LAS VEGAS -- Nevada won its coveted early date in the presidential primary because it was supposed to offer Democrats something different.
It’s more racially diverse than the two states that weigh in earlier, Iowa and New Hampshire. Its population is young, working class, largely urban and increasingly leaning toward blue. Nevada looks like America, its boosters like to say.
Polls show former Vice President Joe Biden has a slight lead, with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders close behind. In one divergence from Iowa, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has trailed further back, struggling to crack double digits, but his campaign was slower to build out.
“For whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to be anybody’s picking up traction other than the big three: Warren, Biden and Bernie,” said Mark Stufflebeam, the president of the Democratic club in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson.
Those candidates will be trying to shake up that dynamic this week, as they head to the state to court one of the most powerful political forces in the state, the casino workers’ Culinary Union. The 60,000-member union hasn’t said if it will endorse a candidate, but the town halls it is hosting this week will help the group decide. If the union does endorse and chooses early enough to help organize, the largely female and largely Latino group can offer candidates critical reach into communities of color.
Nevada’s population — 29% Latino, 10% black, 10% Asian American or Pacific Islander — closely mirrors that of the U.S. as a whole and provides the first test of a candidate’s appeal to a broad group. By contrast, Iowa is 85% white. Nevada's early role can also cement a front-runner, as it did for Hillary Clinton in 2016, or solidify an upset, as it did for Barack Obama in 2008.
“Nevada is small but mighty and has a history of playing really pivotal roles in the contests,” said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton campaign aide.
Still, you wouldn't know it from watching most campaign coverage or tracking the candidates' schedules. As it has for decades, Iowa gets outsize attention because it’s the first state and sets the tone, along with New Hampshire, Petkanas said. Even South Carolina, which votes a week after Nevada, has gotten more attention because it's billed as the chief barometer of how candidates fare with African Americans, voters critical to Democrats general election chances.
That doesn't mean most of the top campaigns aren't trying in Nevada.
Democratic activists, voters and strategists in the state say Biden’s name recognition and history of visiting on official and political business have him running strong, though Warren, of Massachusetts, and Sanders, of Vermont, have built the sort of organizations that can drive people to show up at a caucus meeting in person.
Sanders has the biggest team in the state, with more than 70 paid staffers. Tick Segerblom, a Clark County commissioner who endorsed Sanders in 2016, said the Vermont senator learned his lesson from 2016, when his smaller team put up a tough but ultimately unsuccessful challenge to Clinton.
Sanders counts a well of support in northern Nevada and Reno’s Washoe County, where he beat Clinton three years ago, but some of those backers have moved to support Warren’s brand of progressivism, Segerblom said.
“If he doesn’t win the state, he’ll come very close,” Segerblom said. “It’s anybody’s game right now, but he has everything he needs.”
Sanders said Monday in Carson City that he believes he has an “excellent chance” of winning in Nevada.
After a late start, Buttigieg hired his first staffer in June, but he used a fundraising cache to quickly expand his team to 55 paid staffers this fall.
“We’re running into a lot of people who haven’t really made up their minds yet,” said Paul Selberg, the Nevada director for Buttigieg’s campaign. “It’s up for grabs.”
Buttigieg established some of the first campaign footprints in rural areas, a strategy seen as key to Obama’s narrow win in 2008, when he lost the popular vote in the caucuses to Clinton but was awarded more delegates. Buttigieg's campaign is wooing Nevada’s relatively young population and sizeable group of military families and veterans, with the hope they’ll be drawn to the 37-year-old former Navy intelligence officer.
Laura Martin, the executive director of Nevada progressive group PLAN Action, said the strong organizing teams that Buttigieg, Warren and Sanders have set up are critical to winning.
“We want to see that you care — not just a couple of months before the caucus,” she said. “Were you here sweating it out in the July 4th parade? Were you here for Labor Day? They want to see that you’re not just interested in winning, but you’re interested in our community.”
Martin noted that California Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out last week, had also built up an impressive presence in the state and her exit left a gap. It’s too soon to say which candidate Harris backers will rally behind, she said.
RJ Lemus, a 39-year-old student at Nevada State College, had most recently been supporting Harris, after his earlier favorites, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, dropped out. He’s undecided now, saying he’s going to wait and see how the race plays out over the next two and a half months.
For now, Lemus said, he's “comfortable enough with all the front-runners" and doesn't "really feel a need to latch onto anybody.”
He’s considering voting for former Obama housing secretary Julián Castro because Castro has campaigned heavily in Nevada and visited parts no other contender has, like homeless encampments in storm tunnels beneath the streets of Las Vegas.
Activists and politicians on the ground say Castro, the only Latino in the race, has impressed people and might have enough supporters show up to caucus for him to be awarded some delegates. But his chances of winning Nevada's caucuses are slim. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, whose mother lives in Las Vegas and who has developed his own local ties, might also have a stronger showing than in other early states but still hasn't come close to breaking into the top tier.
Gary L. Gregory, a 71-year-old Democrat who lives in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, said his chief concern is a candidate’s ability to win against Donald Trump.
“I think there are some tremendously good people out there as candidates and I would not be afraid to vote for many of them. But I think the issue for me is electability.”
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed to this report from Carson City, Nev.
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