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Hillary Clinton is losing faith in her “Latino firewall” in Nevada

And if Latinos punch below their weight in this week's caucuses, it might have repercussions beyond 2016.

Hillary Clinton at a rally in Nevada in October 2015.
Hillary Clinton at a rally in Nevada in October 2015.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty

LAS VEGAS, NV — In October 2015, Nevada staffers for Hillary Clinton boasted that the state was "Hillary country." One big reason for their confidence: Challenger Bernie Sanders might be used to heavily white states like Iowa and New Hampshire (and his home state of Vermont), but Clinton had the edge among nonwhite voters. So when the primary season moved to states that look more like the Democratic base — Nevada and South Carolina — Clinton would be on solid ground.

Fast-forward to today, less than a week before the Nevada caucuses, and the Clinton campaign finds itself arguing that Saturday's Nevada caucus will look a lot like Iowa's — in a state that is only 51.5 percent white, Clinton spokespeople have argued, the Democratic caucus will be 80 percent white.

What's going on here? There's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is that the Clinton campaign isn't as confident that the state is "Hillary country" as it once was, and is trying to get its supporters to lower their expectations in advance by making it sound like New Hampshire.

But the longer answer is that it's worth taking these concerns somewhat seriously: Clinton staffers aren't the only people in Nevada who think Latinos will punch below their weight on Saturday and might even make up a smaller share of the caucuses than they did in 2008.

That's not good for Nevada's claim as the first diverse state to hold a Democratic nominating contest. And it might even force the state to lose its early-caucus status entirely — further diminishing the influence of the Latino vote on Democratic primaries.

It is vanishingly unlikely that 80 percent of Nevada caucus-goers will be white

Right after Sanders trounced Clinton in New Hampshire, Clinton spokespeople started floating the idea that Nevada would look more like New Hampshire than people thought. Spokesperson Brian Fallon told NBC, "There’s going to be a narrowing in both (Nevada and South Carolina). There’s an important Hispanic element to the Democratic caucus in Nevada. But it’s still a state that is 80 percent white voters."

The campaign has since clarified that Fallon (and other spokespeople who've used the 80 percent number) are referring to the campaign's projections for who will turn out to caucus on Saturday. But that barely makes more sense.

Here are the numbers: In 2008, 65 percent of Nevada caucus-goers were white, 15 percent were Latino, and 15 percent were black. And Nevada hasn't exactly gotten whiter in the last eight years. The percentage of eligible voters in the state who are white fell from 72 percent in 2008 to 62 percent in 2014, while the Latino share of the eligible vote grew from 12 percent to 17 percent.

People line up to register for a caucus in the heavily Latino neighborhood of East Las Vegas in 2008. (Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty)

This was 2008. Does the Clinton campaign really think only half of these people will show up in 2016? (Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty)

So what the Clinton campaign is predicting — at least if its public statements are to be believed — is that nonwhite Nevadans will show up Saturday at roughly half their strength in the eligible voter pool.

Maybe the campaign believes that black Nevadans won't turn out in 2008 numbers now that Obama isn't on the ballot. But the 80 percent number only even begins to make sense if Clinton's camp thinks Latino turnout will similarly plummet — and there's no serious argument for why that should be the case.

The Clinton campaign is trying to dampen expectations without causing supporters to freak out

It's not that the Clinton campaign is hoping that Latinos (and other nonwhite voters) won't show up on Saturday. To the contrary, ask Clinton staffers about their campaign's predictions, and you'll get a response along the lines of, "We are trying to make that does not happen," as the campaign's director of Hispanic media, Jorge Silva, told me.

That might make it sound like the Clinton campaign is simply disorganized. To the contrary. The campaign is trying to prepare its supporters for an unexpectedly tight result in Nevada, or maybe even a loss. This is a very real possibility — basically no one has bothered to poll the state in the lead-up to Saturday's caucus, but the one poll that's been conducted in 2016 shows Sanders and Clinton in a dead heat.

Clinton's staffers are trying to keep supporters from panicking about the primary campaign itself. They want people — especially donors — to believe that Nevada will be hard but it will get easier from there.

The Clinton campaign's theory of the primary has always been that once it's in the hands of nonwhite voters, she'll win. So now, instead of undermining that theory to lower expectations in Nevada, they're portraying Nevada in a light that's consistent with their theory.

Expectation setting is a game of eleventy-dimensional chess, and it often results in candidates vastly understating their own chances. But the Clinton campaign's sudden uncertainty about Nevada is real. And in part, it really is driven by fears that Latinos won't turn out in 2008 numbers — even though their share of the electorate has grown.

And they're not the only ones worrying.

Why Latinos might punch below their weight in Nevada

Few political observers and civic engagement activists I talked to in Nevada thought that Saturday's caucuses will actually be 80 percent white. But a lot of them thought it was possible that Latinos would be a smaller share of caucus-goers than they were in 2008 — which, given their population growth over the past eight years, would be a big underperformance.

There are several reasons for this — some of which are specific to Nevada, and many of which are specific to the caucus model. It's hard to know which ones, if any, will end up mattering come Saturday. But here's why people are worried:

1) These aren't the same Latino voters who were here in 2008. The Clinton campaign, as well as activist groups that work on voter registration and mobilization, think it's almost unfair to use 2008's turnout to predict 2016 — because so many Latinos have moved into and out of the state since then.

