MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The state of Nevada is holding its presidential caucuses this month, on January 19th to be precise. That's the first time it's been so early. The Democratic party moved up the date, partly in an effort to give Latinos a voice in the nomination process. They make up nearly a quarter of the population in Nevada, a state that President Bush won by a slim two points back in 2004. Polls show a growing majority of Hispanic voters are Democrats. And so the party is making a big effort to reach out to them.
NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.
INA JAFFE: If you want someone to vote, first you've got to get them registered.
(Soundbite of people talking)
JAFFE: Marco Rauda works for the Nevada Democratic Party, and 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 he's there to greet them and say come out. New citizens can also register at the table set by Republican volunteers, but Latinos seems more drawn more to the Democrat's Spanish-language signs and Spanish speakers like Rauda who signed up Alejandra Naison(ph).
Ms. ALEJANDRA NAISON (Nevada Voter): I really want to be able to get my vote count for the next elections. And I think all these people can make a difference today if they could stay and vote.
JAFFE: But Hispanics don't have the clout of the ballot box here that their numbers would suggest. About half are not eligible to vote because they're either under 18 or they're not citizens. Ironically, Marco Rauda is a case in point. He has personally signed up more than $2,000 Hispanic voters in the past six months, but he can't vote because he's not a citizen yet.
Mr. MARCO RAUDA (Member, Nevada Democratic Party): I've been here since I was 6-years-old, since 1988. I've always felt like an American citizen. But I wanted to participate. I want to take part in the election process, and I can't be preaching voter registration at the same and not be registered to vote myself.
JAFFE: He is looking forward to casting his first ballot in November. But in Nevada, even Hispanics who are eligible to vote aren't anymore 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.
Mr. RUBEN KIHUEN (Democrat, Nevada State Assembly): We tripled Hispanic turnout.
JAFFE: In his district, where he beat the Democratic incumbent in the primary, in part by turning out Latinos who were voting for the first time. The 27-year-old Mexican-born Kihuen says he did it the old fashioned way, by knocking on the door of every registered Democrat in his Las Vegas district at least twice. Latino voters, he says, respond to the personal touch.
Mr. KIHUEN: I took the time to write a thank you note to every person that I spoke to at the door. And so if I went to the door and I met Mr. Smith and his wife and their dog Sparky, I will go home and put little notes and say, okay, we talked about health care and education, so what I would do is write a handwritten note with my stances on health care and education. And believe it or not, a lot of those people took it very - to the heart. And I said, Ruben, just because you took the time to write us a thank you note, we're going to support you.
JAFFE: Kihuen as only been a citizen himself for three years. So it's been a heady experience to suddenly have every Democratic presidential contender beating a path to his door, hoping to win the endorsement of that guy who knows the secret of turning out Latino voters.
Mr. KIHUEN: I had calls from Barack Obama, from Senator Clinton, from John Edwards, from Bill Richardson. Almost every single candidate has visited my district twice.
JAFFE: And Hillary Clinton got his endorsement because, says Kihuen, she was the most popular with his constituents. The state Democratic Party is following Kihuen's example of shoe-leather politics. They've nearly quadrupled their staff. The send organizers to neighborhood festivals and even weddings. And they've started a soccer team, Los Democratas, the Democrats, that plays in the Las Vegas City league. There really is nothing comparable from the state Republican party. There is one pre-caucus event for Latinos scheduled in a Mexican restaurant with a $20 admission and a beat-the-donkey pinata.
For their part, Democrats have held dozens of mock caucuses around the state for free like this one at Rancho High School in a predominantly Latino neighborhood.
(Soundbite of music)
JAFFE: And Mexican folk dancers stomped and twirled in front of a large crowd that had signs and stickers for their favorite Democratic candidate. Paul Martinez(ph), a John Edwards supporter, was there with a friend wearing a big Hillary sticker. Yeah, that's okay, he said.
Mr. PAUL MARTINEZ (John Edwards Supporter): I mean, I got other friends that are, that are Hillary, Obama and Edwards, and Richardson. All Latinos and so it's cool, yo. And we don't all agree but we're all interested in supporting our Democratic Party.
JAFFE: The Democrats are hoping that Latino voters will be just as devoted in November, knowing that Republicans may be keeping a low profile during the caucuses. But they'll be going all out to win this swing state and the White House.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.