LAS VEGAS—The Nevada Democratic Party had just awarded half of its delegates to Miss Piggy.
On the eve of the first Democratic debate, the party was hosting a mock caucus to train precinct workers at its offices in Las Vegas. Thirty-five local volunteers took part in the program and were remunerated with pizza for their time. Things might have gotten a little frisky had the party used real candidates for its demonstration—a party training exercise is not the right venue for a war of words over Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders—so instead it opted for characters from The Muppets. After the first ballot, 15 participants had gone with Miss Piggy (an assertive leader) while eight caucused for Kermit the Frog. “Uncommitted” took eight—twice as many as the irreverent Fozzie Bear, who was deemed unviable for the next round. Piggy was the victor and scooped up the lion’s share of proportionally allotted delegates.
After the event, Nevada Democratic Party chairwoman Roberta Lange gave the group more information about the demographic makeup of the delegates it would send to the convention. The party’s goal, she said, is to send seven black, nine Hispanic, one Native American, three Asian and Pacific Islander, four LGBTQ, five disabled, and 12 “youth” representatives to express the diversity of Nevada Democrats—one that closely resembles the national Democratic coalition that took shape under President Obama’s stewardship.
That’s why Democrats in Nevada, which is already the third state to select its delegates, think they should lead the Democratic primary process: They’re more representative of the contemporary party base than their Democratic counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“We’re kind of a harbinger for what’s happening in the West,” Rep. Dina Titus, whose district represents much of Las Vegas, said in her thick twang. “And our population is so heterogeneous—fastest-growing Asian population, big Hispanic population—our face is the face of America. So what we’re saying here is what the rest of the country’s thinking.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, as he is known to do, put the pitch for Nevada a bit more curtly Monday night. Speaking with the Washington Post’s Paul Kane at an MGM Grand gathering, Reid declared that if “you go to New Hampshire, there aren’t any minorities there, nobody lives there. You go to Iowa, and there are a few people there. But again, it is a place that does not demonstrate what America is all about, for a lot of different reasons.” Reid has never much cared about hurting people’s feelings, and now that he’s retiring, he really doesn’t care. You could see the delight in his face the following day when, at a pre-debate press conference at the Wynn, he answered New Hampshire Democrats’ call for an apology: “New Hampshire is heavily populated and loaded with minorities,” he said, grinning. “So I apologize.”
Reid himself knows that the state’s high percentage of Hispanics—nearly 28 percent of the population, compared with the 17 percent national average—can sway the state one way or another. Despite horrible approval ratings, Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign was able mobilize the state’s Hispanic voters through his push for the Dream Act and, later, immigration reform.
Nevada’s Democratic power fuses new demographic advantages with a more traditional element of the party base: labor unions. Workers along the Strip and Las Vegas’ greater tourist industry are well-organized, in spite of the state’s right-to-work law. The Culinary Workers Union Local 226 boasts more than 55,000 members in Nevada and is now locked in a fight to organize workers in one of Las Vegas’s tallest hotels: the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas.
Trump’s very tall, very classy, very fake-golden-looking footprint in Vegas lorded over the nearby Wynn, which was hosting the Democratic debate, fulfilling Trump’s every dream. Unfortunately for him, the Culinary Workers are smart, and they recognized that it could be useful to have a big protest rally outside his hotel while most of the country’s political reporters were in town—as well as the Democratic front-runner.
For Hillary Clinton, the opportunity to appear at a rally outside Donald Trump’s hotel with a powerful union that represents many Hispanic workers and whose endorsement might be handy was worth interrupting her debate prep. “Mr. Trump says, ‘Make America great again,’ ” she said. “Well, the Trump workers say, ‘Start here.’ ” Well, it’s the appearance that counts.
Clinton barely won the Nevada caucus vote in 2008. (It was her only caucus win in a campaign that infamously blew off caucus states in its nomination strategy.) It’s hard to see how she would lose it this time. A CNN/ORC poll released this week showed Clinton leading Sen. Bernie Sanders 50 to 34 percent in Nevada; when Vice President Joe Biden isn’t included, she shoots to 58 percent to Sanders’ 36. Like the South Carolina primary that follows, Nevada’s will test the biggest question mark in this race: whether Sanders, or anyone else, can drain Clinton’s strong leads among minority voters.
If Clinton can maintain those advantages, and earn the backing of Nevada’s labor unions, she’ll run away with the third voting state. According to the campaign’s Nevada spokesman, Clinton has 22 paid staff and 3,200 volunteers spread across its Reno and Las Vegas offices. Clinton has also been making friendly (if not entirely convincing) overtures to labor in recent weeks, calling for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s “Cadillac tax” on pricy health care plans and coming out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
It wasn’t the Culinary Workers’ endorsement she received Wednesday. But Clinton was able to announce a separate union endorsement at a training facility for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Henderson, Nevada. After taking a tour of the facility, smiling politely as craftspeople shared the knowledge of their trade, Clinton—backed by a dozen or so trainees, who may or may not have been eager to participate—gave a brief speech outlining the economic message she’s tailored for Nevada. Noting that the Las Vegas region was the “epicenter of the mortgage crisis and the foreclosure crisis” from which it’s still, slowly, recovering, Clinton segued to the need for skilled jobs properly organized under labor unions. “I’m feeling really lucky in Las Vegas,” she said. “Last night was a good night, and today is just as good—getting the endorsement from this union.”
If Clinton can win Nevada, by marrying support of the ascendant elements of the Democratic coalition with labor, she’ll have proven her bona fides with critical wings of the party. And that sounds like the sort of test that a first Democratic voting state should provide.