After two early state contests with overwhelmingly white electorates, the Nevada caucuses are the Democratic candidates’ first big test among nonwhite voters. And with Latinos making up nearly 30 percent of the state’s population, they could play a big role in determining the winner.
But which candidates will connect with Latino voters — and whether they can persuade them to turn out in high numbers — remains to be seen. In 2016, Latinos made up 19 percent of the Democratic electorate, which was four percentage points higher than in 2008, but which candidate won among Latino voters was contested.
This year, Sen. Bernie Sanders has a clear edge in Nevada overall, according to the FiveThirtyEight primary forecast. He has a 3 in 4 (76 percent) chance of winning the most votes, and the model expects him to finish with 37 percent of the post-realignment vote,1 on average. And strong support among Latinos is probably a big part of that: Sanders consistently polls well among Latino voters and has invested heavily in Latino outreach in Nevada, which experts told us is key for ensuring that his supporters show up to the caucuses.
There’s still room for other candidates to perform well among Latino voters in Nevada, though — even if Sanders wins overall. For instance, even though Biden’s odds of winning the most votes in Nevada are only 1 in 9 (11 percent), a significant chunk of Latino voters still support Biden, according to recent polls. He’ll need to keep them in his corner, too, to avoid another fourth- or fifth-place finish and to bolster his claim that he can bring together a broad coalition of Democratic voters.
Additionally, the state of play in Nevada among Latinos could be more fluid than it looks. Nevada is a weird state to poll and Latino voters can be difficult to survey accurately because of low response rates and language barriers. The efforts other candidates have made in recent weeks — through Spanish-language advertisements and on-the-ground outreach — to court Latino voters could still pay off. And the Nevada caucuses could be an important litmus test for understanding which way Latino voters may be leaning — especially if a sizable number end up breaking for someone other than Sanders. For instance, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have struggled so far to win over voters of color, so even just a robust showing among Latino voters could be game-changing. Likewise, an overperformance among Latinos could go a long way for philanthropist Tom Steyer, who’s made a big bet on Nevada and South Carolina.
There are a few ways to gauge which candidates might have the strongest support among Latino Democrats in Nevada, but a good starting point is to first look at the polls. We gathered the crosstabs of six Nevada polls conducted in the last 11 days, and Sanders is the only candidate who has consistently had meaningful support among Hispanic or Latino voters. (Pollsters varied in how they categorized Latino and Hispanic respondents. Some treated Hispanic heritage as an ethnicity, which would allow people to identify as both black and Latino, for example, while other pollsters treated Hispanic as its own race, which may lead respondents who identify as both Hispanic and white, black or another race to self-select out of the Hispanic/Latino group. Other pollsters simply asked respondents if they identified as Hispanic or Latino, and are not necessarily weighting to get a sample reflective of Nevada’s overall Latino population.)
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It wasn’t just Sanders who appealed to Hispanic or Latino voters. Biden and Steyer also had strong support among Hispanic or Latino voters in some of the polls. Warren, Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, on the other hand, are far behind.
But there’s still room for a polling surprise or two. Biden’s losses in Iowa and New Hampshire could make some voters more willing to consider other options. And Sanders has also faced opposition from the state’s largest labor union, which represents thousands of Latino workers. They haven’t endorsed a candidate, but they have openly attacked his Medicare for All plan recently, so it’s possible this could erode some of Sanders’s support.
Other candidates have also stepped up their outreach efforts in the last few weeks, with several trying to speak directly to Nevada’s Latino population via Spanish-language TV ads. According to data from Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, from Jan. 1 through Feb. 18, Steyer has aired 912 Spanish-language TV spots in Nevada-based media markets, nearly double Sanders’s 506. And Warren has aired the largest share of her total TV advertising in Spanish — 479 of her 2,034 Nevada spots have been in Spanish. Two other candidates have made nominal Spanish-language ad buys: Buttigieg has aired 97 spots so far this year, and Klobuchar has aired 62.
