As they showed in Wednesday night’s debate, the Democratic presidential hopefuls didn’t come to Nevada to play games. They came to fight one another, hammer and tong, with the passion one sees in a UFC fight at the MGM Grand.
And the big prize the Democratic frontrunners—Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden—are fighting over is the all-important Latino vote.
The stakes are huge. Nevada is the first “Latino” contest in the Democratic primary election. Iowa is 6.2 percent Latino, and New Hampshire is just 3.9 percent Latino. Nevada is 30 percent.
As for how all those people break down politically, the outlook in Nevada looks a lot like what we see throughout the Southwest. Democrats hold a 2-1 advantage over Republicans in terms of registered Latino voters. But what keeps Democrats up at night, and keeps them stumping for votes in Mexican-American barrios and Mexican restaurants, is that Latinos have a tendency to wander off and vote for Republicans they can live with. They just don’t bother to change their party registration. Besides, a Republican only has to get 30 percent of the Latino vote to wreak havoc on an election.
Latinos are America’s largest minority. They now make up about 18 percent of the U.S. population and are on pace to account for a quarter of the population by 2030. They are a constituency that Democrats cannot afford to ignore. Although they try sometimes.
Saturday, that constituency is up for grabs. So who is in the best position to grab most of it?
Even without an endorsement by the powerful Culinary Union, Sanders has the best ground game. The Vermont senator was the top choice in two recent polls of Latinos, conducted by Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision.
Biden also polls well with Latinos, particularly the elderly. Whether shopping for detergent or presidents, we’re known for brand loyalty. The Biden brand is strong. Besides, the former vice president can take a punch. Latinos like that. On Thursday, Biden was endorsed by Latino Victory, the PAC co-founded by Eva Longoria.
Warren doesn’t seem to be gaining from Julian Castro’s endorsement. Latinos don’t have a record of transferring enthusiasm from one candidate to another based on an endorsement. The Massachusetts senator has to make her own connection. I’m not sure that has happened yet.
Buttigieg flubbed an attempt to speak a few words of Spanish to a Latino group, and he had to quickly revert to English as the crowd laughed nervously. That’s not a deal-breaker but it does remind voters that South Bend is not in the Southwest.
Klobuchar couldn’t name the president of Mexico, and then arrogantly quipped that running for president wasn’t Jeopardy! Don’t be surprised if the Minnesota senator is sent home without a parting gift from Latino voters.
In Nevada, Latino immigrants are—along with gaming and unions—one of the major economic and political forces in the state. That is likely one of the main reasons that Nevada hasn’t gone the way of neighboring Arizona, which 10 years ago declared war on its demographic changes, and the people causing them, by passing a law requiring state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws.
But nor do most Nevadans want to be anything like their neighbor to the west.
Each year, Californians account for 20 to 25 percent of the 43 million people who visit Las Vegas. And because of the state’s low cost of living, some of those Californians decide to stay. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, from July 2017 to 2018, more than 50,000 Californians moved to Nevada.
Talk to longtime residents of Vegas, as I did during a recent visit, and you will detect nervousness about whether they’re importing not just Californians but also the left-wing politics of the dark blue state. After all, if you made the same trek 20 or 30 years ago—moving from, say, Los Angeles to Nevada after the L.A. riots, or the 2001 economic recession—part of what you fled was a California style of governance that was already becoming too expensive to maintain. Now, what you were running away from has caught up with you.
Education and water are still leading issues of concern, but lately the hottest issue is taxes. Nevadans have had a good thing going for decades with low sales taxes, property taxes, and no state income taxes. That may change as some try to raise money for state and county coffers.
While there has always been a strong Mormon influence in the state, Latinos are likely to run the table soon. There is some friction with African-Americans who, at 6 percent of the population, feel displaced. But so far, it’s minimal. The major split is North vs. South. The latter is more diverse and generates most of the income for the state. This leads to resentment in liberal Vegas that conservative cities like Elko or Reno are getting a free ride. And Elko and Reno don’t like Vegas because it seems like an eastern annex of California.
And let’s not forget about President Trump. He also has designs on Nevada and on getting a slice of the Latino vote. Once the primary is over with, and they choose their nominee, Democrats will have another battle on their hands—with Trump, over Latinos.
Trump got 28 percent of the Latino vote nationally in 2016. Polls suggest he could top 30 percent this year. That would make it nearly impossible for any Democratic nominee to win the White House.
In Nevada, Trump stands to do well with Latinos. His message of job creation and economic growth will resonate in a boomtown like Las Vegas. He’ll also benefit from the fact that Latinos in Nevada—like other inhabitants of the West — have an independent streak. They do whatever they want, without apology.
The future isn’t blue or red. It’s purple. Nevada, and its six electoral votes, will matter in November. Bet on it.