In East Las Vegas last week, there were few signs that Nevada was gearing up for the first presidential election contest in the western US, happening in mere days.
The neighbourhood, the heart of the city’s Latino community, was bereft of lawn signs and campaign banners. There were no clipboard-wielding canvassers crowding its wide, palm-tree-lined streets. An occasional ad on the local Spanish-language radio station, encouraging listeners to vote, was one of the few signals that the presidential primaries were coming up.
“Will I vote in the primaries? Yeah, maybe,” said Ruby Romero, 38, who owns a boutique in Vegas’s arts district. But, she admitted, she had almost forgotten about it.
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This week’s elections aren’t exactly competitive, and will inevitably move Joe Biden and Donald Trump toward a rematch in November.
But in an election year that will determine the future of abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, the chances of meaningful climate action, the shape of the economy and perhaps even the fate of American democracy, voters here appeared particularly demoralised.
Latinos make up one in five voters in the state, and in 2020 about 60% of Latino voters backed Joe Biden. It remains unclear, however, whether Democrats will be able to energise enough voters this year to replicate that feat.
In polling, Latino voters in the state have consistently indicated they’re worried about inflation, jobs, housing and healthcare costs. The war in Gaza and the administration’s unwavering support for Israel have angered many young progressive voters, organisers said.
Romero has voted in nearly every election since she turned 18, usually for Democrats. “And I always encourage my parents to vote as well,” she said. This year, however, she is finding herself unsure of what to do.
She has been disheartened by the Biden administration’s refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza, and has been especially disappointed by Kamala Harris’s silence on the plight of women and children there, she said.
Voters, Romero said, are being asked to choose Biden and Harris as the “lesser of two evils”.
I’m not going to go on a date with a dude below my standards. So why would I vote for such a person to run our country?
Ruby Romero, Las Vegas resident
“But I have standards, you know. I’m not going to go on a date with a dude that is below my standards. So why am I going to vote for such a person to run our country?” she said.
“The issue is that Democrats haven’t necessarily solidified [Latino] support,” said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, the vice-president of the Latino Vote Initiative at the advocacy group UnidosUS.
Nevada was once an undisputed Republican stronghold – until the late senator Harry Reid started reaching out to Latino voters.
Reid began his congressional tenure hawking harsh anti-immigration policies and fought to end birthright citizenship. But his views – and political strategy – changed with his electorate.
He understood that those who were going to vote against him would vote against him, and that he needed to give the others a reason to vote for him, said Martinez. “And he didn’t rest on his laurels,” she said. “He reached out to voters with a level of intensity and dedication that led to one of the highest levels of support from Latino voters.”
The “Reid machine” relied heavily on grassroots engagement of working-class Latino voters to turn Nevada Democratic. He engaged the Culinary Workers Union, a powerhouse in Nevada that represents 60,000 hospitality workers across the state and runs the largest canvassing operation there – contacting more than half the state’s Black and Latino voters in the process.
“Our program really gets workers talking to workers,” said Ted Pappageorge, the union’s secretary-treasurer. “And working-class voters understand who is in their corner.”
Reid understood that a key element of his success was showing up, consistently. It’s a lesson Democratic politicians over the years have forgotten, said Martinez.
Working-class voters understand who is in their corner
Ted Pappageorge, union secretary-treasurer
Support for Democratic candidates among Latino voters in the state has significantly slipped since 2012, when Barack Obama won more than 71%, and 2016, when Hillary Clinton won 66%.
Add to that deep concerns about the economy and the war in Gaza, and organisers say there’s reason enough to be concerned that Latino voters will simply not be motivated enough to head to the polls.
Among young Democratic voters, “the administration’s stance on the Israel-Gaza war is going to make it nearly impossible to convince young brown people that voting matters”, said Leo Murrieta, the director of Make the Road Action in Nevada, a progressive group that has been registering Latino voters. “They’re mad.”
It doesn’t help, Murrieta said, that Democrats and Biden have done a poor job highlighting the tangible ways in which they have been improving Americans’ daily lives. Latino voters need to hear more about how Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has helped dramatically drive down the cost of insulin for millions of Americans, he said. Or how funding from the IRA has brought 11,500 clean-energy jobs to Nevada. Or how the economy is actually doing pretty well overall. “We’re not seeing that,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
When Biden does talk about such accomplishments, the message often isn’t thoughtfully or strategically directed toward the mostly Mexican American Latinos who make up nearly 20% of Nevada’s electorate.
