When Democratic presidential hopefuls face off in their first prime-time debate Tuesday night, they are hoping for a chance to appeal to prospective voters and make the case for why they’re the best candidate. The debate takes place in Las Vegas, Nevada, a state with a significant and growing number of Latinos - almost 28 percent of the state's population.
Hillary Clinton has an advantage among Hispanics going into the debate hosted by CNN. She enjoys high levels of name recognition and favorability among Latino voters and has built a national campaign team in key states with large Latino populations. She has also picked up endorsements from a number of high-profile Latinos, including Democratic Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra who was in Boston on Monday campaigning for Clinton and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro who will be endorsing Clinton at an event in San Antonio on Thursday.
Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said when Clinton takes the stage on Tuesday night, the Democratic frontrunner should “underscore” her position on policies she believes would specifically benefit Latinos and their families. That includes reiterating her promise to “go further” than Obama has on immigration and emphasizing her specific economic and education policy proposals.
Speaking to NBC News at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala after Clinton addressed the crowd, national political director Amanda Rentería said the campaign was working to ensure that Hispanics knew she was thinking "outside the box" when it came to policies as well as focusing on outreach. "We are working on getting people where they are," said Renteria, mentioning the upcoming event in San Antonio, Texas.
Clinton's two main Democratic rivals, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, might not be as well known to Hispanics, but they have been ramping up efforts to connect with Hispanic voters, including at last week’s Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute conference, as well as staking out their specific policy proposals. The debate “is their chance to introduce themselves to this very important electorate and to lay out their vision of what they would do as president," said Cardona.
Sanders comes from a state where Latinos make up less than 2 percent of the population and he has not until recently had any significant Latino campaign managers and staffers. Last Friday he held a campaign rally in Tucson, Arizona, and thousands of Latinos joined a boisterous crowd of about 13,000 who gathered at a city park to hear Sanders speak.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), whose congressional district includes Tucson, attended Friday’s event where he formally endorsed Sanders. He told NBC he believes Sanders will “open doors” and create opportunities for Latinos if elected president. He also acknowledged that Sanders doesn’t have the same name recognition among Hispanics as Clinton but said he believes Sanders’ message of addressing economic inequality will “resonate” with Latinos.
Arturo Carmona, Latino outreach director for Sanders’ campaign, tells NBC Sanders' message is that he is for issues many Latinos care about, including immigration reform, making college tuition free at public colleges and universities, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and tackling climate change.
“There’s no question that the more Latinos learn about this bold agenda that the senator has been elevating, the more and more support we will get—and we’re already seeing that happen across the country,” Carmona said.
O’Malley’s campaign sees Tuesday night’s debate as a chance for the former Maryland governor to talk about the specific policies he pushed and implemented that directly benefited the growing number of Latino families, currently a little over 9 percent of the state's population.
“He’s the only person who can stand on that debate stage and not just say what Latinos want to hear, but point to a proven and consistent track record of delivering for the Latino community,” said Gabriela Domenzain, director of public engagement for O’Malley’s campaign.
Domenzain said that the former governor froze college tuition rates for four years and increased the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
He also pushed for the Maryland DREAM Act, which extended in-state tuition to undocumented students at public universities and colleges in the state.
“Everybody else can say I support the DREAM Act, but he’s the only one who can say 'I passed it',” Domenzain said. He also oversaw the enactment of a system that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
The Democratic candidates are in agreement on many issues surrounding immigration; they have all been calling out against separating families through deportation policies, for example. At the debate, though, the candidates are expected to make distinctions between how consistent they have been on specific policies and try to capitalize on those differences.
The Democratic presidential candidates will be outlining their policies regarding health care and the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which has extended healthcare benefits to more than 10 million Latinos but which is still is expensive, onerous, or out of reach for some. Sanders has called for a single-payer health system, while O'Malley is pushing for extending healthcare regardless of status, and Clinton has vowed to tackle the still high costs of Obamacare for some families.
Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee—who are considered “long shot” Democratic presidential candidates—will also be on stage for the debate Tuesday night. As Cardona pointed out, the two have “very little name recognition not just among Latinos, but among the American electorate in general” going into the debate.