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Analysis: Did Hillary Clinton Really Lose the Latino Vote in Nevada?

Image: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters after being projected to be the winner in the Nevada Democratic caucuses, in Las Vegas

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to supporters after being projected to be the winner in the Nevada Democratic caucuses, in Las Vegas, Nevada February 20, 2016. REUTERS/David Becker DAVID BECKER / Reuters

Did Latinos really break for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in Nevada today? "La Hillary" defeated "El Bernie" in today's Nevada Democratic Caucus, and Hillary will now head to friendlier grounds in the south where she is expected to have a string of victories on through Super Tuesday on March 1st. But the Nevada Caucus poll may reveal a weakness in the Hillary voting machine- Latino voters.

The exit polls show that Bernie beat Hillary among Latinos by 53 percent to 46 percent, but some experts are calling that into question. Francisco Pedraza, an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University said it's likely that the exit polls are overstating the vote for Bernie Sanders. "This is a perennial problem election cycle after cycle. In my research, I find that exit polls have a real discrepancy in representativeness of the overall look of Latino voters", said Pedraza.

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A recent NBC/Survey Monkey poll showed that Hillary was leading Bernie among Latinos nationally by 3 percentage points, 46 to 43 percent. Of course, Latinos across the country are not necessarily representative of Latinos who are only in Nevada, so it is possible that the exit poll results are indeed reflecting reality, but not likely, said Pedraza.

Polls have had difficulty pinning down predictions of Latino voters for a while now. Incidentally, it was in Nevada where the pollsters were predicting that Sharron Angle would win the race for Senate in 2010, only to lose handily to Harry Reid.

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Sharron Angle had adopted an extremely anti-immigrant message, hoping to catch the same wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that was propelling voters to come out and vote for Jan Brewer in Arizona once she embraced the SB1070 bill, which gave police the power to determine immigration status of anyone detained or arrested when there was a "reasonable suspicion" that they were not in the country legally.

Based on the polls at the time, the New York Times' had predicted that Angle would beat Harry Reid, 50 percent to 47 percent. Instead of losing by 3 percentage points, Harry Reid beat Sharron Angle by 6 percentage points, an almost 10 percent swing away from the predictions.

Another example, which is constantly repeated by Republicans, is that George Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote back in 2004. Academics have since concluded that the exit polls overstated the Latino share of the vote for Bush by anywhere from 10 to 5 percentage points.

Polling Latinos has always been difficult. Latinos present problems for traditional pollsters that increase costs because they are a small subset of the general population, about 17 percent of the nation, but a much smaller share of the voting electorate. Spanish language polls also cost more to conduct, and statisticians require complicated sampling techniques to get a representative sample of Latinos. But while Latinos are more difficult to predict, Latinos are not large enough a population to hamper the overall predictions by pollsters.

However, this is not to say that the exit polls are definitely wrong, only that they are likely to be incorrect. There are some factors that might mitigate the exit poll numbers. First, over 60 percent of those who participated in today's caucus were participating in their first caucus. First-time voters are notoriously finicky with their vote and difficult to predict. First time caucus-goers also favored Sanders over Clinton by 53 percent to 44 percent.

Another factor that may explain the discrepancy is that Latinos are extremely young. According to Pew Hispanic Research, Latinos in Nevada who were born in the United States have a median age of 15 years old. This means that it is possible that the Bernie Sanders campaign mobilized an impressive number of young Latino voters who decided to caucus for him for their first caucus.

There is at least anecdotal evidence that this happened. Suzanne Gamboa, senior writer for NBC Latino, spoke to a first time voter who described himself as "apolitical" until Bernie Sanders came along. Whether this was a common occurrence among Latinos, and whether or not this is the phenomenon being captured by the exit polls, is yet to be determined, but it is an important question for the Hillary Clinton campaign to address sooner rather than later.

Stephen A. Nuño is an associate professor of political science at Northern Arizona University.

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