The forum at the East Las Vegas Community Center in late July was bilingual, but when Democratic Assemblyman Nelson Araujo needed to make his most urgent and personal appeal, he did it in Spanish.
“Si no votamos, vamos a perder,” he told about 50 attendees at the Latinx Congreso, an all-day gathering of progressive-leaning groups seeking to educate Latinos on the political process. “Si seguimos perdiendo, los que van a quedarse en las esquinas son las personas a quienes queremos más en este mundo.”
It translates to “If we don’t vote, we’re going to lose. If we keep losing, those that will be left on the corners are those that we love most in the world.” And it’s a sentiment that’s especially meaningful for Nevada’s Hispanic voters, who are credited with putting now-Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Hillary Clinton over the top in 2016 but are projected to stay home at a higher rate during a sleepier midterm.
Latinos account for 28 percent of Nevada’s population but their political power is far from fully tapped. With many of them too young to vote, not registered or not eligible to vote because of their citizenship status, they make up about 16.4 percent of the electorate.
They have also been less consistent than the population overall in showing up to the polls, with only 57 percent of those old enough to vote casting a ballot in 2016. Latino voters “under vote” relative to the overall voting age population by an average of 2.2 percentage points in presidential years, and a full 4.8 percent in midterm elections, according to research from UNLV political science professor David Damore. In comparison, white voters “over vote” by nearly 8.5 percent in midterms.
“Given the partisan voting patterns of these different racial and ethnic groups, if nonwhite voters in Nevada voted at the same level as whites, Nevada would no longer be a swing state,” he wrote.
The potential consequences of lackluster Latino turnout in purple Nevada couldn’t have been clearer to the four Democratic legislators sitting on stage. While they touched on their successes, what stood out more was how frankly they talked about their setbacks during a session in which Democrats controlled both the Senate and the Assembly.
Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed 41 bills this session, many of them Democratic priorities, and served as a backstop to protect some Republican legislative accomplishments from 2015 that Democrats dislike. It’s rare to hear Democrats speak ill of the popular governor, but the broad role his vetoes played in keeping the Democratic agenda at bay are a taste of the steeper resistance they would face if a more ideologically driven conservative Republican, such as Attorney General Adam Laxalt, ends up in the governor’s mansion.
“That governor’s race is crucial,” said Sylvia Lazos of Educate Nevada Now, a group whose priorities include fighting the Republican-backed Education Savings Account program. “Other people will say Senator (Dean) Heller this, (Rep.) Jacky Rosen that, but certainly for Nevadans, in terms of our little world in education, that governor’s slot is really important.”
How decisive is the Latino vote?
Democrats learned the consequences of staying home in 2014, the year the party didn’t field a credible challenger to Sandoval and when national trends favoring Republicans helped turn the state red from top to bottom. The turnout among Nevada’s registered Latino voters in 2014 was less than half of what it was in 2012; that drop of more than 64,000 votes statewide helps explain why Democrats also lost a presumably safe seat in the 4th Congressional District.
Democrats, unions and allied groups left nothing to chance in 2016, mounting a strident anti-Trump blitz and an aggressive get-out-the vote campaign that included everything from voter registration at taco trucks to mariachis personally escorting voters to polling places. On the eve of the election, a poll by Latino Decisions found that 71 percent of Nevada Latino voters had been contacted by Democratic operatives, while 31 percent reported a similar outreach by Republicans.
“There is a machine and they do a hell of a job,” observed Daniel Garza, president of the conservative Hispanic outreach group Libre Initiative, about Nevada Democrats.
Strong turnout — perhaps best encapsulated by a long line snaking out the door of a grocery store polling place on the last night of early voting in a heavily Hispanic Las Vegas neighborhood — helped clinch a narrow victory for Cortez Masto and win the state for Clinton on an otherwise bleak election night for Democrats.
It’s impossible to tell exactly how Nevada Latinos voted because of ballot confidentiality and the fact that race and ethnicity data aren’t collected in voter records, but several surveys aimed to pin it down. The national exit poll, which surveyed 2,778 Nevada voters, estimated that 60 percent of Latinos voted for Clinton and 29 percent voted for Trump — which would indicate the more outspoken president did even better than the more circumspect Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters.
Libre points to that poll as evidence that Republicans are gaining ground and that Hispanic voters are still in play between the parties. But other groups are incredulous that support for the GOP is growing even as rhetoric on immigration heats up.
