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AOC stumped for Biden in Las Vegas. Will Nevada progressive voters follow suit?

Progressive groups are banking on voters thinking Biden’s policies better serve their future. A professor said that can be a hard sell to less engaged Nevadans.
Eric Neugeboren
Eric Neugeboren
Election 2024Elections

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) hasn’t shied away from voicing her opposition to some of President Joe Biden’s policies.

The 34-year-old congresswoman, who is perhaps the most prominent progressive in American politics, has been particularly critical about Biden’s continued support of Israel amid its monthslong war against Hamas that has left more than 37,000 Palestinians dead, according to Palestinian health authorities.

But Ocasio-Cortez struck a different tone in Las Vegas in June, a week before last week’s presidential debate. In her first appearance as a surrogate for Biden’s re-election campaign, Ocasio-Cortez held three events in Southern Nevada focusing on affordable housing and reproductive rights, delivering a forceful endorsement of Biden.

“We will have the right to choose, not just with our bodies, but at the ballot box too,” she said at a rally for reproductive rights. “And the only way that Republicans get this message is when the people in this country decisively elect majorities in Congress, re-elect [Sen.] Jacky Rosen and, again, re-elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

But the question remains: Will progressives in the Silver State be swayed?

Most progressive groups are backing Biden’s re-election bid — though not with explicit endorsements — while some further-left groups are not, such as one group fighting for Palestininans. Despite lacking full support from progressives, Democrats are banking on young voters determining their future is better served by Biden’s policies, a strategy that could face challenges, particularly from less engaged voters.

“The young voters I talk to, it's not necessarily a choice between two men, but the future that they want to have,” said Laura Martin, the executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN). “It's going to take some work to get people to get their ballots in and also vote the full length of the ballot.”

Polling shows Biden has ground to make up with young Nevadans (who typically lean more progressive), a voting bloc that overwhelmingly supported him four years ago, according to exit polls, in a state where he won by around 33,000 votes.

A poll released last month from Emerson College found less than 30 percent of Nevadans aged 18-29 approved of Biden’s presidency, the lowest rate of any age group. Forty-eight percent of the surveyed young voters said they would support Biden in a hypothetical matchup against Trump, with 20 percent undecided. An early June Fox News poll of Nevadans found Biden with an 8-point lead among voters younger than 35 in a head-to-head against Trump, which fell to a 5-point lead when third party candidates were included.

Progressives have seen successes and failures in the state in recent years. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) cruised to victory in the state’s presidential caucus in 2020, defeating Biden by more than 20,000 votes. Months later, Democratic socialists took over the state party but lost control in a seismic defeat in 2023, even losing the support of the Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America (LVDSA).

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a campaign rally at Chaparral High School on Dec. 21, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Amy Pason, a UNR professor who researchers political rhetoric and communication, described the progressive wing of the party as “in a state of flux.”

“I think there's still a space for progressives and Democrats to sort of figure out their politics in Nevada,” Pason said.

Jiromi Pena, a UNLV student and a youth immigration justice fellow at Make the Road Nevada (which focuses on helping Hispanic and immigrant communities), said many young people she speaks with are unsure if they are going to vote in the election, and it can be difficult to persuade voters. Still she remains optimistic people will vote based on the potential of a second Trump administration.

“A lot of people will just cut you off and just don't want to hear it … and they tend to ignore, just everything else that Biden is mostly trying to do and focus on the few negative aspects,” she said. “I feel like if people open their eyes and just see all the information, how much support that [Trump] has, they'll be more inclined to show up.”

Progressive groups

Some left-leaning groups aren’t gung ho about Biden. Nevadans for Palestinian Liberation has been staunchly opposed to Biden, while the Democratic Socialists  often have eschewed moderate Democrats like him. Neither group responded to a request for an interview.

