Hillary Rodham Clinton was sympathetic as, one after another, members of the audience discussed their unhappy dealings with shady home lenders.
“This is a problem we’re going to talk a lot about in this campaign,” the Democratic hopeful promised, suggesting that presidential candidates too often isolate issues like the sub-prime mortgage meltdown from the bigger economic picture.
“All of our problems are interconnected, but we treat them as though one is guacamole and one is chips,” the New York senator said, drawing laughter and applause from the mostly Latino crowd gathered at the Lindo Michoacan restaurant off the Las Vegas Strip.
As the presidential campaign moves south and west from the mostly white, heavily rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats are reaching out to Latino voters as never before—and not just through strained similes, or rallies set to mariachi music.
In California, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere across the country, the candidates are advertising extensively in Spanish, running bilingual phone banks and dispatching door-knockers fluent in English and Spanish.
They have promoted themselves on the pages of MyGrito, a Latino social networking site, and offered links on their campaign websites spelling out their platforms en español.
Nevada, which holds its caucuses Saturday, was granted an early voting slot by the national Democratic Party, in part because of the state’s sizable Latino population, which is about 25% of the total population and growing. Only about half of Nevada’s Latino residents are eligible to vote, however, because many are younger than 18 or do not have U.S. citizenship. Of the state’s 1,036,462 registered voters, about 10-15% are Latinos.
By competing early for Latino support, the thinking went, the eventual Democratic nominee would achieve an edge in the fall campaign, when Latino voters may be crucial in a number of states, including Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.
That strategy rests on some broad assumptions, however, not least that Latinos will turn out in greater number than they have in the past. In 2004, fewer than half of eligible Latinos cast ballots, despite the closeness of that election, compared with two-thirds of white voters and six in 10 African Americans.
Testing race relations
The candidacy of Obama is also testing the sometimes fraught relations between Latinos and African Americans, a tension rooted in economic competition, that has been an incendiary element of politics in cities as far-ranging as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Speaking to reporters earlier this week at a stop in Reno, the Illinois senator acknowledged the challenge he faced.
“I think it’s important for us to get my record known before the Latino community,” Obama told reporters. “My history is excellent with Latino support back in Illinois, because they knew my record. I think nationally people don’t know that record quite as well. So it’s important for me to communicate that, to advertise on Spanish-speaking television, to make clear my commitments.”
That effort has been underway for months in Nevada, which points up both the promise and some of the obstacles Democrats face as they work to build Latino support here and beyond. (Nevada Republicans are also caucusing Saturday, but most of the candidates’ focus has been on South Carolina’s GOP primary the same day.)
Much of the campaigning here has been remedial, explaining what a caucus is and how it works. The Obama campaign started handing out bilingual fliers and broadcasting ads in Spanish last summer. The Clinton campaign has hosted dozens of Spanish-language sessions to educate potential voters and to try to build a sense of excitement around Saturday’s election.
“Voters that were born in other [places]—Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America—talk about elections being a party, with music, concerts, emotional speeches,” said Sergio Bendixen, who is directing Clinton’s Latino strategy. “To get people out, you need to create that sort of atmosphere.”
The courtship may seem like a lot of effort for a relatively small group. But campaign strategists are convinced that whatever happens here will resonate among a much wider audience on Feb. 5, especially if the race stays tight.