Latino Decisions conducted its own election eve poll of 5,600 high-propensity voters and predicted 81 percent of Nevada Latinos would vote for Clinton and 16 percent would vote for Trump. The group, which has done some polling for Clinton, called the exit poll’s estimates “profoundly and demonstrably incorrect” and say it isn’t designed to accurately reflect the opinions of sub-groups.
A precinct-by-precinct analysis of the 2016 election results from two California academics suggests Nevada Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Clinton and Cortez Masto. The survey, which cross-referenced the results of individual precincts with demographic information about that precinct from a proprietary campaign data vendor, found a higher likelihood of Clinton winning a precinct based on how high a Latino population the precinct had. All told, it estimated that 88 percent of Nevada Latinos voted for Clinton and just 10 percent chose Trump.
So how pivotal were Latino voters in putting Democratic candidates over the top? Clinton won by 27,202 votes in Nevada. In the 82 Nevada precincts with 40 percent or more Latino voters, she had a 24,000-vote lead — or 90 percent of her margin of victory.
“Latinos are going to be — and they have been for the last four election cycles — the pivotal vote in every election, whether it’s a city council race or a U.S. Senate race,” said Leo Murrieta, an organizer at the Congreso event and an official with the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. “Every single one of those candidates is going to have to come to our communities and justify why they deserve our vote.”
A heightened awareness
Years without presidential elections favor Republicans who tend to turn out more consistently than Democrats. One analysis by the Voter Participation Center predicts 309,000 fewer Nevadans will cast a ballot in 2018 compared with 2016 — a 44.2 percent drop.
But compared with 2014, this cycle has the intrigue of an open governor’s seat and a highly competitive Senate race that, if Danny Tarkanian defeats Heller in a primary, would feature an ardently pro-Trump candidate as a potential turnout driver. Mi Familia Vota Executive Director Ben Monterroso says that the constant drama of the Trump presidency means conventional wisdom is out the window on turnout.
“I think that there are no studies or no practices in the past that are valid anymore today because of the situation,” he said. “One thing that I always say is: ‘Often, we only talk about politics a few months before the election.’ Unfortunately, we have been forced to talk about politics since June 15, 2016, when president Trump decided to announce his candidacy. But there’s not a day that goes by without our community knowing that politics matter.”
Reno City Councilman Oscar Delgado, who is considering a run for secretary of state, said he sees that reality in his parents. They’ve been in the U.S. since the 1960s, but his dad just became a citizen and his mom is just now working on her citizenship because she wants to be more involved in the national conversation.
“They’ve been comforted in knowing that they can live the American dream by just working really hard. But now they’ve been pushed that extra little bit more,” he said. “A lot of this is pushed on fear, and that’s unfortunate, but I think that sometimes that’s something forcing people to get involved and engaged.”
The fear is even more evident among people in the country illegally.
Celina, a native of Sinaloa who who has been in the U.S. for 17 years, attended a recent forum on immigration fraud prevention hosted by Rep. Dina Titus. She didn’t want to provide her last name because she’s undocumented, but told The Nevada Independent she thinks immigration policies have become too strict since Trump became president.
“This new president doesn’t have a heart,” she said.
Argelia, another attendee who’s a native of Chihuahua, Mexico and has been in the U.S. for 22 years but wanted to withhold her last name because of her citizenship status, said she’s been fearful since Trump took office and feels that any reason now can be a basis for deportation. That’s causing immigrants to distrust authorities, she said.
While people like Argelia and Celina can’t vote, their stories are especially personal to Latino voters who can. According to Latino Decisions, 69 percent of Nevada Latinos know someone who is undocumented.
While the trend lines suggest an increasingly powerful Latino vote, it hasn’t stopped Republican candidates from adopting strident rhetoric and taking hard-line positions on immigration — an issue that’s ranked as one of the biggest priorities for Nevada Latino voters.
Likely gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt’s first major action as Nevada attorney general was joining a lawsuit against the federal government over President Obama’s executive order expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to more young people and their parents. The move was against the will of the governor, and it’s attracted protests at his office in subsequent years.
“I think that Laxalt is going to have a really hard time convincing hardly any Latinos to vote for him. He’s attacked my family, our family, mixed status families — he has been no friend to us, period. Latinos are going to remember that,” Murrieta said. “He may be able to get through a primary, but in Nevada you have to win the general, and quite frankly, Latinos are going to decide who sits in that office.”