Neither party is particularly good at campaigning in Latino communities, said Serafin Calvo, of Chicanos Por La Causa, a community development group, and a longtime administrator for the cities of Las Vegas and North Las Vegas.
Presidential candidates tend to show up in Latino communities right before the general election, he said, and offer free tacos. “Maybe they feel these are going to be easy votes to win, so they wait for the last minute,” Calvo said.
On Sunday, the president held a rally in Las Vegas’s historic Westside, a hub of Black culture and community, and emphasized the stakes of the elections.
Trump, meanwhile, came to campaign in East Las Vegas last week. Speaking to a mostly white crowd in a neighbourhood where more than half of all residents are Latino, he honed in on immigration. Claiming that thousands of terrorists, rapists and criminals are “flowing in” via the southern border, he touted Texas governor Greg Abbott’s renegade use of razor wire and barriers to deter people from crossing the border.
“I predict that the Hispanic support for Donald Trump is just going to get better and stronger, it’s going to grow,” said Jesus Marquez, a Las Vegas-based political consultant and Trump surrogate. Polls have found that immigration ranks below the economy, healthcare and affordable housing as a major concern for Nevada’s Latino voters. But Marquez said the former president makes a compelling argument that unauthorised immigration and the rush of migrants at the border will hurt immigrant families who are already in the US. He brushed off concerns that Trump’s sometimes extreme rhetoric about immigration and immigrants will alienate Latino voters whose families are made up of immigrants.
Still, Marquez said that he’d advise the campaign to focus on economic issues, school choice and religious liberties – all issues with which Trump could compellingly appeal to conservative Latino voters. “I do believe that this cycle, Republicans are ready to have a more organised ground operation and gain on their margins,” he said.
For first-generation Mexican Americans, that might mean Spanish-language radio ads about the economy. Cuban Americans, who make up the third-largest Latino demographic group after Mexican and Central Americans in Nevada, may need different messaging. Marquez’s own work though the American Christian Caucus focuses on grassroots organising via churches.
Polling from November 2023 found that while support for Biden had dipped since 2020, and about 20% of Latino voters remained undecided, most felt that the Democratic party overall was better suited to addressing the issues they were most concerned about, including inflation and the cost of living. “The Republican party seems radically out of step with some of the solutions these voters want to see,” argued Martinez of UnidosUS.
“For me, Trump is chaos,” said Beatriz Bedoya, 78, a volunteer with Make the Road Action who has already begun a personal canvassing effort to convince her 21-year-old grandson to vote. “[My grandson] says he just doesn’t want to talk about politics – and my son says, ‘Mami, don’t pressure him,’” she laughed. “But I’m still working on it.
For years, Bedoya has been relentless in dragging friends, family members, the young girls in her neighbourhood – everyone – to the polls. This year, she said, she plans to be even more persistent. When it comes to Biden, “we can talk about the good things and the bad things”, she said. “But we don’t have another option.” They can help elect him and push him on policies, or face four more years of chaos.
She understands why people might want to turn away, and why they might feel disheartened. “It’s hard to convince, it’s hard to talk to young people. But I tell them, we have to fight,” she said. “We have to push, and work hard for our democracy.
It’s hard to convince, it’s hard to talk to young people. But I tell them, we have to fight
Beatriz Bedoya, volunteer with Make the Road Action
The one group that is optimistic about Biden’s chances in the state is the culinary union, which plans to ramp up canvassing efforts in the late spring and summer and deploy nearly 500 members to knock on more than a million doors.
Pappageorge, the union’s secretary-treasurer, predicts that workers – and their families – will not forget that Biden was the first sitting president to join a picket line last fall, when he appeared in solidarity with striking United Auto Workers members last fall.
And while inflation and skyrocketing housing costs remain major concerns for members, unionised workers – unlike most other voters across the country – are acutely aware of how well the economy is doing, he argued.
Jobs are plentiful and development is booming, said Mario Sandoval, 58, a server at the steakhouse in Binion’s Gambling Hall. It’s just that wages and benefits haven’t kept up, which is what the union is trying to address in current negotiations with resorts. “But the economy’s doing good – it’s good to me,” Sandoval said. “Inflation is going down. Gas is down. There was all this talk of a recession and I’ve seen no sign of it.”