As workers from the Las Vegas casino strip filed into the Concorde Ballroom of the Paris Hotel, it was pretty clear what the split was. African-American workers in union t-shirts sat on one side of the aisle and mostly Latino workers filled the seats on the other side. After the shouting matches, the competing chants of "Hillary" and "Obama," the body count, and the mathematical calculations, Hillary Clinton took the Paris at-large democratic caucus by 211 votes to 98, winning 42 of its delegates to Obama’s 19.
Similar scenes were repeated in the other at-large caucuses and throughout the Clark County area where Las Vegas is located. Although Obama took the northern state and rural areas, Clinton came out with a 6% lead and a much-needed victory. The way the precincts are distributed, however, leaves Obama with 13 delegates to Clinton’s 12 if the delegates’ commitments hold through the national convention.
What happened in the Concorde Ballroom and across the state of Nevada matters even more than the numbers. Designed to be a harbinger to predict later tendencies, Nevada offered a glimpse into what could be in store as the campaigns move on to other, more delegate-laden, states. What we saw gave cause for concern.
Las Vegas is unreal, literally. It’s the place where cultural icons are converted into cash-a five minute drive takes you past commercial replicas of New York City, the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian Sphinx, Venice’s canals, and Rome’s columns-and each facade houses thousands of people who convert cash into pipedreams.
Yet the political parties chose the state of Nevada to represent a critical cross-section of the nation and for the first time bestowed on it a coveted early caucus date. Nevada held its caucuses January 19-the third state to test the waters of an election that was still 290 days away.
There’s good reason to give the slot to Nevada. Howard Dean, president of the Democratic National Committee, told the state’s Spanish-language newspaper El Mundo that the Nevada caucus aimed to measure the strength of the party in the west before moving to Feb. 5th’s primaries in 22 states nationwide. Dean noted that Iowa and New Hampshire don’t reflect a true demographic and racial portrait of the new political composition of the United States and Nevada does, especially due to its high Hispanic population. Nevada has a broadly diverse population: 59% white, 24.4% Hispanic, 7% Afro-American, 5.8% Asian and 1% Native American. Among Democrats, ethnic groups play an even greater role in Nevadan politics: 50% of registered Democrats are white, 30% Latino, and 20% African-American. The party leadership wanted to hear from these populations before being flooded by the Tsunami Tuesday primaries.
Off fantasy strip, Nevada reflects many realities of a changing U.S. economy: it’s traditionally fast-growing, service-oriented, and international. Less upbeat aspects are increasingly evident as well; the state faces a 5.4% unemployment rate (above the national average) and a full-blown real estate crisis, and working people fear they’ll lose their houses. Unions face hard-fought battles for the right to organize in the gaming industry and Latinos report increasing raids on undocumented workers in their communities and workplaces.
The Hispanic Wild Card
Two kinds of voters made their debut in Nevada, after being at best marginal elements of the political dynamic in Iowa and New Hampshire: union members and Latinos. Entrance polls showed that union members split, but the prize that pundits looked to-the Latino vote-went to Clinton by a two to one margin.
The Latino vote is historically a wild card, for many reasons. For one, it’s far less monolithic than the black vote-it’s less overwhelmingly Democrat and less predictable. Differences between generations and ethnic origins split opinions and preferences, and a huge percentage of the community can’t vote at all because they are undocumented residents.
The power of this group has nonetheless grown substantially. A recent study by the Migration Information Source shows that in 2006 there were close to 18 million (17,975,043) Hispanic citizens eligible to vote in the country. Statistics from the Southwest Voter Registration Education Program (SVREP) show that in 2004 only 58% of Latino citizens registered to vote and in the end they made up 6% of the vote.
But the potential is far higher, with nearly seven million Hispanic citizens who could be registered to vote, despite the fact that nationwide nearly half the voting age Hispanic population must be written off for lack of citizenship papers.