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Support from Latino voters requires outreach beyond the airwaves, though. “It’s not just about coming in and running an ad saying you support immigration reform — you need to do outreach through a Latino lens,” said Matt Barreto, the co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions. “You have to figure out what the challenges are with health care or college affordability from a Latino perspective. That takes time and resources.”
And persuading people to attend a caucus adds another layer of difficulty. The state’s population is relatively transient — only 27 percent of Nevada residents were born in the state — which means that voters may not be familiar with how caucuses work. Caucuses also present a challenge for voters who might not be able to leave their jobs for several hours in the middle of the day to participate. “It’s a process that really excludes low-income communities,” said Cecia Alvarado, the Nevada state director for Mi Familia Vota, a Latino advocacy group. “The guy working in landscaping — he can’t just leave work on a Saturday for the caucus.”
And for first-time voters and immigrants, Alvarado added, even the experience of attending a caucus can be confusing and alienating. “Knowing what to do, where to stand, seeing people going in a bunch of different directions — it’s a complex process and if you’re not familiar with it, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong there,” she said.
That means the candidates with the biggest infrastructure, and a longer presence in the state, have an advantage. This year, the caucuses included an early voting period, which meant that campaigns had more opportunities to persuade Nevadans to participate. “Latino turnout really requires a big investment in on-the-ground resources,” Barreto said. “The campaigns need to be doing extensive voter education and mobilization to get people to the caucus sites.”
And according to research by FiveThirtyEight contributor Joshua Darr,2 Buttigieg and Sanders have invested most heavily in their ground game. They both have the highest number of field offices in Nevada: Buttigieg has 11 and Sanders has 10, mostly concentrated near Las Vegas. Having lots of staff and volunteers can make a difference in persuading voters to participate in the caucuses, so a strong network of field offices and volunteers could, in theory, give a candidate like Buttigieg a boost. It might also help someone like Warren, who has eight field offices across Nevada — more than Biden’s five or Steyer’s three.
Ultimately, though, Sanders and Biden’s opponents will have to contend with the fact that both candidates are simply more familiar to Nevada voters, and popular with Latino voters in particular. A Univision poll also found that 70 percent of Hispanic registered voters had a favorable impression of Sanders, and only 3 percent didn’t know who he was. Biden was similarly well-known, and the percentage of registered voters with a favorable opinion was only slightly lower, at 65 percent. Only 38 percent of Hispanic registered voters, by contrast, had a favorable impression of Buttigieg, and nearly one-quarter weren’t familiar with him — even though Buttigieg has been ramping up his ground game in Nevada since the fall.
There’s also some evidence that Latinos see Sanders — and to a lesser extent, Biden — as the candidate who’s most invested in the issues that matter to them: A Mason-Dixon poll of Latinos conducted for Telemundo found that a plurality (41 percent) of Hispanic likely Democratic caucusgoers said that Sanders is the presidential candidate who has paid the most attention to issues affecting the Latino community, while about one-quarter (24 percent) pointed to Biden. None of the other candidates registered above 5 percent.
And that’s also why Biden — despite his weakened standing after Iowa and New Hampshire — might still be in the best position to give Sanders a run for his money among Latinos. It’s true that Sanders trounced his competition in Latino-heavy precincts in Iowa, according to an analysis by researchers at UCLA. But Latinos also don’t vote as a bloc, and the age composition of this year’s electorate could make a big difference — particularly if turnout is high among young people. The fact that Latino voters tend to be younger is especially helpful to Sanders, who tends to overperform with younger voters overall. That was reflected in the Telemundo poll, which showed that nearly half (43 percent) of Latinos under the age of 50 were in Sanders’s camp. But Biden still has an advantage among older Latinos: 39 percent of Latinos age 50 and older said they supported Biden, while only 23 percent favored Sanders in that Telemundo poll.
It’s also possible that the Latino vote will be divided among the candidates in ways that are hard to anticipate now. And however it shakes out — whether another candidate does manage to match Sanders’s support among Latino voters in Nevada, or Sanders wins even more decisively than the polls suggest — that could be an important bellwether for even more heavily Latino states rapidly coming up on the calendar, like California or Texas, where orders of magnitude more delegates are at stake.