Las Vegas—This is where irony goes to die—or get defibrillated. A state with two Mormon senators where the hookers and wedding chapels “accept all major credit cards,” and the airport greets new arrivals with a phalanx of slot machines. Long before the first crapshooter rolled the dice, Nevada had already clinched its place in American mythology as the home of the Comstock Lode—a silver deposit that formed the basis of the Hearst media empire, the Bank of California, and the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. But the odds on success were long even then. A young Confederate deserter named Samuel Clemens came out from Missouri in 1861 with his older brother Orion, a Lincoln man appointed secretary of the territory. Failing to make his fortune as a prospector, Clemens became a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, where he adopted the pen name Mark Twain.
What would Twain have made of Bernie Sanders, scourge of “casino capitalism,” treading the embroidered carpets of the Wynn, or greeting his supporters after last month’s Democratic debate in the hotel’s Petrus Room? (In the nearby Tower Suite Bar, a 1996 Bordeaux goes for $400 a glass, or $3,790 for a full bottle.) Or the Clinton donor who boasted of winning $25,000 at poker before the debate began? Or Anderson Cooper, great-great-great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, challenging Sanders: “How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”
What might memory, or history, mean when most of the neon landmarks that turn the nighttime sky here into a huge billboard for greed and the main chance didn’t exist 30 years ago? Of the five casinos knocked over in the original Sinatra version of Ocean’s 11—the Desert Inn, the Flamingo, the Riviera, the Sahara, and the Sands—only the Flamingo remains. Most of the people here are new, too. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Las Vegas grew by 42 percent, making it the fastest-growing city in the country. Now it’s the foreclosure capital of the Southwest. Walking from the Strip to Binion’s downtown, I saw homeless people camped out under the freeways. What happens in America happens in Vegas, too.
That includes politics. Harry Reid’s claim that “nobody lives” in New Hampshire and that Iowa is “a place that does not demonstrate what America is all about” may have been calculated to please his hometown crowd, but he had a point. Nevada has more than twice the population of New Hampshire and is almost twice the size of Iowa—too big to rely on face-to-face politicking. And in a state where nearly half the population is nonwhite, talking the talk on diversity won’t cut it.
Neither will platitudes about the middle class. Journey a few blocks from the bright lights of the Strip, and economic insecurity hangs over the place like a toxic cloud. Nevada lost 186,000 jobs during the crash. Unemployment in Las Vegas is still at 6.8 percent—worse than in any other big city. “There’s a huge disconnect between the debate in Washington and the things that actually affect people’s lives every day,” says Yvanna Cancela, political director of the Culinary Union Local 226.
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In the 2016 election calendar, the Nevada caucus on February 20 is when reality begins to bite. Along with South Carolina’s primary on February 27, it’s the last hurdle before March 1, when Democrats in 11 states vote at once. Like Iowa’s caucus, the contest here is a test of passion and organization—only this time in a swing state the Democrats need to win in November. Nevada is where the campaign comes back down to earth. And when it does, Hillary Clinton’s people will be waiting.
* * *
“Shake the gate!” It’s early on a Sunday afternoon, and Vanessa Valdivia is on the move. Crisp in a black-and-white-striped dress despite the 95-degree heat, she leads a team of three volunteers (and one reporter) through streets of faded ranch houses and shabby garden apartments canvassing for Clinton supporters. East Las Vegas is a Hispanic neighborhood, and Valdivia switches easily between languages, making sure we alert any dogs before entering each property: “Don’t forget to shake the gate!” At one house the whole family comes out to say hello, but when Valdivia mentions the upcoming elections, they suddenly become vague and slightly evasive. “Usually that means they’re not citizens,” she says.
A native of Los Angeles who recently completed a master’s degree at the Annenberg School at USC, Valdivia left a job at Gonring, Spahn & Associates, the Hollywood political-consulting firm whose clients include Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, to work for Clinton. She and her housemate, Natalie Montelongo (a fellow Clinton organizer whose résumé includes a stint at the DC lobbying firm the Podesta Group), have been living in this neighborhood since August. “My parents are immigrants,” Valdivia says. “My mom is from Mexico, and my dad came from Nicaragua.”