Meanwhile, some of the most prominent progressive groups — PLAN, Make the Road Nevada and Battle Born Progress — generally have been supportive of Biden and have emphasized the differences between Biden and former President Donald Trump, adopting a similar strategy as the Biden campaign, rather than focusing on Biden the person.

Jeremy Gelman, a UNR political science professor, said this isn’t an easy sell. It is often harder to persuade less engaged voters to vote based on policy rather than their personal view of a candidate, he added.

“For them, thinking through, how does policy get made, what powers does the president have, what does the federal bureaucracy actually do — all of that sort of stuff is a harder cognitive sell than just saying this guy has your best interests out for you,” Gelman said.

The groups also have been willing to voice their opposition. When Biden issued an executive order last month that permitted removing migrants without processing asylum claims after a daily crossing threshold was met, PLAN called the move “short-sighted and cruel,” and Battle Born said it “misses the mark.”

“We have to be able to speak up when things aren't right, but we also have to recognize that the Biden administration has done a lot of good for the people of Nevada,” said Shelbie Swartz, the executive director of Battle Born Progress. “Conversely, Trump and allies have this really dystopian, horrific future that they are hoping to enact if he makes it to the White House.”

Laura Martin, then-associate director for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, hands out literature to a couple during Metropolitan Police Department Office of Community Engagement community outreach meeting on March 13, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/ The Nevada Independent)

Martin, the PLAN executive director, said the group is not beholden to the Democratic Party and does not endorse presidential candidates, but added that its work centers on listening to voters and informing them of what a second Trump or Biden term might look like. She said she speaks with young people who worry about ever being able to afford a house (economy is consistently the top issue among most voters) and having to help pay their parents’ bills, but they also are aware of the dangers another Trump presidency could pose.

That is also the strategy for Make the Road, Pena said.

“Even though we acknowledge that our members aren't happy with the mandate of the Biden administration and that the disappointment is real, we try to not give into that narrative,” she said. “We try to constantly remind our communities of the reality that we lived under Trump.”

Swartz from Battle Born Progress said she expects more young people to eventually get on board with Biden.

“I, myself, don't want to take young voters for granted and be like, ‘No, of course, they're going to show up for Biden,” she said. “I do think that there will be maybe a come to Jesus where folks compare and contrast the good that Biden has done in the White House versus the awful policy that Trump put into place.”

AOC’s visit

Although progressive groups lean in on the policy differences between Biden and Trump, Ocasio-Cortez’s visit was likely intended to fill a void left by Biden: connecting with voters on a more human level, said Pason, the UNR communications professor.

She led an hourlong discussion with women who shared their stories receiving reproductive care, including one who had to terminate her pregnancy after her water broke when she was 20 weeks pregnant. 

Ocasio-Cortez also shared her story. Her father died while she was in college, leaving just her and her mother, who cleaned houses. Around that time, she was sexually assaulted and didn’t tell anyone for a decade. 

“I was terrified and completely, utterly, absolutely alone,” she said.

Earlier in the day, Ocasio-Cortez met with a North Las Vegas renter, Graciela Rodriguez, who said in an interview that her rent has increased by 40 percent since moving into her home more than 15 years ago. She used to travel the country and has been to 36 states but hasn’t traveled in more than a year because of rising prices.

Home renter Graciela Rodriguez during an interview in her living room in North Las Vegas on June 20, 2024. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Ocasio-Cortez shared her own story of her parents buying a small home in New York that became unaffordable when her dad died.

“Now with the way things are today, there’s no buying the home that my parents were able to afford,” she said.

Pason said this was likely an intentional way to shore up some of the lack of enthusiasm surrounding Biden as a candidate. Gelman from UNR agreed, but he added one visit won’t make any difference.

“Sustained outreach by AOC and legislators of her ilk — young legislators, progressives, that sort of thing — can make a difference,” Gelman said. “The Biden campaign is going to try and crack the nut of who has credibility with young Nevada voters and put them in front of young Nevada voters.”


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