Laxalt, through his campaign, declined to comment on how that controversial action might affect his future political moves.
Prospective lieutenant governor candidate Michael Roberson, who has praised Laxalt and is expected to run on an unofficial ticket with him, has latched onto sanctuary cities as a primary theme in his unannounced campaign and hopes to capitalize on fears that immigrant crime is going unchecked.
Groups like the Libre Initiative are more enthusiastic about Sen. Dean Heller, who was one of 14 Republican senators to support a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate in 2013.
“I know he is friendly to immigration reform and has said that he is willing to work with Democrats on even comprehensive immigration reform. So I think this will help him tremendously in getting through to Latino voters on other issues, like the economy and education, national security and health care,” Garza said. “The caveat of course is this could hurt him in the primaries.”
Heller’s primary challenger Danny Tarkanian has indeed pounced on the senator’s immigration reform moves.
“He campaigned on illegal immigration, and then he’s one of the senators that was trying to provide amnesty to illegal immigrants,” Tarkanian said. “People don’t feel they can trust politicians any more, and I think Dean Heller is a poster boy of that type of politician.”
While Tarkanian said he doesn’t support deporting DREAMers, he is a vocal advocate of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Those positions can be an asset in a Republican primary, where there’s a premium on hewing toward Trump’s law and order policies, but they also suggest the candidates are relying on a less-than-formidable showing among Latinos in the general election.
“I think when a political party decides that their best gamble is making sure people don’t turn out, that is a losing game for democracy,” said Murrieta.
And as more young Latinos reach voting age in Nevada, hard-line immigration approaches could backfire.
“It’s just so bizarre to do what they’re doing,” Damore said. “It just seems really, really tough long-term to win with this model here.”
Preparing for the fight
Progressive groups are gearing up for the fight with a coordinated campaign aimed at getting more Latinos educated about the importance of their vote. That was evident at the Latinx Congreso, where the 50 or so attendees gathered in small groups led by Democratic Hispanic state lawmakers and discussed newly passed bills on education, health care and criminal justice.
Those efforts — organized by a wide range of groups including the Human Rights Campaign, Mi Familia Vota and the League of Conservation Voters — complement ongoing campaigns to get immigrants naturalized. Then there are voter registration drives and education initiatives.
“We’re highly focused on providing enough information and education to build political power,” Murrieta said. “This is focused on building our community’s political power ahead of not just the ‘18 election, but the ‘19 legislative session, the 2020 redistricting.”
It’s not just the Democrats working in the off-season.
The Libre Initiative, funded by the conservative Koch Brothers, has been cultivating its voters since setting up shop in Nevada in 2011. In the “calm before the storm,” the group is continuing its soft outreach, such as workshops in Spanish to help people pass their driver’s license test.
It’s also educating Nevadans about tax-credit-funded Opportunity Scholarships — which allow low- and middle-income families money to pay for private school tuition — and the broader concept of school choice. And like progressives, Libre helps people become naturalized citizens.
“When you don’t have a driver’s license, when you don’t have a quality education and when you don’t have citizenship, and these kinds of important things, it actually disadvantages you in the marketplace and you don’t have an equal shot at opportunity,” Garza said. “It’s so important to change the lives of people in a real, sustainable way and by doing that, it also gains us a trust within the community and then we’re able to have more credibility when it comes to driving issues.”
Later on, Libre will move into direct campaign mode: advertising and get-out-the-vote initiatives meant to mobilize Nevadans sympathetic to their conservative causes.
The Republican National Committee is out in the field organizing teams of volunteers focused on reaching out to the Latino community and registering voters. The group believes it can make inroads with Latinos on issues including infrastructure spending and tax reform.
“We’re investing very heavily in our ground game, and that goes for the Latino vote,” said Christiana Purves, an RNC spokeswoman. “We are very hopeful that we’ll be able to do well in that voter group. There are certain parts of the president’s agenda and Republican plans for the next 14 months that we think are going to really resonate with Latinos. We know that through talking to them.”
Organizers at the Latinx Congreso said their main goal is making sure community members know where elected officials stand on key issues. That way, when campaign season comes around and candidates start courting Latino voters, those voters can respond.
“I think that, people are finally seeing issues that we care are tied to the people that we elect, and the people that we elect need to understand that we’re watching, because they’re being elected to deal with these issues, not just to tell us ‘no se puede’ [it can’t be done],” Monterroso said. “That’s not acceptable any more.”
Riley Snyder contributed to this report.