Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The Jan. 19 caucuses allowed Nevada voters an early voice in the race for the White House. They could help make a difference, especially in sorting out and whittling down the Democratic field.
But perhaps just as important to the prevailing candidates, the Democratic caucuses also served as a critical dress rehearsal for the campaigns of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as they head into Tuesday, the biggest day of presidential nominating contests in U.S. history.
The campaign lessons they learned in Nevada, and how successfully they have applied them since Jan. 19, may help determine Tuesday’s outcomes.
After splitting Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton and Obama, for the first time in the campaign, encountered a diverse population in Nevada — one that more closely resembles those of many of the two dozen or so states voting in the so-called Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses.
It was that diversity among voters that persuaded the Democratic National Committee to authorize Nevada as the third contest in the nominating season. It was the earliest Nevada voters have had the chance to weigh in, and they responded in record — almost startling — numbers.
Nevada is 24 percent Hispanic and has a sizable black community. Fifteen percent of the state’s workers belong to a labor union.
How Clinton and Obama fared among those groups has triggered early season strategy adjustments. It also validated some strategies.
“They are using the template first utilized in Nevada to secure delegates in Colorado, California, Arizona, New Mexico,” said Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 and was part of the national committee that awarded Nevada an early caucus. “This will help to expand the electoral participation and turnout, as it did in Nevada, in the region which ultimately could alter the Electoral College this fall.”
In the immediate wake of the Nevada caucus, the candidates were citing Nevada to sell themselves to South Carolina voters. Obama uttered the word “Elko” in the debate that preceded the state’s Democratic primary, using his 30-point win in the rural Nevada county to highlight his appeal to rural voters — and by extension, whites, independents and Republicans. (Indeed, Obama won 11 of Nevada’s 17 counties, nearly all of which were rural, but lost the state to Clinton by 6 percentage points.)
“We showed in Nevada that we have this natural appeal to rural voters,” Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “Elko and other parts of the state made that real.”
Nevada also provided the first indication that Obama was dominating the black vote, which, according to exit polls, he won by nearly a 70-point margin.
Obama won the South Carolina primary, where more than half of those who voted were black. (In Nevada, Obama won 83 percent of the black vote; in South Carolina, he got 80 percent of it.) Among the states voting Tuesday are Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, which have large black populations.
But Obama learned he had to beef up his work on getting the Hispanic vote, and no wonder. According to exit polls, Hispanics made up 15 percent of Nevada’s Democratic caucusgoers, and they chose Clinton by more than 2-to-1. That bodes well for Clinton come Tuesday, when populous states with sizable Hispanic populations, such as California, Arizona and New Mexico, vote. Clinton holds a double-digit lead over Obama in California, polls indicate.
The exit polls showing Clinton’s support among Hispanics in Nevada don’t include the nine Strip caucus sites, which went overwhelmingly for Clinton, despite the endorsement of Obama by Culinary Workers Local 226, the 60,000-strong union of hotel and casino workers. Nearly half the union’s members are Hispanic.
Robby Mook, who managed Clinton’s Nevada campaign, said the Hispanic support was the result of aggressive outreach. Clinton herself went door to door in a Hispanic neighborhood full of Culinary members and held a round table at a popular Mexican restaurant in the days before the caucus.
The Obama campaign was left licking its wounds. “We have a ways to go, not just in terms of his name ID but his record with Hispanic voters,” said Psaki, the spokeswoman. “We have some work to do in educating Hispanics about his record on immigration, health care and other issues.”
There was some pouting within the Obama campaign that the Culinary’s endorsement — important for its potential sway over Hispanic caucusgoers — came too late to do much good, coming 10 days before the caucus.
Even so, endorsements need to be backed with action by the candidate, particularly in the Hispanic community, said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist who studies Hispanic voter behavior at the University of California, Irvine.
“The elite endorsements are important, but you really need that community-level campaigning to win Latino votes,” DeSipio said. “Obama didn’t do as much of that as Clinton and he paid a price for it ... Some of Clinton’s campaigning in Nevada sent a message to California: This is the candidate that goes to a taqueria.”
There are any number of examples of how Obama is now more aggressively courting the Hispanic vote after failing to capture it in Nevada.
Obama has joined Clinton in running Spanish-language ads on radio and television in California, and Obama is backing up his union endorsements with neighborhood campaigning, DeSipio said.
Obama told an audience at Los Angeles Trade Technical College last week that the country must work to bridge its “black-brown divide.” When he tells the story of his humble beginnings as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, he now emphasizes that plant closures in the city affected Mexican-Americans, blacks and whites alike.
Political observers also note that the recent endorsement of Sen. Ted Kennedy could help Obama in the country’s Latino communities. President John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy worked hard to cultivate support in the Latino community before it became an important part of the Democratic coalition, DeSipio said. Still, the lure of the family legacy could be limited because many Latino voters are either young or newly minted citizens.
Regardless, Ted Kennedy brings weight to Obama’s campaign as the leading national advocate for immigration reform.
He also provides a counterbalance to Bill Clinton, who relentlessly campaigned in Nevada for his wife.
That boldness carried over into South Carolina, where Clinton served as attack dog, hitting Obama on several fronts. But the strategy backfired when he made racially tinged comments, likening Obama’s campaign to that of Jesse Jackson’s in the 1980s.
“They either overlearned the lesson or they learned the wrong lesson from Nevada,” said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “Bill Clinton being aggressive is a bad thing. People don’t want to see an angry Bill Clinton.”
The former president has since moved back into the role of a supportive spouse.
In the end, what’s Nevada’s legacy?
Well, we’ve won at least a footnote: Nevada is the first state so far in which one candidate won the popular vote and the other won more delegates — although their ultimate apportionment is to be decided.
Though Nevada’s results suggest certain demographic trends for the candidates, they won’t be validated until Feb. 5, she said.
“This is different from everything else,” Duffy said. “We’ve moved from a phase where a win is about momentum, credibility and validation. Now it’s about math. It’s about counting noses. Their strengths aren’t necessarily as important as they were in the early states.”
And Nevada as an early state? We’re now in each candidate’s rearview mirror.
Neither the Obama nor Clinton camps made its national campaign managers or strategists available to the Sun for interviews over a three-day period.