Nevada Democrats woo Latino voters

Andres Ramirez
Andres Ramirez, Nevada State Democratic Party outreach director, gives voter registration information to Claudia Ruiz at a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Las Vegas on Sunday.Isaac Brekken / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

There is no Spanish word for “caucus” and that is just one of Andres Ramirez’s problems.

The 29-year-old outreach director is responsible for selling the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus to the state’s large and underrepresented Hispanic population.

The number of Hispanics in the state has risen by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2005, growth that Democrats used to win the coveted second-in-the nation caucus slot in mid-January. They promised a diverse electorate and a chance to strengthen the party’s lock with the fastest-growing minority group in the nation.

Now it is time to deliver.

Hispanics historically have aligned with Democrats. But experts say the hurdles to maximizing the force of this voting bloc, particularly in Nevada, are formidable. Among them are the large numbers of noncitizens ineligible to vote, the caucus’ complicated process and a language barrier.

“This thing is hard enough to explain in English,” Ramirez said. He is working with the party’s translator — its first ever — to establish a glossary of caucus terms and a consistent message to Spanish speakers.

The tactic is one of several the party hopes will better engage the Hispanic community, which has a history of shaky electoral performances in the state.

Exit polls show Hispanics in Nevada — like Hispanics in all Southwestern states — are not voting in numbers proportionate to their share of the population. While making up about nearly 25 percent of Nevada’s population, Hispanics accounted for 13 percent of the electorate in last November’s election, polls show.

This unrealized potential is a regular frustration for Democrats in a state where a thin margin separates registered Democrats and Republicans.

President Bush won Nevada by just 2 percentage points in 2004. Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons was elected in November with just 48 percent of the vote.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and other state leaders cited the Hispanic population along with labor unions and Western issues in their pitch to the national party to land the Jan. 19 caucus. That is the No. 2 spot on the calendar between Iowa’s caucus on Jan. 14 and New Hampshire’s primary, which could be Jan. 22 but has not been scheduled by the secretary of state.

‘We have a lot of potential’
But most Democrats still talk about the voting bloc in wistful terms.

“I think we have a lot of potential,” said freshman state Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, a rising star in the party since winning a heavily Hispanic Las Vegas district in November. He became just the fifth Hispanic lawmaker in the 63-member Legislature.

“We here in Nevada, we’re like Latinos across the country. We’re a great potential voting bloc that we’re going to have to work hard on.”

Some point to work already paying off.

In the 2004 general election, when Nevada and other states with large Hispanic populations were hotly contested, turnout among Hispanics who were registered to vote was only slightly lower than that of other minority groups and the population at large, a Census Bureau survey showed.

The Nevada caucus that year was held Feb. 14.

Challenge: Voter registration
Other research has found a high level of interest in public affairs and politics among Hispanics nationwide, said Luis Fraga, a Stanford University professor who worked on the National Latino Survey, a study of Hispanic civic attitudes.

“The big barrier still seems to be voter registration,” he said.

That is certainly the case in Nevada. Census figures show nearly 50 percent of the Hispanic population is foreign-born and only half of the 300,000 voting-age Hispanics in 2004 were citizens. Of those citizens, just 83,000 were registered to vote.

Numbers like those keep Democratic Party staff manning a voter-registration table every Friday outside the naturalization ceremonies at the downtown Las Vegas courthouse.

Ramirez said the party’s goal is to bring caucus education and mobilization out from behind the registration tables and into the cultural mainstream.

Clubs, churches, soccer
That means networking with Hispanic clubs and churches, and courting Hispanic celebrities to make public service announcements and appear at local events, he said.

In September, “mock caucuses” are scheduled to walk high school students in Hispanic communities through the caucus experience, though participants will pick their pop star of preference, rather than presidential candidates.

In addition, there are plans for a Nevada Democratic Party-sponsored soccer team — Los Democratas — to play in one of Las Vegas’ several competitive and largely Hispanic adult leagues. Just off the sidelines, there will be a registration table with materials and banners.

Fernando Romero, the president of Hispanics in Politics, an activist group in the state, said the Democratic Party long has talked about bringing Hispanics into the party process, but fallen short on consistency.

Invitation to tea, with no dinner
Regular contact and recruitment for party posts and local offices has been spotty, he said. As a result, of all the elected county and city boards in southern Nevada, only one seat is held by a Hispanic.

“We’ve been invited to tea and not to the dinner,” Romero said. In the 2008 presidential race, he is backing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose mother is Mexican.

Ramirez says the opportunity for Hispanics to play a critical role in picking the Democratic nominee is an “historic” opportunity, the sort of thing that could galvanize the community. For now, he is focused on making sure Hispanics know it.

“We’ve decided to call it a ’caucus,”’ he said, saying the word with a Spanish pronunciation. There is no direct equivalent in most Spanish-speaking countries, he said.

He hopes translation will not be necessary.

“There are some words, you can do that, words that are mainstream, like Internet, that everybody knows,” he said. “We’re just going to have to coin this one.”