For Sanders And Clinton, Nevada Caucus Could Provide Insight Into The Latino Vote

Feb 18, 2016

This Saturday, the third contest will be held in the Democratic presidential race: the Nevada caucuses.

It’s the first the chance to learn how an electorate with significant numbers of people of color will size up the two leading Democratic candidates.

In the East Las Vegas Community Center, a few hundred people are listening intently to Dolores Huerta. The 85-year activist is warmly greeted as one of the founders of the National Farm Workers Association.

There’s frequent applause as she slips easily between Spanish and English, rallying the room to support her candidate, Hillary Clinton.

“She can make it happen because she is a person who gets things done!” Huerta says. The crowd applauds.

The Nevada Democratic Party organized this event to mobilize Latinos to register and caucus for the party this weekend. A couple of campaign surrogates spoke for Clinton and Sanders each, but the room seems noticeably tilted in favor of Clinton.

Cesar Vargas is the National Latino Outreach coordinator for the Sanders campaign. He says scenes like this are typical.

“Well, this was run by the Democratic Party,” Vargas explains, “so I was not surprised.”

But Vargas pushes back on the idea that minorities are, by default, Clinton voters.

“I actually find that a little disrespectful to label Latinos, other communities of culture, as a ‘firewall’ – as if we’re a political tool,” he says. “No. Now, we are part of every group and you should talk to us and engage with us like you would with every group.”

Cesar Vargas, the National Latino Outreach coordinator for the Sanders campaign, says he finds it "disrespectful" to refer to the Latino vote as a "firewall" for any candidate.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

Nevada’s population is just over half white - 56 percent of Nevadans were white and non-Hispanic in the last U.S. Census. Among the minority demographic groups in the state, the Latino community is the largest – over 27 percent and growing.

Latinos were called an “untapped reservoir” of potential voters in a 2013 report from Brookings Mountain West. Conventional wisdom and many polls have held that minority voters would favor Clinton over Sanders.

John Tuman is chair of political science at University Nevada Las Vegas and co-author of the Brookings report.

“I don’t think she has an electoral lock on minority votes or on Democratic votes more generally,” says Tuman.

He says the Latino workforce here is concentrated in the home construction sector and the hospitality industry – and both were devastated by the 2008 recession. Unemployment among Latinos here went up to 18 percent, and long-term unemployment persisted. That makes economic issues a high priority for Latino voters here.

“That’s why I think Sanders message might resonate among Latinos and particularly young Latinos here,” says Tuman. “It’s not that Clinton isn’t competitive on these issues, but I think Sanders has forced her to talk a lot more about a broader range of economic issues than she was prepared to talk about.”

Back at the East Las Vegas Community Center, the speeches are over, and so is the instructional session on how caucuses work.

A Democratic Party worker is helping high school seniors, Adriana Martin and Jessica Garcia, to use their cell phones to find their caucus precincts.

High school seniors Adriana Martin (left) and Jessica Garcia say they appreciate the Nevada Democratic Party's effort to get young voters to participate in Saturday's caucus.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

Dolores Huerta might have encouraged them to vote for Hillary, and John Tuman might have predicted economics as the drivers. But these two young caucus-goers have other ideas in mind.

“Bernie, I like that he’s consistent,” Martin says. “He voted against the Iraq war, so I was like, ok. And Hillary voted for the war, so I’m just like, ok. I’m going to side for the one I think is better.”

“I like the fact that he’s going to lower college tuition – of course, since I’m about to go to college myself!” Garcia adds. “And then, I also like the income equality, and I like that he doesn’t accept money from Wall Street.”

Martin and Garcia say they appreciate the effort the campaigns and others are making to get young people to Caucus on Saturday. And they say it’s exciting that the first time they get to vote, it’ll be for a president.

VPR's coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.