For Valdivia, part of Clinton’s appeal is clearly aspirational. Her younger sister Ulyssa, still in high school but visiting for the debate, says, “We grew up with our dad telling us, ‘You can be anything you want.’ And Hillary is like a representative of that.” But when I ask the older sister what drew her to Clinton, Vanessa replies: “Social Security and Medicare—I think about my grandmother, waiting for that check every month.”
House-to-house canvassing is the slow, sweaty trench warfare of electoral politics. There are about 20 volunteers and four or five paid staffers fanning out with Clinton leaflets and clipboards, calling at every house with a registered Democrat. Since this is a weekend, our team has pretty good luck: Over half the doorbells we ring get answered, and while we meet a few disillusioned voters who say they plan to sit this one out, we don’t encounter any outright hostility to Clinton. Most say they’ll support her—and are quickly asked to sign caucus pledge cards.
The “Nevada 2016 Delegate Selection Plan”—the state party’s rule book for the caucuses—runs to 50 pages. With 1,754 precincts choosing just 23 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, it’s a complicated process, but the first stage—neighborhood by neighborhood—is the one that matters. In 2008, Hillary Clinton, wounded by a loss to Obama in Iowa, scraped a win here, taking 50.8 percent of precincts, though Obama actually ended up with more delegates. Winning in a caucus state requires commitment—what the pros call “intensity”—as well as a ground campaign able to identify supporters, train them in the intricacies of the process, motivate them to turn out, and keep them organized through what can be a very long day. Caucusing is not a sport for novices.
* * *
“This is my third presidential cycle in Nevada,” says Emmy Ruiz, a Texan who was in charge of Latino outreach for Clinton in 2008 and ran Obama’s campaign here in 2012. Ruiz, Clinton’s state director, has been in Las Vegas since March. (Jim Farrell, who runs the Sanders campaign in Nevada, only arrived last month.) “We’ve seen a lot of excitement,” Ruiz says as we grab a quiet moment in her office. Outside, in campaign headquarters, volunteers work the phones in two languages. “In Hillary, they see a woman who has spent her entire life fighting on behalf of people like us. They see her as a fighter.”
Clinton took Nevada for granted in 2008. Not this time. As they say in Las Vegas, only a fool bets against the house, and Clinton’s people are leaving no stone unturned to make sure that the house is on their side in 2016. To fire up the troops, Ruiz has brought in Joaquin Castro, the young congressman from San Antonio (his twin brother, Julian, was that city’s mayor before becoming Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development). Articulate, photogenic graduates of Stanford University and Harvard Law, the Castros give Texas Democrats reason to look forward to the future. Here in this small room, though, Castro’s rhetoric just bounces around, and his claim that “Clinton has a long-standing relationship with the Latino community” because she worked for George McGovern in Texas in 1972 sounds like an awfully long reach.
But when Dina Titus, the local Democratic congresswoman, turns up with her mother in tow, the volunteers burst into cheers. “You look around this room and look around Las Vegas,” she says. “We are the real face of America!” Not only will Titus become the state’s senior elected Democrat once Reid retires, but as a longtime government professor at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, she taught many of her younger colleagues. And although Reid says that he likes all of the Democratic candidates, his son Rory, the former chairman of the Clark County commission, has been on Hillary’s side since 2008—as has Brian Greenspun, publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, who hosted a Clinton fundraiser in May. The son of Hank Green- spun, the Las Vegas legend who started as Bugsy Siegel’s publicist at the Flamingo and fought Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, Brian roomed with Bill Clinton at Georgetown.
Here, as elsewhere, Clinton has assiduously cultivated the “grasstops”—elected officials and other Democratic power brokers. Harvey Greene, who handled the press for Clinton during her visit to Nevada for the debate, is the former head of media for the Miami Dolphins—and another 2008 veteran. The campaign also flew in Jason Collins, the former NBA star, to lend some celebrity glamour to a forum on LGBT issues in Reno last month.
