largely Hispanic audience at Miami Dade College, one of the most diverse in the nation, shared a story of her husband's being deported and separated from their five children. Clinton responded with praise.
“Please know how brave I think you are coming here, with your children, to tell your story. This is an incredible act of courage that I think not many people understand,” she said in the night's lone emotional moment. “I have heard similar stories like yours, where your husband is deported, your children’s father is gone, you are doing your very best to support your children, but it is time to bring families together. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we must do more to let stories like yours be heard more widely, so that more Americans can know the human cost of these policies are.”
Clinton has amassed an impressive delegate lead over Sanders after winning big in states across the South in recent weeks. But Sanders has picked up victories in states that tend to vote Democratic in presidential contests, including a surprising first-place finish in Michigan Tuesday night. His success raises questions about whether Clinton will have a turnout problem if she makes it to the November general election, especially among white working-class voters, independents and millennials. Overall turnout has been low in Democratic primaries and caucuses this year compared with 2008 levels, while Republicans such as Donald Trump are bringing out new waves of voters.
“I’m continuing to work hard for every single vote across our country,” Clinton said when asked about her loss in Michigan. “This is a marathon, and it’s a marathon that can only be carried out by the kind of inclusive campaign that I’m running.”
Clinton points to her wide support among Latino and black voters to show that her campaign has engaged a diverse coalition. Clinton had a 2-1 lead over Sanders in a Washington Post/Univision Poll last month among Hispanic voters, while Latino voters in Texas and Nevada have also backed Clinton in recent contests.
Clinton has vowed to aggressively champion immigration reform and extend President Barack Obama's executive orders protecting some undocumented migrants from deportation. Sanders — whose father was an immigrant from Poland — shares her positions, but hasn't made similar inroads in the Latino community after voting against immigration reform in the past and after decades of representing a largely white state in Congress.
Clinton slammed Sanders during the debate for supporting the militia known as the Minutemen and voting against immigration reform, a claim Sanders denied. “I do not support vigilantes,” he said. “And that is a horrific statement, an unfair statement.”
Minutes after the debate is over, majority of crowd still cheering "Bernie! Bernie!" Never seen this at end of debate. Clearly Bernie won.
— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) March 10, 2016
But Clinton was also targeted by the moderators, who prodded her about her previous support for building a wall along Mexico and deporting undocumented immigrants. "I will not deport children — I will not deport children, I do not want to deport family members, either," Clinton said.
Sanders is looking ahead to March 15, when voters cast ballots in winner-take-all contests that could benefit him, especially in Ohio, where white, blue-collar voters could hand him another victory. In Florida, however, Clinton maintains a sizable lead over Sanders, beating him by more than 25 points, according to recent polls. While polls have been proven wrong before, notably in Michigan, Hispanics make up more than 24 percent of Florida’s population, suggesting Clinton will emerge as voters' favorite candidate. Florida has 214 delegates at stake.
Great debate! A lot of tough questions followed by many important points. But who won? #DemDebate
— Elite Daily (@EliteDaily) March 10, 2016
Clinton has won 12 states so far, against nine for Sanders. But because she is popular among party insiders known as “superdelegates,” Democratic leaders who can vote for a candidate regardless of how each state votes, Clinton is estimated to have 1,221 of the 2,383 delegates needed to become the Democratic nominee. Sanders trails behind with 571 delegates.
While Sanders was quick to highlight's Clinton weaknesses such as her relationship to Wall Street and vote to launch the Iraq war, those issues haven't helped him in contests so far, and he seemed to come up short in showing Latino voters he would be the better ally, especially after the moderators showed a video from 1985 where he praised former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
“I think we have got to end the embargo,” Sanders said in response. “I believe that we should move toward full and normalized political relations with Cuba. I think at the end of the day it will be a good thing for the Cuban people.” Opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba “will result in significant improvements for the lives of Cubans,” Sanders said.
Clinton turned feisty when asked if she would drop out of the presidential race if she was indicted over using private emails while at the State Department. "Oh for goodness' sake," she said. "That is not gonna happen — I am not even answering that question.”
She also tried out a Trump impression, a riff that could become part of her campaign if the two face off in a general election. "First of all, as I understand him, he's talking about a very tall wall — a beautiful tall wall, better than the Great Wall of China," Clinton said, mimicking Trump's penchant for grand adjectives as she described his plan for a border wall along Mexico. "It's just fantasy."
But Clinton stopped short of labeling Trump a racist when prompted, while Sanders said Americans wouldn't elect a president who insults Muslims, Mexican, women and others, as Trump has done.
"Nobody has ever asked me for my birth certificate," Sanders said. "Maybe that has something to do with the color of my skin."