LAS VEGAS — In one of her final days campaigning in Las Vegas before Nevada Democrats head to caucus, Hillary Clinton crammed her schedule with a service at a predominantly black church, a sandwich shop in Chinatown and a round-table discussion with DREAMers — immigrants brought to the country illegally as small children — and their families.
Clinton, who has long been considered a favorite among blacks and Hispanics, has counted diverse Nevada as part of a so-called firewall to ensure she wins the Democratic presidential nomination. But her Valentine’s Day itinerary showed how urgently she’s trying to shore up support with minorities taking a closer look at a surging Bernie Sanders.
“As soon as people become aware about Bernie, they can’t really back down about his policies,” said Cynthia Salgado, a 17-year-old who supported Clinton but then decided to volunteer for Sanders after watching a Facebook video about him. “It sounds great, especially for the Latino community in Vegas.”
Sanders, who didn’t set up shop in Nevada until months after Clinton staffers were on the ground, has been trying to make up for lost time among minority voters who made up one-third of Democratic caucus-goers in 2008. His campaign’s weekend schedule included a pick-up game of soccer, calls for homemade tamales for volunteers and a Sanders appearance at the same African-American church Clinton attended.
For Sanders, a strong performance in Nevada would show his message has a national reach rather than just one confined to white households in New Hampshire and Iowa. It also would undermine Clinton’s arguments that she is best suited to inherit the diverse, multiethnic coalition that helped Barack Obama win the past two presidential elections.
Clinton’s campaign has long counted minorities, an especially Latinos, in her corner. Latino support helped Clinton eke out a narrow victory over Obama in the 2008 Nevada caucuses, and she made a dramatic appearance in Las Vegas last year to announce she’d try to expand Obama’s actions limiting deportation. Clinton’s ties to the community date back to her first job in politics, registering Hispanic voters in Texas during Democrat George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.
But many of Sanders’ Latino supporters are too young to remember the Clinton presidency, let alone Hillary Clinton’s 44-year-old voter registration drive. They are moved by Sanders’ messages on a $15 minimum wage and free college.
“The senator’s not Mexican, the senator’s not Latino — he does count on us to speak through the Latino community,” said Cesar Vargas, a 32-year-old campaign staffer whose claim to fame is being the first undocumented lawyer admitted to the New York state bar and the one to craft Sanders’ immigration platform last fall. “Overall, it’s not necessarily that he’s a white older man from Vermont, it’s just that his policies ring true.”
There’s still a loyalty to Clinton that’s hard to overcome among minority voters. At church, Sanders got applause for a speech condemning mass incarceration and police shootings.
But Clinton brought in the trump card with an introduction by civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis. She peppered her speech with praise for Obama; the applause was louder and more stood for the ovation.
“Minorities remember. We’re forced to remember more than anybody else,” said 38-year-old David Carnell, an African-American Clinton supporter who came to a rally she held Sunday evening in Las Vegas. “I think a few African Americans may be swayed by Bernie because he says so many things about the prison system. In the end, black people remember what she did and what she’s stood for years ago. I don’t think that’s going to change. I think that’s going to accelerate.”
In such a close contest, the campaigns have been trying to match each other’s every overture toward minority communities. Clinton placed one of her seven Nevada offices in the heavily Hispanic East Las Vegas neighborhood, while Sanders added one of his twelve not far away.
Both have released Spanish-language commercials as part of their major ad buys.
Sanders highlighted a list of endorsements from Nevada Hispanics, but Clinton recently announced the backing of nine prominent DREAMer activists who since appeared in commercials and introduced her at campaign events, arguing she’s more likely to get immigration reform done. The move sparked social media sniping between DREAMers in the two different camps, including a public tug-of-war over one Nevada activist who had expressed interest in both candidates.
Though there have been private tremors of worry, Clinton backers are publicly confident.
“(The Sanders campaign has) a lot of energy but ultimately I feel people will vote for the person they trust and who has a proven record, and that’s Hillary,” state Sen. Ruben Kihuen said.
He has endorsed Hillary in contrast to his congressional primary opponent and former legislative colleague Lucy Flores, a fellow young Hispanic with a high profile among Nevada Latinos.
“Hillary has been championing our issues for many years. Not just all of a sudden when she decided to run for president,” Kihuen said.