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Electoral Justice

Nevada is the caucus to watch, and women of color are the voting bloc to follow

Aimee Allison February 19th, 2020
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The Nevada Democratic Caucus is days away, on Saturday. And despite what you may have read and heard, the election results in Iowa and New Hampshire are piss-poor indicators of which candidate will seize momentum and claim Nevada’s 36 pledged delegates.

For a year now, campaigns, media, and donors have focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the whitest states in the nation. Their voter rolls are similarly white, with 91% in Iowa and 98% in New Hampshire.

For the same period, I have pushed back against the drumbeat on who is “electable” and who has the chops to beat Trump. Electability, I’ve argued, rests with the campaign that motivates women of color—not with the campaign that attracts the perfect mix of moderate and conservative white voters. Despite this, the news out of Iowa and New Hampshire is that Bernie Sanders is competitive and Buttigieg and Klobuchar are surging. But not so fast. The argument that Iowa and New Hampshire help us read the electoral tea leaves is fundamentally flawed.

Because the real contest begins in Nevada.

Why? First, Nevada is a bellwether state, playing a pivotal role in demonstrating momentum for candidates in 2008 and 2016. In fact, the state went for the winning presidential candidate in 31 of 38 presidential elections since 1864. The 2020 election will not likely be an exception. And its early date does matter because the primaries are front-loaded, with more than one-third of the delegates decided by the end of March.

But even more important than the state’s predictive value is that the majority of Democrats in Nevada are people of color. Voters there more closely match the demographics of Super Tuesday states and battleground states like California, Georgia and Texas. According to a Brookings institution report, Nevada is one of the nation’s fastest-growing states. People of color comprise a large share of its growth, with sizable Latinx, Black, and Asian American populations. Additionally, it is one of five states where whites are in the minority, at 48.7%.

One in five households in Nevada speaks Spanish. According to data She the People pulled from the Catalyst voter file, women of color, the powerhouse Democratic bloc, are 26% of the electorate; Latina, Black, and Asian American voters will drive the results of the weekend caucus. Women of color will be more than 20% of voters in the Nevada caucus, and they aren’t falling for false narratives around “electability.” They are looking to be wooed on the issues.

The state was pivotal in the 2008 and 2016 presidential primaries, but it should have even more sway as such a clear mirror of Democratic demographics nationwide.

That’s why we at She the People polled women of color in Nevada before the Iowa caucuses. We worked with ALG Research, which interviewed almost 400 women of color who are likely to participate in Nevada’s Democratic caucus. They reached women online, via cellphone, and by calling landlines between January 21-24 earlier this year.

The She the People poll was the first ever to measure women of color likely caucus-goers in Nevada. What we found ran contrary to the conventional wisdom that white voters’ responses to candidates are the indicators we should value and use to plan strategy.

At the time they were polled, roughly 22% of women were still undecided, which suggests that these voters are waiting for the candidates to make a compelling case. This 22% undecided among women of color is significantly higher than the statewide undecided (14%) in the recent Fox News polling of the Nevada caucus—indicating women of color are more likely to be undecided than the rest of the state electorate. ALG pollster Mayra Cuevas said in a statement, “It’s clear that candidates should be in overdrive right now to court the votes of this constituency.”

Among these women, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders led the pack, at 24% and 22%, respectively. It’s possible that Biden has lost ground since his dismal showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, putting the lie to the story of his campaign’s strength and appeal to moderate white voters. Sanders has ramped up investment in communities of color outreach in Nevada, with veteran Latinx political consultant Chuck Rocha, 100 people of color on staff in the state, and paid ads that began eight months ago. And his numbers show it.

Elizabeth Warren (10%) and Tom Steyer (14%) were in healthy double digits. Warren has the powerhouse team of Julián Castro and Maya Rupert, his former campaign manager, organizing events such as Mi Familia Vota this week. Those that were writing the Warren campaign obits might have been jumping the gun. Her campaign leans heavily on appealing to women of color—and her most recent comments correcting Bloomberg’s racist statements that the 2009 financial crisis would have been averted by redlining against Black and brown people are just one example. For his part, Tom Steyer has invested heavily in ads in the state and is at least publicly acknowledging that Nevada is “dramatically more diverse” than previous caucus states—and that those demographics demand more inclusive messaging and different strategy.

So as Nevadans have started early caucusing ahead of this weekend’s finale, the Nevada race is still a complete tossup. We’ll find out this weekend—and beyond—what women of color voters want and what that means for those in the running.

My sense is that candidates deemed “electable” will probably tank in the general election. What’s more, campaigns that didn’t build relationships on the ground, have Spanish materials or Latina surrogates, or a plan to reach women of color are likely to hit a big blue wall in Nevada and other key, diverse states.

And, finally, a word about the supposedly surging candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. At 2%and 1% respectively in our poll, they have virtually no support from women of color in the state. Both have faced damning critiques: Klobuchar for questionable evidence and police tactics used under her watch to put teen Myron Burrell in jail for life, and Buttigieg for the spike in marijuana-related arrests of Black people under his tenure as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Both struggle to make a case to communities of color, and especially women of color. They both fared well in the predominantly white states.

I predict they will begin their downward slide in Nevada. Other polling points in this direction. Make it Work Nevada’s just-completed Black Women’s Agenda Survey used a creative mix of pop-ups and door-to-door canvassing of to talk to more than 1,200 Nevada residents. Top issue they identified? Racism. Some 33% of respondents pointed to racism as their top concern, followed by affordable housing and the criminal justice system.

This should deeply matter to the presidential candidates making their case. If these patterns hold, Buttigieg and Klobuchar will not gain support in Nevada among women of color, a sizable part of the electorate. And without them, these candidates have no way to clinch the state or the ultimate nomination. These women’s concerns should matter even to billionaire Michael Bloomberg who isn’t on the ballot in Nevada, as he faces mounting criticism for supporting—and expanding—the stop and frisk policies that violated Black and brown New Yorkers’ bodies and rights—not to mention dozens of cases of sexual harassment. 

Nevada is the first presidential primary state with an electorate that reflects the country. And that’s make or break for Democratic candidates. There is no path to the White House without women of color turning out in high percentages in the battleground states. The candidate who best inspires us will win not only the primary, but in November.

She the People will be in Nevada, holding a women of color roundtable on Thursday, February 20, at the Progressive Leaders Alliance Network. Leaders like Erika Washington, head of Make it Work Nevada, will participate.


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