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For Asian-American Organizers, All Eyes on Nevada Ahead of Caucuses

The Asian-American community makes up over 134,000 eligible voters — 7.3 percent of Nevada's electorate.
Image: Michelle Anderson-Vote Nevada-Asian America
Precinct secretary Michelle Anderson counts votes for Republican candidates during a caucus in the city of Nevada, Iowa, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016.Patrick Semansky / AP

With the South Carolina primary up next on the political calendar, presidential campaigns are currently focused on the Palmetto State. But many Asian-American organizers are already looking beyond South Carolina, turning their attention, instead, to Nevada — a state where Asian Americans wield more political clout.

“It’s simple, but still quite complicated, you can be overwhelmed. It makes education the most important thing.”

In an interview with NBC News, Ninio Fetalvo, the press secretary of Asian Pacific American engagement for the Republican National Committee (RNC), said the GOP believes the Asian-Amercan vote in Nevada can make a difference.

“APAs are not a monolithic group, and as we’ve seen in the 2014 election, where Republicans won 50 percent of the Asian vote, Asian Americans come out to support our candidates when the Republican Party engages them in their communities,” Fetalvo said. “We hope to expand on our gains in 2014 to ensure all APAs have the ability to achieve the American Dream.”

RELATED: Asian Americans Turn Out For Iowa Caucus

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 8.3 percent of Nevada’s population identifies as Asian American and Pacific Islander, compared to 5.4 percent of the population in the United States. The Nevada community makes up over 134,000 eligible voters — 7.3 percent of the state’s electorate, based on data from AAPI Data and APIAVote.

But the Nevada caucuses, to be held on Feb. 20 for Democrats and Feb. 23 for Republicans, can represent challenges for Asian-American voters who may be unfamiliar with caucusing, and therefore intimidated by the process.

That's the reason why the Republican National Committee's dedicated outreach team began its engagement effort in Nevada with mock caucus trainings.

Fetalvo said the RNC engagement operation began in 2013, but geared up last summer with the launch of the Republican Leadership Initiative to recruit AAPI grassroots organizers. In Nevada specifically, the RNC met with groups like the Asian American Republicans of Nevada, the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce, and Filipino veterans groups.

“It’s important that the GOP engages all groups, so that no voter is left behind,” Fetalvo said. “The RNC continues to lead the charge in engaging APA voters in Nevada, where the DNC has continued to take our APA communities for granted.”

RELATED: As Asian-American Electorate Grows, GOP Aims to Turn Local Wins National

But that opinion is contrary to Rozita Lee's, a longtime Democrat.

Born in Maui 81 years ago, Lee is a prominent member of the state's more than 135,000-strong Filipino community, the largest Asian-American population in the state. For 18 years, Lee was the owner and lead performer of a Polynesian dance and entertainment group that appeared regularly on the Las Vegas Strip, and it was her prowess as a community leader that landed her a spot on the White House Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from 2010 to 2014.

Lee said she’s noticed the Democrats haven’t been as strong on the ground in Nevada, but that that’s about to change.

“They’re really starting to put money in here now so we can hire people to do some work,” Lee told NBC News. She said was asked on Wednesday to coordinate with the AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC dedicated to increasing civic engagement in the Asian-American community.

Already in her grassroots efforts doing voter registration, Lee said she’s noticed national trends playing out in Nevada.

“The Filipinos I talk to are saying, ‘We like Trump,’” Lee said. “They say he has the money, nobody can tell him what to do, he’s seems to be honest, he’s his own person, and I say, ‘Really?’ That’s surprising."

At a Democratic mock caucus in early February, Lee said she noticed young people, especially women, were attracted to the message of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I asked this young woman how she got to Bernie’s side instead of Hillary’s side, and she said, 'They actually called me and met with me face-to-face and no one on the Clinton side did,'” Lee said. “So they went with Sanders, and they especially like his free education idea.”

RELATED: Courting the Youth Vote: How Both Parties Plan to Target Asian-American Millennials

Voter contact has been previously identified as an unmet need. In 2012, a post-election survey found that 74 percent of Pacific Islanders and 69 percent of Asian Americans received no direct contact about the election.

No matter who the Asian-American electorate backs, Lee said she's happy to see more people engaged in the process. She hopes Asian Americans will take advantage of a mock caucus training led by APIAVote, which is scheduled for Feb. 17.

Understanding how a caucus works and the time commitment is important, Lee said, adding that the commitment can be a turn-off that impacts turn-out.

RELATED: Ahead of Iowa Caucuses, Asian Americans Prepare to Participate

“I know for a fact there are many Asians who have not gone to the first caucus in 2008 and are hesitant now. That’s why we’re holding mock caucuses,” Lee said. She also mentioned that just under two dozen people showed up for a Democratic mock caucus on Monday. She’s hoping for at least double or triple the turnout for the APIAVote training.

Vida Chan Lin, who is helping to organize the APIAVote effort in Nevada next week, told NBC News that even she has problems with the caucus process (Lin is American-born) and can understand how intimidating it can be to recent immigrants and new voters who may have language difficulties.

“It’s simple, but still quite complicated. You can be overwhelmed,” she said. “It makes education the most important thing.”

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