The immigrants’ rights mobilizations led part of the movement to take on voter registration drives among Latinos to increase political power in the electoral realm. Although the SVREP fell short on their goals for increasing Latino electoral clout through massive registration drives, in California the number of Latinos increased in the 2006 mid-term elections and according to a CNN exit poll 69% of those voted for Democratic House candidates, up from 55% in 2002.
No wonder the two Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have been courting the Hispanic vote with such fervor. Nevada’s Spanish-language radio stations and newspapers were filled with paid ads, opinion columns, and sponsored news from media owners with favorites.
Much of it’s not pretty. Going into the race, the Latino vote was considered sewn up for Clinton and polls showed she enjoyed up to a 20-point lead over Obama. A Democratic political machine in her favor, tensions between the black and Latino populations, and her campaign’s groundwork made it seem like a no-brainer for the pundits, even after the surprising Obama win in the wonder bread state of Iowa.
But then on January 9, a day after Clinton redeemed herself in the New Hampshire primary, the Culinary Workers Union endorsed Obama. The Culinary Workers Union Local 226 represents more workers than any other union in Nevada and belongs to the national UNITE HERE, which also threw its weight behind Obama. Citing his support for unions as a community organizer in Chicago and positions on raising minimum wage and actively supporting the Employee Free Choice Act, union spokespersons called on their members to caucus for Obama.
This was no small thing. The CWU is a 60,000 member union that is 40% Hispanic. Its endorsement brought into play two sectors thought to be firmly on the Clinton side-union workers and Latinos. The endorsement shattered assumptions of an easy victory and the Clinton campaign went into overdrive.
To make matters worse for the Clinton camp, investigative reporters found that a lawsuit to suppress the establishment of at-large caucuses on the casino strip had been filed by Clinton supporters. Las Vegas is a 24/7 city and thousands of workers keep that clock running in the giant hotels and casinos packed along the strip. The Democratic National Committee decided to organize at-large caucuses, which permit strip employees to caucus within 2.5 miles of their workplaces without having to be on a specific precinct list. The Clintons and the teachers’ union that supports Hillary Clinton maintained that the at-large caucuses favored one group of workers over others and over-weighted representation there. There wasn’t any real evidence for their contentions, but according to Las Vegas Sun interviews many voters believed it to be true. On the other side, many groups, especially the unions, interpreted the lawsuit as vote suppression.
The move unleashed a maelstrom of protest and cross-accusations. UNITE HERE radio spots in Spanish accused Hillary of a "shameless" attempt to disenfranchise workers. Hillary Clinton’s Surrogate-in-Chief Bill Clinton lost his cool with a reporter and, red-faced, claimed that the caucuses would allow strip workers a five-to-one statistical advantage, without substantiating the basis of this claim. The case was finally thrown out of court but the damage had been done.
On both sides, as it turned out. The unions put so much effort into denouncing the court case that it can be argued that they neglected to get out their candidate’s message sufficiently, or do the organizing among the rank and file necessary to mobilize members to attend the caucus. Many Latino voters either didn’t care about the voter suppression attempt or were actively turned off by the negative advertising. In any case, they still voted for Hillary and she won seven of the nine at-large caucuses.
At the Caucus
Back at the Paris Hotel, the tension between the mostly union Africa-American group for Obama and the Latinos on the other side was palpable-and voluble. No one specifically mentioned race as a factor for their preferences in the interviews but racial tensions hung in the aisle between the two starkly divided camps.
In the lead-up to the Nevada caucuses, Clinton campaigners made several statements that some Nevadan caucus-goers and national black commentators interpreted as race-baiting-Hillary Clinton stated that it was President Lyndon Johnson who passed the Civil Rights Act because "it takes a president" to make change, an "anonymous aide" was quoted as referring to Obama as an "imaginary hip black friend," and Andrew Cuomo made an insinuating statement about how, "you can’t shuck and jive at a press conference." Bill Clinton added fuel to the fire by characterizing Obama’s war record as the "biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen."