Nevada is a pretty transient state to begin with. In the 2014 American Community Survey, 4.6 percent of Nevadans said they'd lived in a different state one year ago — and the number of people who'd moved out of Nevada in the past year was the equivalent of 3.7 percent of the state's population. On top of that, the state was hit extremely hard by the foreclosure crisis.

nevada abandoned house

A house in an abandoned subdivision in Nevada in 2011. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

A 2014 paper from researchers at the Brookings Institution and the University of Nevada Las Vegas found that from 2008 to 2011, 67,000 Latinos moved out of Nevada, while 74,800 moved in. Even if you assume that some of those were the same people, that's a lot of churn.

This means that a lot of the people eligible to come to Saturday's caucuses probably have never been to a caucus before. They may not even understand what a caucus is. And because the voter rolls that campaigns are working from often don't include the state's newest arrivals — a problem the Clinton campaign has definitely struggled with — it's hard to contact them and tell them when and how to vote.

This is certainly worrisome for campaigns turning out voters. But it's not a concern particular to Latinos. People of all races move into and out of the state much more than other parts of the country: The share of people who'd moved into Nevada in 2014 was double the national average for moving between states.

In fact, Nevada's Latinos are arguably less transient than the state's other major ethnic groups: 3 percent of Latinos said they'd moved to Nevada in 2014, according to the American Community Survey, compared with 6.3 percent of African Americans and 5.3 percent of whites.

2) People don't know there's more than one candidate running. Both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns admit that a lot of Latinos don't even know there's a challenger to Hillary Clinton."A lot of older Latino people, it's like, 'Voy a votar por la Hillary [I'll vote for Hillary],'" says Astrid Silva, a local DREAMer activist who endorsed Clinton in January. "Sometimes they'll ask me, 'Oh, somebody else is running?'"

But while this is obviously a problem for the Sanders campaign, it's also a problem for the Clinton campaign. "A lot of people are like, 'Oh, yeah, I'll vote for Hillary, I'll vote for her in November,'" says Jorge Silva of the Clinton campaign. "And we're like, 'No! You have to go!'"

3) The caucus is harder for working people to participate in. The Nevada caucus happens at 11 am on a Saturday — great for students and people with white-collar jobs, but not so good for people who have to work weekends.

Nevada culinary workers at 2008 caucuses

These Clinton supporters managed to get off work to caucus in 2008. (Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty)

There are several caucuses on the Las Vegas Strip specifically to accommodate casino employees who are working that day. And at a volunteer training at a Sanders campaign office in East Las Vegas last week, organizers stressed that would-be caucus-goers should ask their employers for a caucus break — and that if they worked in "union shops," they'd likely get it. But employers aren't legally required to let anyone go vote.

But it's still hard for people to wrap their heads around — especially those who are used to Nevada's relatively flexible system of early voting in general elections. "It's always hard to get Latinos to come out, but there are many ways to mobilize in a general election," says Jocelyn Sida of the nonpartisan voter engagement group Mi Familia Vota. In a caucus, it's harder.

4) Caucuses are hard to understand — especially when you don't speak much English. "There's no way to translate 'caucus' in Spanish," Clinton field organizer Natalie Montelongo says. "At all."

She's not just speaking literally. The process of a caucus can seem unnecessarily complicated to people who are used to straightforward secret-ballot elections — even campaign volunteers and voter registration organizers need to be trained in "mock caucuses" to really get it.

And many people get legitimately offended at the idea that they can't keep their ballots secret. "We think a caucus is so cool, and it's a gathering of the community, but a lot of people, they don't want to talk about what candidate they support," says Astrid Silva.

5) The Latino voter mobilization machine in Las Vegas is out of commission this cycle — or at least not operating at full power. The Culinary Union Local 226, which is affiliated with Unite Here, organizes casino workers on the Las Vegas Strip and in Reno. It is near-universally regarded as the most powerful Latino-turnout machine in Nevada. And it elected not to endorse in the Democratic race this time — at least not before Saturday.

Culinary member poses with Clinton for selfie in Nevada

Selfies with Culinary members? Sure. An endorsement from the union? Nope. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

The union is still encouraging its members to participate, of course, says political director Yvanna Cancela. And it's allowing surrogates for the Sanders and Clinton campaigns to come to union events and talk to members. But Cancela suspects that without the union making caucus turnout its first priority, members might not understand just why the presidential campaign is so important. That alone could be enough to sink Latino turnout to below 2008 levels.

It's not that other organizations aren't working to mobilize voters — Sida of Mi Familia Vota, for example, points to her organization's work with Latino small-business owners in the neighborhoods around Las Vegas. But without the powerhouse of the Culinary Union, it might not be enough.

Disappointing Latino turnout could reverberate beyond 2016

All of this is presumed to be bad news for Clinton. Even if her support among Latinos is less overwhelming than her campaign might presume, she's probably the candidate most hurt if less-informed Latinos don't show up to caucus. This is largely because Sanders's voters are presumed to be more passionate and more engaged — they at least know there's more than one Democrat running for president.

But disappointing Latino turnout on Saturday could have effects way beyond the 2016 presidential race. For one thing, the separate caucuses on the Strip — a recent innovation to begin with — might get allocated fewer delegates in future cycles, or be eliminated entirely.

But the Nevada caucus itself could also be in peril, at least as a nationally important contest. Nevada is very proud of its early-caucus status, as the "first most diverse" state to vote for Democrats for president, as Jocelyn Sida puts it. But that status came largely thanks to the power of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and Reid is retiring this year.

Without his protection, there will definitely be a fight among national parties to push Nevada back in the primary calendar. And if the "first most diverse" state doesn't actually have a diverse caucus, it will lose one of the strongest arguments it has in its favor.

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