Democrats Reach Out to Nevada's Latinos

Nevada Voters i i

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidates rally before the CNN Debate on Nov. 15 in Las Vegas. Ethan Miller/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Nevada Voters

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidates rally before the CNN Debate on Nov. 15 in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

At a Glance: The West's Latino Population


In Nevada

Nevada's total population as of 2006: 2,495,529

Nevada's Hispanic population: 23.5 percent

Other Western States

The Hispanic populations of other Western states:*

  • New Mexico: 43.4 percent
  • California: 35.2 percent
  • Arizona: 28.5 percent
  • Colorado: 19.5 percent
  • Utah: 10.9 percent
  • Oregon: 9.9 percent
  • Idaho: 9.1 percent
  • Washington: 8.8 percent
  • Wyoming: 6.7 percent
  • Montana: 2.4 percent

Nationally, about 57 percent of Hispanic registered voters now call themselves Democrats, according to a December 2007 Pew Hispanic Center Report. The same report found that by 2008, Latinos will make up about 9 percent of the eligible electorate nationwide.

* Source: U.S. Census

Part of the gains that Democrats have made in the West are due to the growing Latino population. As Nevada gears up for its first-ever early caucuses, the Democratic Party is aggressively reaching out to the nearly one-quarter of the population that is Latino, including new citizens.

Marco Rauda works for the Nevada Democratic Party. He's at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas the first two Fridays of every month. That's when new citizens are sworn in, and Rauda and some party volunteers are there to greet them as they come out.

Targeting New Voters

New citizens can also register at the table staffed by Republican volunteers. But the Latinos seem drawn more to the Democrats' Spanish-language signs and to Spanish speakers like Rauda.

Hispanics, however, don't have the clout at the ballot box in Nevada that their numbers would suggest. About half are not eligible to vote because they're either under 18 or they're not citizens. That includes Marco Rauda. He has signed up more than 2,000 Hispanic voters in the past six months but he can't vote because he's not yet a citizen.

"I've been here since I was 6 years old," Rauda says, "since 1988. I've always felt like an American citizen. But I wanted to participate, I wanted to take part in the election process and I can't be preaching voter registration and not be registered to vote myself."

He won't make it in time for the caucuses, but he's looking forward to casting his first ballot in November.

Retail Campaigning

But in Nevada, even Hispanics who are eligible to vote aren't any more likely to cast ballots than any other voters. Democrats want to change that. And that's why first-term Nevada assembly member Ruben Kihuen has become such a star. He tripled the Hispanic turnout in his Las Vegas district last year when he defeated a Democratic incumbent in the primary. Many of those voters were Latinos casting ballots for the first time. The 27-year-old, Mexican-born Kihuen says he won his race by knocking on the door of every registered Democrat in his district at least twice. Latino voters, he says, respond to the personal touch.

"I took the time to write a thank-you note to everybody I spoke to at the door," Kihuen says. "So if I went to the door and met Mr. Smith and his wife and their dog, Sparky, I would go home and put little notes [that] said, 'We talked about health care and education.' And believe it or not, a lot of these people took it to heart and they said, 'Ruben, just because you took the time to write a note, we're going to support you.'"

After being a citizen for only three years, Kihuen has found that his home is on the path that many Democratic presidential contenders think will lead them to the White House. They come knocking and hoping to win the endorsement from the guy who seems to know the secret to turning out Latino voters.

"I had calls from Barack Obama, Senator Clinton, John Edwards, Bill Richardson." Kihuen says, "Almost every single candidate has visited my district twice."

Ultimately, Hillary Clinton got his endorsement. Kihuen says it was because he canvassed his constituents and she was the most popular.

The state Democratic Party is following Kihuen's example of shoe-leather politics. They have nearly quadrupled their staff, and they send organizers to neighborhood festivals and even weddings. They've also started a soccer team, Los Democratas, that plays in the Las Vegas city league.

There really is nothing comparable from the state's Republican Party. There's one pre-caucus event for Latinos scheduled at a Mexican restaurant next month with a $20 admission and a donkey piñata.

For their part, Democrats have held dozens of mock caucuses around the state for free. One of the largest was at Rancho High School in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Before the training started, Mexican folk dancers stomped and twirled in front of a large crowd that held signs and wore stickers for their favorite Democratic candidates. Al Martinez, a John Edwards supporter, was there with his friend, Merlinda Gallegos, who was wearing a big "Hillary" sticker. The disagreement over candidates is no big deal, he said.

"I mean, I got other [Latino] friends who are for Hillary, Obama, Edwards and Richardson," Martinez says. "We don't all agree, but we're all interested in supporting our Democratic Party."

The Democrats are hoping that Latino voters will still be that devoted in November. They know that even if Republicans are keeping a low profile during the caucuses, they'll be going all out to win this swing state — and the White House.

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