Why Democrats Chose Las Vegas for First Debate

Democratic Debate: What To Expect 1:19

Ah Las Vegas, home of Celine Dion, the soft 17 in blackjack and … labor unions. Often lost in all the glamour and the flashing lights on the strip is the fact that about 20% of the workforce in Las Vegas is covered by organized labor. That’s a big reason why the Democrats will be holding their first debate there Tuesday night.

Las Vegas’ union number is higher than the figures for Boston, Boulder, Denver or even Detroit. Las Vegas and, in a larger sense, Nevada are in many ways the capitals of the new labor movement, full of construction and service jobs covered by unions. And that makes Nevada prime real estate for the Democratic Party.

Over the last 10 years, as organized labor has been in retreat in the United States as a whole, the Silver State has been a notable exception. In 2004, Nevada looked a lot like the nation – 14.3% of the employed were represented by unions in the state versus 13.8% nationally. But since then, there has been separation. By 2014, the number was 16.4% in the state versus 12.3% nationally.

Rafferty, Andrew (206093354)

You can see a dip on that chart following the recession, but the numbers have stabilized and the latest figures – those for 2014 – show a slight uptick in Nevada.

And on top of growing membership, there is the fact that unions have a decidedly Hispanic cast in Nevada. Consider the 55,000-member Las Vegas Culinary Union, where half of all the members are Latinos.

Those numbers are music to Democrats’ ears. The Nevada unions story merges two important voters group for the party – Hispanics and organized labor – and presents a sharp contrast to the older, largely Caucasian industrial unions in the Midwest and Northeast have seen declining fortunes in the last few decades. And that gives the state special electoral significance for Democrats for two reasons.

First, Nevada stands out among early Democratic nominating contests for its relatively high union coverage numbers. The state is third on the presidential nominating calendar, behind Iowa (where 12.6% of worker are represented by unions) and New Hampshire (11.5% of workers are represented).

Nevada is the state where the post-Iowa and post-New Hampshire “next steps in the nomination” stories begin. That could be a crucial moment when you look at how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders seem to be splitting those first two states right now.

Hillary Clinton protests Donald Trump as Democratic debate looms 2:43

Second, of the states that are considered crucial swing states every four years – Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire – Nevada has the highest percentage of those represented by unions, along with a large Hispanic population, 28% of the state’s 2.8 million people.

Tuesday night’s debate will feature questions on range of topics, from immigration to the economy, but pay attention to how the candidates answer questions that are hot-button issues with organized labor such right-to-work legislation. The debate will be televised nationally, but the candidates will be making sure they talk to the attendees in particular.

Nevada’s union voters are a linchpin constituency in a linchpin state.