Hillary Clinton supporters spooked by her razor-thin victory in Iowa likely woke up Tuesday morning chanting one thing: “firewall.”
The belief is that once Clinton makes it past the ultra-white contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Sen. Bernie Sanders has a substantial lead in the polls ahead of next week’s primary, she can bank on a more diverse demographic– and particularly Latinos and African-Americans — to bulwark her support in the states that follow.
That back-up plan will get its first true test in Nevada, which hosts a Democratic caucus Feb. 20. It is home to a Latino electorate expected to make up one-fifth of the state’s 2016 voters, along with sizable African-American and Asian-American populations.
It’s a place where Clinton has invested a considerable ground game, having won a majority of the popular vote in the 2008 caucus but losing in the delegate count to then-Sen. Barack Obama. But Nevada is also a state that is still finding its footing on the early primary calendar, meaning she and Sanders don’t have much of a conventional party network to exploit.
“Nevada is different than Iowa and New Hampshire because it’s just new at this. You don’t have those sort of pathways that are well known in those states,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
It’s that sort of blank slate that might make Nevada attractive to the Sanders campaign — which has amped up its efforts there and has already shown an interest in reaching out to young, first-time Latino voters
Early numbers suggest that his campaign was he was able to turn out the burgeoning Latino population in Iowa after an notable outreach campaign.
“Both the Sanders campaign and the O’Malley campaign were tapping into that youthful population of ours, first-time caucusgoers, and clearly it gave some additional support to the Sanders’ campaign,” Joe Enriquez Henry — the Iowa director of the League of United Latin American Citizens — told TPM. Fifteen out of the 20 biggest districts with a Latino presence went to Sanders, according to Buzzfeed, and combined Latino participation in the Democratic and Republican caucuses grew from 1,000 in 2012 to more than 10,000 this year, according to initial exit poll estimates.
“We weren’t hearing much from the Clinton side,” Henry said, of the engagement with Latinos in Iowa.
However, the Latino vote has not — by any standard — been ignored by the Clinton campaign in Nevada.
Her campaign began building its network last April, according to officials. In May she gave a major early speech there, in addition to the listening sessions she attended with Hispanic residents. She has also picked up the endorsement of a number of state lawmakers, many of whom are participating themselves in the campaign’s door-to-door canvassing and voter education efforts.
“We knew that the race was always going to tighten,” Jorge Neri, the Clinton camp’s organizing director in Nevada, told TPM. “What we know here is that the work that we did since April, the relationships that we built, the data we collected and the volunteers are what is going to carry us over here.”
Sanders, in the meantime, has been playing a game of catch-up. He has appeared in Nevada frequently, but his campaign only really began to dig into the state in November. He has, however, picked up a few endorsements along the way, including that of Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores.
(The Sanders campaign did not return multiple inquiries by TPM).
“There is an opening there,” Damore said, of Sanders’ potential for growth in the state. “A lot of Latinos are cynical about politics, they don’t trust politicians all that much.”
However, the Sanders camp has also hit some speed bumps. Its initial Nevada director, Jim Farrell, left the campaign early on, reportedly for family reasons. He has since been replaced by Joan Kato, an alum of Obama’s 2008 Latino outreach team.
More recently, the campaign got in trouble for sending operatives posing as union reps into employee dining halls in order to access workers. The move earned the condemnation of the culinary union Local 226, which is a major player in the state and plays a crucial role in turning out voters.
The union has signaled that it will not endorse a particular Democratic candidate this time around, but favored Obama over Clinton in 2008.
Aside from the usual obstacles Latino voters face, Nevada is particularly tough state to mobilize voters — especially for the Democratic caucus, which in Nevada resembles the complicated process in Iowa.
“This is not like other states where they have long ties to a caucus,” Neri, of the Clinton campaign, said. Much of the campaign effort has focused on the in-field work of cleaning up their voting rolls and teaching potential caucusgoers the process.
“This is a state that is very, very hard,” he said. And as the 2014 GOP electoral sweep in the state showed, Democrats have a long way to go in establishing a dependable infrastructure in the state.
Nevadans are especially transient and many were hit hard by the mortgage crisis. Its residents’ reliance on cellphones also makes even the most basic of polling more difficult.
Clinton’s ground game in Iowa did not deliver her the resounding win that could have quieted Sanders’ revolution for good. So the pressure is on her campaign to get a pay-off for its investment in the West.
“They’ve done what they can do. They’ve organized down to the precinct level. She’s got the more established staff members. She comes here, she says the right things,” Damore said. “What Sanders hasn’t shown is that he can go beyond white voters.”