But Clinton has plenty of grassroots supporters here, too. Donna West describes herself as “a process wonk.” Born and raised in Lititz, Pennsylvania, she spent 30 years working for the state of Nevada, staying out of politics because she “had to work in Republican and Democratic administrations.” But when she retired, she got into politics and got in deep. “I started by volunteering as a precinct captain and worked for Hillary in 2008—that’s when I chaired my first caucus,” she says.
“I liked Hillary when Bill ran in 1992,” she continues. “People said then that if you vote for him, you’re voting for her. My response was that I am voting for her. I felt she understood me. She was a working mom.”
West is passionate about animal rights—her Dog- Lovers4Hillary Twitter account has nearly 21,000 followers—and gun safety. Her husband was in law enforcement. “We have weapons in our home. But I worry about my grandsons. Will they be safe at the mall? At the movies?” A member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, she was also active in Occupy Las Vegas. So what does she make of Bernie Sanders? “I just don’t trust him. And his record on guns is really iffy.”
* * *
Las Vegas is a union town in a right-to-work state. Unions can’t require anyone to join—or even to pay dues—as a condition of employment. Anything workers get here, they’ve had to fight for. “We have 55,000 members across the Strip and downtown,” says Yvanna Cancela, making Local 226 by far the largest union in the state. Though 56 percent of the membership is Hispanic, “we represent workers from 167 countries,” she says, “from cooks and pastry chefs to bellboys and chambermaids. Everyone but the people who deal directly with gaming money.”
Thanks to the union, she adds, Las Vegas is “probably the last city where you can be a member of the middle class without a college degree.” Union members form a crucial part of any Democratic victory here.
But mapping labor politics onto presidential politics is never simple. Last month’s endorsement of Clinton by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation’s largest public-employee union, may have had more to do with Joe Biden’s withdrawal from the race than a sudden surge of enthusiasm among its membership. Even so, it offered Clinton a formidable counter to National Nurses United’s earlier backing for Sanders. It also added to the pressure on Local 226 and its parent organization, UNITE HERE, and on Local 1107 of the Service Employees International Union, Nevada’s second-largest, whose own parent organization fought bloody jurisdictional battles with the nurses’ union through much of the last decade.
In 2008, both Nevada locals stunned Clinton’s campaign when they endorsed Obama. Billed as a triumph for the rank and file, those endorsements also let the national unions hedge their bets. In response, Clinton’s allies in the state teachers’ union went to court to try to prevent caucus sites on the Strip from opening early so more casino workers could participate—a move that Donald Taylor, then president of 226, described as “despicable.” Ads on Spanish-language radio called Clinton “shameless,” accusing her of trying to suppress the Latino vote.
Those 2008 ads were paid for by UNITE HERE—a union now led by Taylor. Which may partially explain why Hillary Clinton took time out, the day before the debate, to drop by a Local 226 rally in front of the Trump Hotel, a gold-plated 64-story eyesore whose workers want a union contract. Her attack on the GOP front-runner got her on every network, but it hasn’t yet persuaded her former foes to endorse her.
Still, it seemed an obvious gesture, so I asked Jim Farrell why Bernie Sanders hadn’t shown up too. In response, Farrell pointed out that Sanders had addressed Local 226 workers earlier in the summer and would “almost certainly join them on a picket line before this is over,” then e-mailed me to add: “I don’t think photo-op politics are going to determine the outcome in Nevada this year.”
Behind the scenes, Clinton is pressing hard for an early endorsement—a far cry from the candidate who, in 2008, told SEIU leaders here: “I don’t need you to win.” How much influence national endorsements would have in Nevada is another question—especially when many members remain bitter over what they see as broken promises from the last presidential candidate they endorsed.
* * *
To Local 226 members, who for years have “sacrificed wage increases and pension increases to make sure their healthcare plan is well-funded,” Cancela says, the Affordable Care Act’s 40 percent tax on so-called Cadillac coverage was like a slap in the face. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both said they favor repealing the tax. But to Cancela, such talk is cheap.
“Same as immigration reform—it’s an issue that gets a lot of lip service every election cycle and then disappears from view,” she says. “Obama told [Univision anchor] Jorge Ramos he’d do it in his first year. But it never happened. We learned our lesson.”
