Nevada’s Latino voters disrupt conventional wisdom — and make history in the process

Hyped for weeks as an essential component of Hillary Clinton’s “firewall” against Bernie Sanders, Nevada Latinos needed to show up for Clinton like they did in 2008 to stanch her campaign’s hemorrhaging after being trounced in New Hampshire.

The bad news for the Clinton campaign is, they didn’t. The good news for her is, it probably doesn’t matter in her march towards the nomination. But from a historical perspective, it’s important to consider precisely what happened with the Latino vote in Nevada.

In 2008, Clinton dominated Latino polling in nearly every state that had a consequential percentage of Latino voters. Her primary totals were staggering, especially in Nevada, where she captured 64 percent of the vote to Obama’s 26 percent. In 2008, Latinos comprised 15 percent of Nevada’s Democratic voters. It would be the first state where “La Hillary” would rout the young Senator from Chicago amongst Latinos with two exceptions — Obama’s home state of Illinois and the wealthy upscale New England state of Connecticut.

Determined to continue or improve upon this dominance in 2016, the Clinton campaign unrolled the same traditional and familiar campaign techniques political consultants have used in presidential campaigns for decades — hire former Hispanic politicians as advisors, hold press conferences in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, add some Spanish-surnamed staff and consultants and schedule Latino politicians from neighboring states to stump before the media.

Essentially, the Clinton plan was to do what had always been done. The problem, as Clinton would learn, is that’s not a strategy. It never has been and its certainly not with today’s Latino electorate.

Are young Latino voters ‘Berning’ through Hillary’s ‘firewall?

The first signs of trouble bubbled up late last year. In a precursor of things to come, the Clinton campaign found itself in the midst of a social media firestorm in December 2015. Hoping to capitalize on Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy and Hillary’s status as a grandmother-to-be to buttress against her falling “likability” numbers, the campaign issued a seemingly innocuous, borderline hokey campaign piece on how Hillary Clinton was just like a Latina grandmother.

The social media pushback was fierce, aggressive and angry in a way only an organic Twitter firestorm can be. Latino’s nationwide took to their smartphones with thousands of examples of just how completely removed a wealthy, white, powerful woman was from their “abuelas.”

The episode indicated the Clinton campaign either didn’t understand what was happening with younger millennial Latinos, was severely outmatched in its strategy, or overly optimistic in its assumptions about Latino voters falling in line — or a combination of all three.

And Hillary’s polling numbers began to considerably tighten as Sanders’ upstart revolutionary campaign gained momentum.

Unfazed by the flap, the Clinton campaign stuck to its plan, anticipating that with its strong cadre of Latino politicians and celebrities, Hispanic voters would come around as they always did. In the weeks building up to the Nevada caucuses — the first voting test in the West and a state with a sizable Latino vote base — former HUD Secretary and Clinton appointee Henry Cisneros, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, actresses Eva Longorria and America Ferrera and the iconic union leader Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers, plus dozens of mayors, state senators, local politicians and staffers from neighboring states, were summoned to Nevada to ensure the Latino firewall remained intact.

Early polling showed the dramatic tightening of the race in Nevada was being driven in large part by a surging youth vote. Some surveys showed a 20 point lead evaporating to a statistical dead heat in a matter of weeks.

But as often goes unrecognized, the youth vote and the Latino vote are increasingly the same thing in Southwestern states. Inspired by Sanders’ message of free college tuition and opposition to a rigged political system, young Latinos were attracted more to a narrative of economic uncertainty than to one of ethnic allegiance espoused by their parents — and grandparents.

Entrance polls, exit polls, and precinct results are at best inconclusive. Good readers of hard data and political tea leaves can credibly make the claim that either Hillary or Bernie won by a small margin.

This, of course, belies the larger point that even if Clinton won by a small margin, the size and breadth of her collapse among Latino voters is astonishing — and possibly transformative.

While the Clinton campaign is likely to spend the next few weeks arguing that it actually won the Latino vote in Nevada by a point or two, it will simultaneously reinforce the point that it essentially lost 36 percent or more support from where it was eight years ago.

It would be wise for the campaign to focus less on spinning data points and more on recalibrating its strategy to address the fact that it’s clearly off target in the Latino vote trajectory — due in large part to its inability to connect with a younger, savvier generation of Latino voters who bestow no relevance on ethnic icons from days long gone.

South Carolina will be far more revealing than Nevada. The media, particularly East Coast media, will be focused on African American voters. The media’s tendency to cast “minority” voters as alike will nudge Clinton’s Latino vote challenges into the background.

Polling of African American voters has shown strong support levels for Clinton, consistent with a traditional minority voting block. Clinton won black votes by a three-to-one margin in Nevada. This isn’t likely to change as the primary season turns to the South.

Moreover, the growing likelihood that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee ensures that Latinos nationally, regardless of generational differences, will coalesce into a united front against the well-founded belief that the Latino community is under attack by Trump.

This demonstrates a classic political dichotomy: For all the talk about the Latino vote not being monolithic, we finally have data to prove it. And yet nothing transforms Latinos into block voters faster than a divisive, anti-immigrant Republican politician.

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