A Bernie Sanders ad flashed across the TV at A Downtown Barbershop over the weekend, and Carleton Pennington met the message with a shrug.
Hillary Clinton has been organizing in Nevada for so many years that Pennington – who was administering a bald fade – became accustomed to her supporters knocking on his door and calling him at home.
“For so long, we had one candidate,” the barber said. Sanders made little noise.
But in the days since Sanders thumped Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, his supporters started calling, too. Sanders has opened more field offices in Nevada than Clinton and is spending heavily on TV.
Now Sanders comes up in conversation at Pennington’s shop, and a Sanders sign hangs in the window of the vintage boutique next door.
As Sanders and Clinton shift their efforts to Nevada ahead of the Democratic Party’s caucuses on Saturday, a state that once appeared safe for Clinton has been thrown into question. Following the predominantly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the nominating contest here will test the candidates’ appeal among a diverse electorate more reflective of the country as a whole.
The race is especially significant for Clinton, whose popularity with nonwhite Democrats has been viewed as a “firewall” capable of stopping early Sanders momentum short.
“Clinton’s on the defensive,” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “She has put a lot of time in Nevada. She’s far better organized than Sanders in Nevada, and her claim is, ‘I do speak to a broader demographic.’ … So if she doesn’t do well in Nevada, then she’s really got a problem.”
Clinton’s on the defensive.
Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno
Clinton opened her first campaign field office in Nevada in April 2015 and hired as her national campaign manager Robby Mook, who ran her Nevada operation in 2008. In an effort to court Latino voters, her campaign has been running Spanish-language TV ads and phoning voters in Spanish.
Clinton has said she would do more than President Barack Obama to stop the deportation of immigrants in the country illegally.
“Hillary has been working, building relationships with all kinds of constituencies since the ’70s,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. “I remember Hillary coming to San Antonio in the ’80s to our offices and walking around doing voter registration with our guys in the barrios of San Antonio, right? So, she’s done that.”
Meanwhile, Gonzalez said, “Bernie has been sort of a Northeast left activist and then elected official forever. So he’s been working his turf, and his turf is mostly white. So he starts off at a great disadvantage in minority communities.”
Hillary has been working, building relationships with all kinds of constituencies since the ‘70s.
Antonio Gonzalez, president of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project
Latinos make up about a quarter of Nevada’s voting-age population. But Latino voters tend to be younger than non-Hispanic voters, and Sanders drew overwhelming support in New Hampshire from millennials. Nevada’s allowance of same-day registration could benefit him with young, first-time voters. They are drawn to his scathing criticism of corporate power and to his support for single-payer health care and free college tuition.
At a gathering of Sanders supporters at The Jungle cafe in Reno on Friday night, Lex White, a 25-year-old whose trio played for a small crowd, said most of the young people he knows plan to caucus for Sanders because he “represents an ideal outlook.”
“A preference for the common man,” White said, “is something that I favor.”
A preference for the common man ... is something I favor.
Lex White, a Bernie Sanders supporter in Reno
Tick Segerblom, a Nevada state senator supporting Sanders, said that if the campaign can motivate young people to caucus, a victory is “certainly doable.” But he acknowledged the difficulty of turning out large numbers of voters who are less familiar than Clinton supporters with the caucus process.
Except for “die-hard political people who are already lined up with Hillary,” he said, persuading newer voters to caucus “on a Saturday instead of going to your kid’s soccer game, or working, it’s not easy.”
“It’s an uphill battle,” Segerblom said.
Sanders, campaigning in Reno on Saturday, moved to cut into Clinton’s support among Latinos. As Clinton visited with workers in a break room at Harrah’s Las Vegas, Sanders lamented the disproportionate number of black and Latino Americans incarcerated in the United States, and he reiterated his call to overhaul the nation’s immigration policies.
“Count me in as somebody who will lead the effort for comprehensive immigration reform and a path toward citizenship,” the Vermont senator told a few hundred supporters at a rally. “And to the degree that Congress does not do the job that it is supposed to do, then we will use the executive powers of the White House.”
Later, at a forum across town, Aracelia Mendoza, an undocumented immigrant living in Reno, told Sanders she was “constantly living with fear” that she will be separated from her 10-year-old son, a United States citizen.
“Senator Sanders, my question to you is: What would you do if you had the opportunity to fix the system?” she asked.
Sanders replied, “I will do everything that I humanly can as president to make sure that you do not continue living in fear.”
Nowhere is the competition between Clinton and Sanders more immediate than on television, where both candidates are running a heavy rotation of ads. In one Sanders spot, Lucy Flores, a Latina and former Nevada state assemblywoman, endorses a candidate she said is “willing to think big” and “fight for everyday people.”
In contrast, Clinton offers a refrain of her campaign theme of pragmatism and experience, urging voters not to “wait for ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in the real world.”
Nevada is a relatively small state of about 3 million people. But as in previous nominating contests, the presidential race has drawn a stream of Democrats from California. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and a group of other state senators traveled to Las Vegas this month for a rally with former President Bill Clinton, and both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have dispatched carloads of supporters over the border.
Heading to Las Vegas this week was Ann Richardson, an attorney in state government in Sacramento. She said Sanders’ appeal to young voters has captivated people who “may be a little idealistic and think they can bring somebody with bold ideas to Washington.”
But she said, “I think they have to examine history and ask themselves, ‘Will that person get anything done?’ ”
Pennington, 42, is a self-described “Hillary guy” who said he probably will caucus on Saturday. He supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, and he praised Clinton’s move to associate herself with the president in the most recent debate. Though Nevada’s recovery from the recession has been slower than in many other states – with an unemployment rate still hovering above the national average – Pennington’s home value is up, and he said he has found it easier to get health insurance.
“It’s done me well,” Pennington said. “I want to keep the track rolling.”
Pennington’s daughter Bailee walked into the barber shop about then.
The 19-year-old community college student said she doesn’t “really care” about the caucuses but might go to support Sanders, anyway. She heard he wants to help college students, and she might have a ride.
She said, “My sister’s taking me – that’s what she said.”
David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders