Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro takes his message to young Latinos

LOS ANGELES — Milton Castro, a student at East Los Angeles Community College, ticked off the names of those he knows are in the mix of candidates running for president.

“Sanders. Harris? She’s local. The vegan,” he said.

He was referring to Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who lost the presidential primary to Hillary Clinton in 2016; Kamala Harris, D-Calif., California’s former attorney general; and Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who is a vegan.

Milton Castro, 28, didn’t name the candidate who shares his last name — Julián Castro, the former Cabinet secretary in the Obama administration and former San Antonio mayor. Milton Castro said he’d heard about “a Castro”, but hadn’t “looked into him.”

The day before, Julián Castro had ping-ponged around Los Angeles in his first campaign swing to talk to voters in the state since announcing his run for president Jan. 12. His focus was largely on young Latino voters, those who are turning 18 at the pace of about 1 million a year. He also met with several black and Latino community organizers and a young professionals group that drew many Latinos.

Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro speaks at a Chicano studies class at UCLA on March 4, 2019.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

The Golden State’s likely voters tend to be younger, according to the Public Policy Institute in California. The state had a record turnout of voters in last year’s midterms, and it saw a jump in young voters. The state’s Latino voters increased their turnout rate as well.

With so many turning voting age, young Latinos are a coveted target for the ample field of Democrats eyeing the White House.

The pressure is on for the candidates to court Californians because the state moved up its primary. In 2016, California’s primary was held June 7. In 2020, the primary is scheduled for March 3, and early ballots can be mailed in as early as Feb. 3.

“California is extremely important in the 2020 cycle. Its primary is early and it has the most delegates of any state. It has the most Latino voters of any states in the country and they will have the largest influence. It’s the big Latino prize,” said Matt Barreto, a University of California, Los Angeles political scientist and co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions.

Castro is the only Latino in the Democratic primary race and younger Latinos tend to vote Democrat. In California, eight-in-10 Latino voters in 2016 were of Mexican origin. While Castro’s Mexican-American heritage doesn’t make him a shoo-in among the numerous Democratic candidates, it can keep him from being written off as well.

The crowded field includes Sanders, who had success with younger Latino voters in 2016. There’s also possible competition from fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke, who excited young voters despite his failed U.S. Senate run in his home state, and there are several women in the race.

Experts say young Latinos are less likely than their older peers to back a candidate because they identify with them racially or ethnically. But in this week’s campaign swing, Castro piqued the interest of some of the young Hispanics who heard him speak or were interviewed about him.

The son of Chicano activist Rosie Castro, the presidential hopeful spoke to Barreto’s Chicano studies class, an elective taken by students seeking degrees in a variety of disciplines. Barreto, who has done polling for Democrats and Democratic candidates, said he is neutral in the primary race.

Bella Aguilar-Rosil, 20, a third-year student and Chicano studies major, said Castro’s visit would have an effect on the students as they try to pick a candidate.

“It’s very important he’s here — when people like this come and speak to the classes, it’s making an impression. When it comes to the ballot and you see someone’s name you are familiar with, it makes a difference,” Aguilar-Rosil said.

Like many students in the class, Aguilar-Rosil is a first-generation college student. Her parents are from El Salvador and Mexico, and she said she identifies as Chicana.

“Seeing someone whose mother was a big, large part of the Chicano movement is key. Initially, before doing my research, I knew more about his mom than him,” she said.

In the 2016 primaries, the Latino vote divided on a generational line, which was first seen in the Nevada caucuses, according to Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who also has done work for Democratic candidates and is a principal with Grassroots Lab.

Sanders ended up winning overwhelmingly with Latinos under 35 in 2016. Older Latinos lined up behind Clinton, who ultimately won California.

This article originally appeared on NBC