By Jacob Langsner
When it comes to presidential elections, Shelley Berkley sees Nevada as a pendulum.
Republican Ronald Reagan carried the state by landslide margins in the 1980s, but Bill Clinton turned Nevada a light shade of blue in the ’90s. Then the pendulum swung again, in favor of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. “We moderated and moved towards a Republican point of view,” said Berkley, a Democrat who represented much of the Las Vegas metropolitan area in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1999 to 2013. “The reason that was unsustainable in Nevada was the influx in Hispanic population.”
By the time Berkley left office, her 1st congressional district was 41% Hispanic, and Barack Obama had twice carried Nevada. So did Hillary Clinton in 2016, despite fervent support for Donald Trump in rural counties.
Hispanics now comprise about 30% of the Nevada’s population, yet it’s not a sure bet that Latinx voters will propel former Vice President Joe Biden over President Trump to gain the state’s six Electoral College delegates.
The latest polls show Biden with a 50% to 43% advantage. Jon Ralston, a political commentator and editor of The Nevada Independent, cautioned that rural voters might surprise the pollsters by turning out for Trump in droves.
Trump won rural Nevada by about 60,000 votes in 2016. “I think that [Trump] numbers will be bigger this time,” said Ralston. “That makes the margin of error for urban centers very small.”
One urban center may decide the Nevada outcome: Clark County.
More than 1.1 million of the state’s 1.6 million registered voters live in the county, which is home to Las Vegas and a large Hispanic population. If Latinx communities were organized to reach their maximum voting potential, Berkeley said, “they could determine almost every election in the Southwest.”
In Clark County, however, mobilizing a reliable Hispanic voting bloc has proven challenging. About 25% of Clark County’s eligible voters are Hispanic. “Even though in my district the number of Hispanic residents was exploding, the number of Hispanic voters was nowhere near what their population numbers were,” Berkley said.
Ralston believes the coronavirus pandemic has hampered Democratic Party efforts to energize Latinx citizens. Voter registration initiatives and campaigning have largely shifted from in-person to virtual, which threatens to soften enthusiasm.
“The Clark firewall is not what it was,” Ralston said, “not because of the GOP machine, but because the Democrats have been handcuffed.” Had the pandemic not occurred, Ralston believes Biden’s current lead in Las Vegas could have been 5 percentage points higher.
Leo Murrieta is the director of “Make the Road Nevada,” a civil rights organization focused on supporting immigrant families. Murrieta works with more than 8,000 people in southern Nevada. In amplifying their voices, he’s become familiar with the complexities of their stories. He said the Democratic Party has not. “Here in the Southwest, politicians lump everyone who is Latinx into the same ‘immigrant’ messaging, and it’s not always the winning message,” Murrieta said.
“The majority of [funding for] elections comes from corporate dollars and the private money of wealthy white individuals,” he added. “The messaging of the Democratic Party is developed under the influence of an elite, white and old consultant class. They don’t know what it takes to mobilize young voters of color today.”
Still, Murrieta believes the Latinx community has demonstrated its power at the polls, pointing to the Democratic presidential caucuses in February. Bernie Sanders claimed a dominant victory over Biden and other rivals “despite corporate donors wanting to see him lose,” Murrieta said. “Latinx voters said no” to establishment forces.
Since gaining his party’s nomination, Biden has tried to balance a centrist platform with elements of Sanders’ agenda on issues such as climate, health care, and immigration. It’s not an easy position to sell in Nevada, Murrieta said, explaining: “Biden has been trying very hard to put forward his immigration policy. He has to weigh the far left calling for the abolition of ICE, and the more moderate desires of his party. For Latinx folks, it’s not hard. If you don’t get immigration right, you’re not going to get my vote.”
President Trump won 26% of Nevada’s Latinx vote in 2016, compared with 60% for Hillary Clinton. During a recent “Latinos for Trump” roundtable in Las Vegas, Trump criticized the Obama administration, and by extension Biden, for “betraying the Hispanic community.” During Obama’s presidency, hundreds of thousands of people without criminal records were deported, an immigration policy that Biden now calls a “big mistake.”
Although the pre-pandemic economy appealed to many Latinx small business owners, as well as workers in the vast Las Vegas hospitality industry, Trump’s hard lines on immigration — from separating asylum-seeking families at the U.S. border to not extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — hurt him with Hispanic voters in Nevada.
Biden’s message to Latinx voters is also strengthened by his approach to health care, said Richard Bryan, a Democrat who was the state’s governor from 1983 to 1989, and Nevada’s state representative in the U.S. Senate until 2001.
“In four years, the Republicans have talked a pretty good game, but they haven’t come up with an alternative to Obamacare,” Bryan said. “Appeals to health care will impact Hispanics, many of whom don’t have it. The Democrats would be well advised to lean into that.”
Congresswoman Dina Titus, the current 1st district congressional representative, agrees. “Obamacare was great for the expansion of Medicaid, and the ability to purchase insurance through the state plan,” she said. “If you take these away during the virus, people will hurt.”
Titus is hopeful that Sanders supporters will turn out for Biden in large numbers, even if he’s not their favored candidate. “They know with Biden in there, they’ll at least be taking steps in the right direction,” she said.
Murrieta offers a less optimistic view. “Whenever Democrats run, it’s never about seeing the candidate as championing our issue,” he said. “What’s happening now is we’re down to the wire. If they have to hold their nose and vote for Biden, we know Latinx people will be responsive to the issues that impact them.”
The Las Vegas Culinary Union, which is majority Hispanic, will play a crucial role in turnout, he added.
“It’s hard to escape the union in the Latinx community,” Murrieta said.