So far, the local hasn’t backed anyone. Instead, Cancela started a political academy to give her members a chance to discuss the issues and to shift the focus onto local bodies like the state legislature and the county commission. In class the day after the Democratic debate, I found no clear winner among the people in attendance—and a fear that workers would again be the losers. “They came to Las Vegas—a union town,” said Efrain Becerra, a shop steward at Harrah’s. “Debated in a union hotel. They had an opportunity to stand with working people. But they didn’t say anything about the ‘Cadillac tax,’ and they didn’t talk about immigration.”
“I heard them talk about college, but we need to talk about the lower grades,” said Annette Wright-DeCampos. “All of our costs—gas, milk, groceries—have gone up. But our wages have not gone up,” said David Hancock. “For me, personally, there was not a winner—no specifics on immigration or a pathway to citizenship,” said Rory Martinez, who hopes to run for office himself in 2016.
That call for specifics—and for both Clinton and Sanders to up their game—was one I heard repeatedly during my visit. Courtney Errington works for the Southern Nevada Regional Housing Authority and is treasurer of SEIU Nevada. “We know we need jobs—but what kind of jobs? Where are they going to come from? Are they going to be jobs where everybody on their off days are going to be standing around holding signs saying $15 or bust? And what are we doing about replacing the jobs we’ve already sent overseas in our various trade agreements? That’s like putting toothpaste back in the tube,” she said.
Errington too has yet to decide on a candidate. “Bernie Sanders, he puts it out there. What I like about him—what I liked about Obama—is being more with the people than with the money. Hillary doesn’t get the people…. I’m not saying she’ll be a bad president,” Errington laughs. “After all, she’s been living in public housing for a long time—but it ain’t the kind of public housing I work in.”
Alfredo Serrano is also an SEIU member—and he says he has decided. “Hillary’s the best candidate,” he asserts. “I can’t see wasting my vote on someone who’s not going to be elected.” But he’s not exactly a true believer: “I’m like, ‘Any Democrat will do.’” He’s excited, though, to be taking his daughter to a Clinton rally the day after the debate, saying, “She might get to meet the next president.”
* * *
Now that the Democratic field has essentially become a two-person race, we can expect the media—and the candidates themselves—to emphasize the differences between the contenders. As we saw in the first debate, Clinton and Sanders really do represent two different views of politics and possibility. Far more than her shape-shifting husband, Hillary Clinton is running as a genuine liberal, committed to reforming the system to make it fairer and sharing its benefits more widely, but also to preserving its essential structures, from Wall Street to Wal-Mart. The promise, and the peril, of the Sanders campaign comes from his refusal to accept the premises that have for so long bound our politics—especially regarding the economy. When Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren says, “The game is rigged,” they’re usually talking about that.
Yet our politics are rigged, too—perhaps nowhere more openly than right here in Las Vegas, where two of the biggest non-union casinos, the Venetian and the Palazzo, belong to Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson. You can’t change one without the other—and in neither case can you expect a fair fight. Regardless of what happens in Iowa or New Hampshire, a win here for Clinton would put her on the path from electable to inevitable. A victory for Sanders would be a huge upset, undeniable evidence that his talk of a “political revolution” really is more than a pipe dream. Of course, that assumes—as most of us do—that the two candidates’ objectives are mutually exclusive.
On the afternoon before the debate, both campaigns staged “visibility” events outside the Wynn. Clinton’s crowd—about 50 people wearing matching blue shirts with a big “H”—took the sky bridge over Las Vegas Boulevard chanting, “HRC in 2016!” There were more Sanders supporters—I counted at least 120, with nurses’-union members in red, others in Bernie blue—but instead of staying in one place, they marched in a circuitous route dictated, the organizers said, by their lack of a permit. They mostly chanted, “We are the 99 percent!”—until the two groups met. At first, both competed to see who could chant the loudest. Then, as the Sanders contingent got halfway across the bridge, someone started chanting, “We’re on the same team!”—and both sides picked it up. After about a minute, it was back to politics as usual. I don’t know what it means. But I was there, and I saw it.