Nevada is Democratic presidential candidates’ first real test with Latino voters

by Seema Mehta and Melissa Gomez

Lisa Rosario describes herself as a political junkie. But she still hasn’t decided who she will support in the Democratic presidential contest.

“It’s gut-wrenching because this to me is one of the most important votes that we’ve had in my generation. This is a huge vote, especially for Latinos,” said Rosario, 55, who is of Puerto Rican descent. She was waiting to hear candidates at a casino fundraiser held in Las Vegas by the Clark County Democrats.

Rosario, a lifelong Republican, said she listened to misinformation and supported President Trump in 2016 but switched parties after she saw him in office. Now the Henderson, Nev., resident says beating him is crucial. “This is like women’s rights or ending slavery. It’s that important,” Rosario said.

The candidates, done with the first nominating contests in the relatively homogeneous states of Iowa and New Hampshire, are focusing on minority voters such as Rosario now that the race is moving into more diverse states. In Nevada, which has started early voting and holds caucuses Saturday, 1 in 5 voters is Latino.

“That’s why Nevada is so important” in the nominating contest, Gov. Steve Sisolak said before candidates spoke at the Las Vegas fundraiser. “We’ve got the most diverse group here. … This is the United States of America that you’re seeing represented in this room tonight. That’s our electorate, that’s our voters. That’s who these candidates have to appeal to, across all demographics, across all other issues. They have to appeal to everyone.”

Cecia Alvarado, executive director of the nonpartisan organization Mi Familia Vota in Nevada, said she has seen campaigns more active in courting Latino voters than in previous elections.

“We are seeing a bigger effort from the candidates because they know that Latinos are looking for them to talk about the issues that they care about,” Alvarado said. “The Latinx voter is a high-maintenance voter. It’s no longer just enough to run an ad in Spanish.”

Most campaigns have made a point of hiring bilingual Latino staff, including in leadership positions. They send mailers in multiple languages and multilingual volunteers reach out to voters by phone and in person.

Advertising is of course ubiquitous, with candidates spending a total of $15.2 million to date in Nevada. Many of the candidates are also pitching their candidacies on Spanish-language television.

On Sunday night, viewers watching Telemundo may have caught an ad for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar featuring a Spanish-speaking narrator who spoke about her fight for better healthcare, prescription drug prices and education. “Amy knows what’s important: our well-being,” the narrator says.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ad, which also features a Spanish-speaking narrator, is more personal, reminding viewers that his father immigrated to the U.S. seeking a better life and didn’t speak English. “Bernie never forgot the immigrant roots of his family, and that’s why he has always fought for us,” the narrator says.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Spanish-language ad strikes a personal tone, saying that she fights hard because she comes from a family that struggled, a theme she visits in her talks to voters as well.

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who is responsible for more than two-thirds of the candidates’ ad spending in the state, is on television so frequently that Cindy Gonzalez can recite his ads by memory.

But the 27-year-old engineer from Henderson plans to caucus for Warren, who Gonzalez wishes was on television more frequently.

“She has a plan for healthcare, and it’s great, but people just don’t know about it,” Gonzalez said after hearing Warren speak at an early voting event in a Las Vegas high school auditorium.

Her coworker, Dylan Jaramillo, who also plans to vote for Warren, agreed. “I believe she is the candidate to beat President Trump,” he said, but added that he’s seen no Spanish-language advertising from her campaign. “She’s done a pretty poor job at targeting, especially the Hispanic community.”

Former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the only one with an ad that features the candidate speaking Spanish. In it, he says he aims to unify the country and attacks Trump for his “brand of chaos and corruption.”

Buttigieg is the sole remaining candidate in the race who speaks Spanish, and he regularly sprinkles his stump speech with it as he campaigns in Nevada.

As he spoke about reforming the immigration system at a rally in a high school gym, Buttigieg switched from English to Spanish and said, “Y a los soñadores que están aquí, les apoyamos y sabemos que este país es tu país también.” That translates to: “And to the Dreamers who are here, we support you, and we know that this country is your country, too.”

The line struck Las Vegas resident Marci Pichardo as odd. Pichardo, a Latina and Sanders supporter, attended the event to hear Buttigieg speak because she was considering caucusing for him. But his one Spanish phrase sounded scripted and selective, she said.

“It just sounds weird to hear a politician try to force it because they don’t really speak the language,” Pichardo said, adding that she ultimately decided not to caucus for Buttigieg because he didn’t sound genuine. “I get they’re trying to get voters, but it just sounds kind of fake.”

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, Buttigieg was asked a written question in Spanish about the immigrant experience for Latinos. His response came out in choppy Spanish as he appeared to grasp for words. It prompted brief clapping from the mostly white crowd and a short “si se puede” chant before he translated his response into English.

The candidates have also been courting voters through Spanish-language media. But such efforts can be perilous, as Klobuchar and Steyer learned last week. Asked on Telemundo to name Mexico’s president, both failed. Buttigieg was able to identify Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Candidates also lean heavily on surrogates to make their case. Julián Castro, the Texan and former Obama Cabinet member who recently dropped out of the presidential race, will stump for Warren this week. Steyer had the son of one of the members of Los Tigres del Norte speaking out for him. Sanders had Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rock star among liberals, campaign for him here late last year.

Former Vice President Joe Biden tapped Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is of Mexican, Italian and Jewish heritage, to speak on his behalf at an organizing event in Las Vegas featuring Latino leaders, where the campaign handed out “Estoy con Joe” stickers.

“En español, decimos, dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres,” Garcetti told scores of volunteers and supporters. “It’s a dicho — saying — that says, ‘Tell me who you walk with and I will tell you who you are.’”

Biden’s campaign has been strategic about seeking endorsements from prominent Latino leaders, such as Nevada state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, who is a familiar face at many of his events.

Campaigns have also held social events intended to foster bonds and familiarity in the community.

Sanders’ campaign recently hosted a house party with supporters over tamales and put together a soccer game Monday night with voters. Steyer’s organization allowed community members to stage a Christmas play at one of its offices.

No one has at much at stake as Sanders, a front-runner here who invested in Latino outreach efforts early and aggressively, and who is counting on Latino support as critical to his path to the nomination. He’s taking a similar approach in California, where he rallied thousands in the Bay Area on Monday. Polling shows he is popular with Latinos, particularly young people.

Jessica Ramos, a state senator from New York, implored Sanders’ supporters to make sure they turn out during a weekend rally in East Las Vegas.

“Nevada, we need you to caucus, we need you to vote for Bernie, we need you to bring your abuela, we need you to bring your tio, we need you to bring your best friend, we need you to bring your neighbor,” she told more than 1,000 people gathered at a high school in the heavily Latino part of the city. “Make sure we do everything we can. Leave no door unknocked, leave no stone unturned until we have Bernie Sanders as our president.”

Sanders then led a march to a nearby early voting site. Several hundred followed him for the 15-minute walk, holding signs about immigration and criminal justice reform and chanting, “Se vive, se siente, Bernie presidente!” which means “We live it, we feel it, Bernie president!”

For Las Vegas resident Sierra Brooks, it was her first time voting.

“I like how he’s going to give everybody an opportunity to have healthcare and he’s going to give everybody an opportunity to go to school,” said the 19-year-old call-center worker, who is of Mexican and African American descent. “I’m excited.”

Seema Mehta is a reporter covering the 2020 presidential campaign. She started at the Los Angeles Times. @LATSeema

Melissa Gomez is a reporter covering the 2020 presidential campaign for Los Angeles Times. @MelissaGomez004

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