In the Paris caucus, Ray Wadsworth, a large African-American man in cook’s garb, had his own reading of the situation. "We got Sister Souljah’ed," he complained. The reference is to when Bill Clinton in 1992 accused a popular black rap artist of inciting racial violence in an attempt to win over the moderate white vote. "It might work here," he went on, "but it’s going to backfire in other states. The African-American vote is expendable here in Nevada, but not in other places."
Against this undercurrent of race, most of the explicit accusations in the Paris Hotel caucus had to do with union loyalty. Many Obama caucus-goers wore the red t-shirts of the CWU, while here, and according to entrance polls in other at-large caucuses as well, the Clinton camp was predominantly non-union strip workers or management. Many carry signs that read "I support my union, I support Hillary." Obama workers consider it a betrayal. Wadsworth called out angrily, "Hillary ain’t walked no picket line … This is a two-horse race, and I gotta ride with the horse that’s riding with the union."
The shouting match between a cheerleader’s H-I-L-L-A-R-Y and a syncopated "Go Obama" only subsides when an exasperated caucus leader threatens to throw out anybody who doesn’t shut up.
Latina women supporting Clinton cited gender as the main reason for their preference. Blanca, a Paris cashier, noted her hope that "there will be a change with a woman in power." Speaking in Spanish, she cited amnesty for undocumented workers and health benefits in choosing Clinton after researching the candidates’ positions online. "There have been a lot of raids here," she stated. "Hopefully Hillary will keep her word and stop that."
Paulina, a Chilean who has lived in Las Vegas for 40 years, supported Clinton and signed up as a delegate to the state convention. "The time has come for a woman in power. South America has two and they’re playing a good role, especially in Chile," she noted, in reference to Chilean President Michele Bachelet.
Did Democracy Win?
The Nevada caucus showed some pluses and minuses for the democratic process. On the plus side, the larger-than-expected turnout of 116,000 showed genuine interest and involvement from voters, many of whom had not been involved previously. The Democratic Party registered thousands of new voters to carry into the general elections, and hopefully beyond.
The Clinton campaign worked a two-prong strategy of garnering important endorsements from state Democratic figures and community leaders, and organizing on the ground. One apparent difference in the two campaigns was that the Clinton campaign cultivated and trained a large number of local campaign organizers, while Obama’s brought in outside campaign workers and started on-the-ground campaigning later, leaving much of it up to the unions.
Obama’s win in rural areas showed that these sectors will go beyond race and decide on the basis of political criteria. Obama received an overwhelming 80% of the black vote. Women, who made up 59% of caucus-goers, voted for Hillary Clinton by a reported 13% margin.
As for the coveted Latino vote, no one’s drawing definitive conclusions at this point. Before the caucuses, Danny Sepulveda, a staffer in Obama’s Washington office, downplayed just how representative the Latino vote in Nevada is for the rest of the country, comparing it to the California Latino population. "Nevada is not really an indicator of California Latinos’ vote. California vote is more mature, they have more experience in the party," he said. What’s important is not second-guessing the Latino vote-Super Tuesday will be the real test and by that time it will be too late for candidates to hone their approach-but how to reach them. And Nevada showed there’s a high road and there’s a low road to getting there.
The Nevada caucuses brought out the race factor in a way nobody really wants to deal with. "The division is striking," Marquez admitted shortly after the Paris Hotel caucus. It isn’t something that began in the caucus room, it’s a festering wound of U.S. society, from communities to workplaces. The problem is how it’s handled in the electoral process. In a racially charged society, it doesn’t take much to ignite passions and the Clinton campaign dropped a few sparks this time around.
Nevada revealed a critical juncture-candidates can either be true to the rhetoric of unity and healing wounds. Or they can stoop to subtle race-baiting and open up those wounds. That may benefit one side in the short run, but it could destroy a country desperate for a new direction.
This is not an accusation, yet. It is a heartfelt plea to the candidates and all their surrogates-for the sake of the nation, don’t go there.
LAURA CARLSEN (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org) is director of the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org) in Mexico where she has worked as a writer and political analyst for two decades.