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Is Nevada feeling the Bern? A top staffer makes the case.

The woman running Bernie Sanders's campaign in Nevada has experience with insurgent presidential candidates — and doing Latino outreach for them.

Bernie Sanders attends a rally in Nevada.
Bernie Sanders attends a rally in Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty

Bernie Sanders has momentum. After an unexpectedly close race in Iowa and an overwhelming victory in New Hampshire, the Nevada Democratic caucuses on February 20 are next. And there's a real chance he could do well there too.

Observers in Nevada think Sanders has a fighting chance there on Saturday — including among the Latino voters who were once expected to be part of Hillary Clinton's "firewall." There's been precious little polling in the state, so it may be yet another huge surprise of this election.

Vox talked to Sanders's state director for Nevada, Joan Kato, who is well-versed in both Latino outreach and long-shot campaigns. She ran Latino outreach efforts in Iowa in 2007 and 2008 for then-Sen. Barack Obama. I talked to Kato about how her efforts in Iowa (a state that was 4.2 percent Latino in 2008) have translated to Nevada, which is 27.8 percent Latino, why she thinks Sanders's campaign resembles Obama's, and why she's confident Sanders will outperform expectations in Saturday's caucuses.

Dara Lind: What did you learn working for the Obama campaign in Iowa in 2008 that's relevant to working for the Sanders campaign in Nevada in 2016?

Joan Kato: Back in March 2007, I started on the Obama campaign in Iowa, and I did Latino outreach throughout the whole state. It was a bit of a struggle in the beginning: Barack Obama faced a lot of the same issues Bernie Sanders faced. There was definitely a name recognition issue. Especially in the Latino community, especially older people, they know who Clinton is. They remember her husband's presidency. But on the flip side they didn't know who Barack Obama was or who Bernie Sanders was.

We got a little bit of a later start here in Nevada compared to the Clinton campaign. They got here in spring of 2015; we got here a few months later than that. And it takes a little bit of time to build up that financial infrastructure that makes you able to compete. Once we did have the money we were able to compete effectively.

DL: In your experience, what does it take for a campaign to succeed in connecting with Latino voters, in particular?

JK: What I learned in 2008 with Obama is that [the campaign gets credibility] through going to the events, becoming part of the community, going to places where Latinos are. I got to participate in Latino Heritage Month, a statewide event all around Iowa, and that was enlightening. Going to the more urban parts of Iowa and the more rural parts, seeing the struggles, hearing what's important to them — and conveying that to candidates.

There were some places in Iowa where, because of the meatpacking industry, there was a large Latino population there as well. The total number of Latinos in Las Vegas, for example, is quite a bit more. But common values hold true: You go to the community, you have open ears, you listen to them.

DL: What has the Sanders campaign done here in Nevada to reach out to Latinos?

JK: We're not just concentrating in one area of the state. In Iowa we weren't just focusing on Des Moines; in Nevada we're not just focusing on Las Vegas. We've done events in Reno, we have offices in other parts of the state. We have more offices in Nevada than any other presidential campaign.

We have a very strong Latino outreach presence here in the state. We have five Spanish publications' endorsements in the state.

We have average, everyday people taking leadership roles in the campaign. If the only people we reached out to were people who were traditionally leaders in the community, what are we saying? Are we saying you can’t be an average person and be a leader in your community? If you're involved in political action and volunteering two to three times a week, you’re a leader.

DL: Does listening to Latinos and other local voters actually influence the way the campaign thinks about issues? Or is it mostly a matter of messaging?

JK: In 2008, I had a very active role in helping develop Obama's policy on immigration reform. It's an issue I've always cared about. I contributed to Bernie Sanders's platform on immigration as well. We had people who were contributing to our policies and making recommendations. That's what a grassroots organization is about. And this is a grassroots campaign.

The beautiful thing about Bernie Sanders is he's been saying the same thing on policy for 30 years. So if I were to develop a policy on the $15 minimum wage, for example, which is something he's cared about for a long time, I wouldn't really be developing a policy.

But we do listen. And we do incorporate [what we hear] into our policies, and how we talk about our policies in ways that are more Nevada-centric.

For example, the whole solar energy crisis happening here in Nevada. He heard about the Nevada Public Utility Commission ruling [which allowed the state's only energy company to charge higher fees to people who used solar panels], and said it was ridiculous — why, right now, are we moving away from a clean energy future?

We just had a meeting yesterday in Reno with people affected or laid off as result of the ruling. While he's always been for clean energy, he's now hearing about some ruling that happens here in Nevada from the commission, because he's here in the state.

DL: Some people in Nevada appear concerned that Latinos won't turn out to Saturday's caucuses in representative numbers. You don't seem worried about that. Why not?

JK: We're reaching a point in the US where younger Latinos will have more of an impact in elections than ever before. It's the next generation turning to electoral politics.

Any kind of real change that happens in society starts with young people. And when it comes to that, Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama have a lot in common. You're seeing the same thing with young Latinos, and younger Americans in general, with Bernie Sanders.

Here in Nevada, you don't have to be 18 at the time of the caucus, only by November 8. So people in high school can get involved and volunteer and encourage their friends. Even with Obama in 2008, we were telling people: You don't have to register to vote. We have a place for you. That kind of attitude, arms wide open, is something both campaigns share.

That's how you create real democratic change and get more Democrats elected: Make new people show up. People who are young, who are Latinos, who are disenfranchised.

DL: How are you feeling going into Saturday's caucuses? What do you expect?

JK: Last time, Obama won the delegate count in Nevada, then lost the quote-unquote popular vote. This time around, it’ll be interesting to see how the news media picks up on that, which area of the results will people focus on. Traditionally in caucus states, people pay more attention to delegates than to the popular vote. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out.

The last poll that came out, we were in a dead heat. It’s pretty incredible given where we were in October.

We tied in Iowa. We did an incredible job in New Hampshire. And we’re hopeful we’ll do an incredible job here too.

It’s taken me a long time to find someone I could believe in again. And I’m very happy that I have found that person. Maybe that sounds corny, maybe it sounds like I'm drinking the Kool-Aid, but I truly believe we have something special here.

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