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How Demographics In Iowa, The First-In-The-Nation Caucus State, Are Changing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Presidential candidate Julian Castro recently told Iowans they should not be the first in the nation to vote.

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JULIAN CASTRO: I'm going to tell the truth. It's time for the Democratic Party to change the way that we do our presidential nominating process.

SHAPIRO: Castro brought up an old question - whether Iowa and New Hampshire are too white to lead off the nomination process.

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CASTRO: Part of the reason for that is that I don't believe that the two states that begin the process, Iowa and New Hampshire, are reflective of the diversity of our country or of our party.

SHAPIRO: But the demographics of Iowa are changing, and Democratic presidential candidates are doing more to engage non-white voters ahead of next month's caucuses. NPR's Juana Summers was recently in Iowa, and she's now here in our studio.

Hi, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: So Castro and others who want to see the order of primary states shaken up largely make their case saying Iowa's too white compared with other states. How white is it exactly?

SUMMERS: Well, I don't want to spoil anything, but it is very white. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Iowa's population is about 90.7% white. But the state's complexion is starting to change rapidly. The State Data Center of Iowa found that Iowa's Latino population grew more than 135% since 2000.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

SUMMERS: And Iowa's Asian population - it's grown about the same amount.

SHAPIRO: So how hard are campaigns working to target non-white voters in the state?

SUMMERS: Yeah, they're working really hard to get more voters of color to turn out, but the Iowa caucus itself is a particularly big challenge. You don't just cast a ballot and go home. You spend two hours in a crowded room with all your friends and neighbors on a Monday night, and you have to physically show up. Campaigns are focusing particularly hard this cycle on Latino voters. So I talked with Camilo Heller about the barriers Latinos face in Iowa when it comes to participating in these caucuses. He is a bilingual field organizer for Joe Biden's campaign. And he's based in a town called Storm Lake, Iowa, where Latinos make up just shy of 40% of the population.

CAMILO HELLER: One of the biggest ones is just a very simple language barrier. For example, the word caucus doesn't translate (laughter). And as simple as that may seem, that actually goes a long, long way. So that language and information barrier is massive.

SUMMERS: So the hope of organizers like Heller and others is not just that voters turnout in February but that it becomes a habit and that they become regular voters in the state. Now, the Biden campaign is one of many campaigns focusing on Latino voters. Here is one example of something another campaign is doing. Bernie Sanders' campaign has been working really hard in Iowa's Latino community, spending a lot of time there. And they recently circulated a Spanish-language ad that talked about Sanders' father's personal story of immigrating to the United States as a way to connect with this voting population.

SHAPIRO: So we mentioned that Asian and Latino populations are growing fast in Iowa. We often talk about black voters as being a core of the Democratic Party. What role are they playing in the caucuses?

SUMMERS: Yeah, so they remain the most critical voting bloc for Democrats, and they're about 4% of the population in Iowa today. During my trip to Iowa, I spent a ton of time in the city of Waterloo. It is one of Iowa's most diverse cities, and it has a sizable black population; about 17% there. And I met a woman there. Her name is Bridget Saffold. And I went to her home, and she told me that one of the biggest things driving her choice for who to caucus for is whether candidates have shown up on the east side of Waterloo.

BRIDGET SAFFOLD: Here where I live on the - what we call the east side of Waterloo, it's probably been known to be the most predominately black neighborhood. Black people live over here. They raise their families here. This is what we know as home.

SUMMERS: So Saffold told me she is still shopping around for a candidate. She held a house party for Elizabeth Warren. She's met with several other candidates and attended their events. And candidates have really been spending a ton of time there; according to The Des Moines Register, more than 60 events in Waterloo by presidential candidates.

SHAPIRO: So lots of efforts to court what is still a pretty small part of the voting population. How big a difference could this make?

SUMMERS: In a tight race, it could make all the difference. Right now we're seeing this as a race among kind of four top candidates, so any edge or any ability of these candidates to have to bring out voters who haven't turned out before could be a big advantage. And it's important keep in mind, too - this whole conversation is happening in a moment where there's this intense focus on race in the Democratic Party, with both leaders and candidates working hard to ensure that issues that are important to non-white voters are addressed, even in a state that's as white as Iowa.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Juana Summers, thank you.

SUMMERS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.