Today Nevada Democrats head to caucus, and among caucus goers will be the first significant numbers of voters of color to weigh in on the presidential primaries thus far. Today’s caucus is as much a test of Bernie Sanders’s and Hillary Clinton’s ground operations to mobilize Latino, black, and Asian voters as it is a contest between the two Democratic candidates.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s caucus both campaigns pushed hard. On Thursday morning Marco Antonio Regil, a longtime TV host in Mexico, spoke in the front yard of a Bernie Sanders supporter’s North Las Vegas home. He was kicking off a day of canvassing Spanish-speaking voters. “He might be the oldest guy in the race but he has the youngest heart,” Regil told the two dozen volunteers, moving back and forth from Spanish to English with easy charm. Regis said he has never backed a politician in his life, but Bernie “makes me wake up and believe things can change.… And he talks about equality, he talks about immigrants with compassion. He understands it’s human beings first.”
Volunteers and immigrant activists from California, Arizona, and Texas showed up for the small kickoff. Among them was Marco Malagon, an undocumented immigrant from North Texas who is no stranger to immigrant activism, or even the 2016 campaign. In December, Malagon was pulled out of a Brooklyn hotel ballroom after he interrupted an immigration speech Clinton was giving. Malagon criticized Clinton’s remarks in 2014 urging that child migrants fleeing Central America “should be sent back.” On Thursday, Malagon told of his family’s forced emigration from Mexico after the country’s economic collapse—which Malagon blamed on NAFTA, a narrative that dovetails with Sanders’s critique of free-trade agreements.
“When Latinos hear what Bernie’s message is, they vote for Bernie,” Bill Velazquez, director of national Latino outreach for the Sanders campaign, told the volunteers Thursday. “You, today, will get that message to them.”
Saturday, however, is the first time that a significant number of Latinos will have a chance to actually weigh in. In Nevada, Latinos are 28 percent of the state population, according to the 2014 Census, and 17 percent of the state’s electorate, according to Pew. Nationally, Latinos are just 18 percent of the population.
People of color may be the driving force behind Nevada’s population growth, but shifting demographics don’t automatically translate into electoral shifts. Clinton’s campaign took note of that reality early on, and opened its first field office in Nevada back in April. Led by State Director Emmy Ruiz and Nevada Organizing Director Jorge Neri, veterans of Clinton’s 2008 campaign and Obama’s 2012 reelection fight in Nevada, the campaign has taken a rigorous approach to bringing voters of color into the fold. Ruiz and Neri launched targeted outreach initiatives like Mujeres in Politics, deploying Latinas to call other Latinas to spread the word about Clinton and get them involved in the campaign. The campaign has also hosted Clinton-themed poetry slams, and a kamayan potluck dinner for Filipinos, who are the largest Asian ethnicity in the state.
It would seem to be an uphill climb for the Sanders campaign, which didn’t open its first campaign office in the state until October. Today, the campaign boasts 12 offices throughout Nevada and insists it’s caught up quickly. Polling in Nevada is sparse, but at the end of last year Clinton was besting Sanders by 23 points. The latest polls, released last week by the conservative website Free Beacon and on Wednesday by CNN/ORC, say the candidates are neck and neck. Recent efforts by Clinton spokesperson Brian Fallon to tamp down Nevada expectations suggests that the campaign recognizes Sanders’s surging popularity in the state. Fallon said Sanders gained extra viability from Nevada’s caucus format and voting demographics in a state that’s “still…80 percent white voters”—a claim that’s since been widely debunked.
That doesn’t mean they’re quite done with the state. This week the campaign flexed its power endorsements in its get-out-to-caucus flurry. On Thursday night Hillary Clinton walked to the stage of a Laborers International Union rally accompanied by Latino activist icon Dolores Huerta, Representatives Maxine Waters and Marcia Fudge, and former Nevada attorney general and Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto.
By the time Clinton got to the stage, the crowd of union members and families had been waiting for outdoors for two hours and got to watch Clinton’s half of the MSNBC’s town hall, during which Clinton pledged to introduce priority legislation in her first 100 days in office with immigration reform “at the top of that list.”
Secretary of Labor Tom Perez was the warm-up act, and told the crowd he was backing Clinton because “She’s a dreamer and a fighter.” Former mayor of Oakland Jean Quan milled around among the audience, many who wore LiUNA’s orange shirts. She said she’d been recruited by the Clinton campaign to help make calls and canvass door to door to make the final push for Asian voters. “I’ve got a call sheet with me and when I get a break I can just make calls,” Quan said.
The Clinton campaign also released an ad Wednesday geared squarely at the state’s Latino and immigrant voters. In it, Clinton sits in a roundtable and embraces a 10-year-old girl who talks through tears as she explains the fear that her parents will be deported. “I’m going to do everything I can so you don’t have to be scared,” Clinton says. “Let me do the worrying. I’ll do all the worrying. Is that a deal?”
Today, Clinton will get her first answer.