The eighth part in a weekly series
LAS VEGAS — As a state that has been built on the gaming industry and tourism tied to it, Nevada knows odds. And the odds are now against Donald Trump here.
Stylistically, Trump would seem a natural fit for the Silver State’s pronounced anti-establishment streak. When Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid ran for re-election here, he proclaimed he was "independent, just like Nevada.” Meanwhile, non-college-educated white voters exceed the share of white voters who are college-educated — a favorable dynamic for Trump, who has consolidated white working-class support across the country.
“I love the poorly educated," Trump remarked memorably during his victory speech after the Nevada caucuses earlier this year.
For much of the election cycle, those factors have boosted the Republican nominee to keep him in contention here. But among the state’s robust Hispanic population, which is disproportionately Mexican-American, Trump’s disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants have come home to roost. And his disregard for a traditional, sprawling campaign organization threatens to undermine his performance in Nevada perhaps more than in any other battleground.
Hillary Clinton and Democrats down the ballot have jumped to highlight and exploit these weaknesses, with a template resembling Reid’s in his 2010 re-election campaign.
In that race, the Democratic leader faced Republican Sharron Angle, who sought to animate white voters with an anti-immigrant message reminiscent of Trump’s. But Reid highlighted those views to activate Latino voters, who overwhelmingly supported him and helped carry him to victory.
This week, at a coordinated campaign office in a small Las Vegas retail center, Spanish-speaking immigrants sought to energize those voters in the same manner for Clinton and Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democrat vying to succeed Reid when he retires this year. Early voting will begin in Nevada this weekend, and at tables surrounded by campaign signs the volunteers manned phone banks to remind prospective voters.
“This state has become incredibly diverse,” Cortez Masto remarked to a few reporters, noting that “27.5 percent of this population is Hispanic now. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up, and a majority of them are Mexican-Americans or from Mexico, which is incredible.”
Trump’s harsh rhetoric directed at ethnic and religious minorities, she predicted, would be potent among this demographic.
“People are paying attention, and they don’t want that type of rhetoric and that divisiveness in this country,” the state’s former attorney general added. “And they’re going to vote.”
If elected, Masto would be the first Latina to serve in the Senate. But her quest is challenging in part because her opponent, Rep. Joe Heck, is more popular among Hispanic voters than is Trump. Heck says he supports a pathway to legalized status for undocumented immigrants, and he recently unendorsed Trump in light of the nominee’s lewd 2005 remarks about women.
Among those in the Democratic campaign office, the lewd remarks had stuck with Elena Barroeta, who was volunteering in this election for the first time. An immigrant from Venezuela, Barroeta has been a U.S. citizen for 12 years — but Trump’s comments about immigrants were not the motivating factor for her.
“What has motivated me the most is the way he talks about women in general,” she said. “The degrading way he talks about women, it’s very offending to me.”
Trump has faced this backlash nationally over the past few weeks. But his relationship with Nevada is uniquely complicated.
With a hotel bearing his name looming over the Strip, Trump’s business interest here has also come to color his reputation — particularly among the politically powerful unions here. When housekeepers in his hotel sought earlier this year to join the Culinary Workers Union, Trump and his hotel pushed back, igniting a local controversy.
Complicating the relationship further, the majority of union members are Latino, “and they’ve raised their involvement in the election to levels I’ve never seen before,” Yvanna Cancela, political director of the culinary union, told the Las Vegas Sun in August. “Permanent residents now want to become citizens so they can vote, and citizens are not only going to vote themselves, but urge their friends and family members to vote, too.” The union has endorsed Clinton for president.
“Before , people had always looked at Nevada as a battleground that leaned red.”.
Leveraging the state’s powerful labor organizations has been another hallmark of Reid’s as he sought to professionalize the Democratic Party operation in Nevada in a way that Republicans have not. His efforts met with mixed results until 2006, when he successfully pushed for Nevada to host the first-in-the-West caucuses — setting the stage for a voter registration bonanza for Democrats during the heated 2008 presidential primary.
“That was a big turning point for the state,” said one state Democratic strategist. “Before then, people had always looked at Nevada as a battleground that leaned red.”
Now Democrats maintain a sizable registration advantage, roughly 85,000 people, relative to Republicans. That margin may be reflected by the RealClearPolitics polling average, which shows Clinton with a 4.2 percentage point lead.
If the 2008 primary was a pivotal moment for Nevada Democrats, it was also instructive for Clinton, who won the caucuses over Barack Obama. “I guess this is how the West was won,” she said in her victory speech at the Planet Hollywood hotel. (The president will return to Nevada on Sunday to compaign, this time as a surrogate for Cortez Masto, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports.)
The lessons from that victory, and the fundamental organizing principles behind it, have now been inherited by Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Her Nevada director during the 2008 contest, Robby Mook, is now her campaign manager.
Mook’s approach, which puts a heavy emphasis on local organizing, stands in stark contrast to the bare-bones, centralized Trump model, which has leaned on Republican National Committee resources for the whole of its ground game.
Trump’s campaign has suggested that such a traditional campaign framework need not be central to his strategy because the standard-bearer is such an unconventional candidate with unusually enthusiastic supporters.
That might be true in some places, but Nevada is quirky. It has no deeply rooted cultural identity because most Nevadans were born elsewhere: As of 2012, only 25 percent of residents were born here — the lowest rate of any state.
This dynamic can complicate campaign micro-targeting. It also manifests in down-ballot races with a tradition of split-ticket voting.
“We’re fickle folks here, and we split our tickets here more than a lot of other states.”
“We’re fickle folks here, and we split our tickets here more than a lot of other states,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “You have an electorate that isn’t well entrenched in Nevada.”
There is an unmistakable undercurrent of unpredictability in campaigns here, not only due to this dynamic, but because polling the state is so challenging. Workers here log unconventional hours in the gaming and hospitality industries, and Spanish-language voters are consistently under-polled. In 2010, Reid was predicted to lose his race to Angle, or to win by a narrow margin — but he won comfortably.
Reid and his campaign had divined the reliable factors in Nevada that can be controlled and harnessed: the political influence of unions, the Latino vote, and voter registration.
“When all those pistons hit for the Democrats,” said Damore, “it’s really hard for Republicans to compete here.”
Next week: New Hampshire
Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at email@example.com.