August 6th, 2020

The Nation

Candidates try to prove their appeal to nonwhite voters

 David Weigel

By David Weigel The Washington Post

Published Feb. 17, 2020

NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. - Joe Biden was running late. Two hundred voters had gathered in the Culinary Training Academy to see him, and they waited patiently, a live band vamping for time, until an army of local endorsers - none of them white - introduced the former vice president.

"I got raised in the black church," Biden said. "You think I'm joking? Not a joke. That's where I got started in the civil rights movement. I used to go to 7 o'clock Mass and then I'd head down to Reverend [Moses] Herring's church on the east side, and that's where we'd get ready to go out and desegregate movie theaters."

For the next 12 minutes, every line landed and every joke killed. Rhetoric that had left Biden's Iowa audiences drifting - "this is literally about restoring the soul of this country" - earned shouts of "yes!" and "that's right!" After placing fourth and fifth in the first two Democratic contests, Biden was asking Nevada to start the real primary, one dominated by nonwhite voters, one in which most other Democrats could not get a crowd that looked like his.

"There can be no Democratic nominee, none, without the voice of Latinos and African Americans being heard," Biden told Clark County Democrats at a Saturday evening reception.

The needle-scratch shift in the Democrats' primary map, from two of the country's whitest states to one of its most diverse, has tested candidates who arrived with different expectations for Nevada. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who ran strong with Latino voters in 2016 and never stopped campaigning for their support, has turned that into a narrow lead here in the latest poll. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who focused early on Nevada, has steady Asian American support here and drew diverse crowds at her first post-New Hampshire stops.

Former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the white Midwesterners who demolished Biden in the first two contests, do not have the same broad appeal. Their first stops in Nevada have been dominated by white voters, who represent about 60% of the expected caucus turnout. Echoing Biden, Democratic leaders have minimized the results from Iowa and New Hampshire, predicting no clarity in the primary until nonwhite voters weigh in.

"I think it's way too early to count Joe Biden out," former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid told reporters after he cast an early vote on Saturday. (Reid voted "uncommitted" on all three lines of his ranked-choice ballot.) "Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative of the country. He's gonna do well in Nevada. He's going to do extremely well in South Carolina. So, people should not be counting Joe Biden out of the race."

Klobuchar and Buttigieg face two problems, difficult to erase in just six days: They are less well known outside the party's white liberal electorate, and nonwhite voters have been hearing the worst about them before they hear the best. Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, has had the rockiest introduction, starting with a widely watched interview with Telemundo in which she repeatedly failed to name the current president of Mexico, Andr├ęs Manuel L├│pez Obrador, a leftist elected on his third try for the office.

"I guess what it says is that there is more to being prepared than how many years you've spent in Washington," Buttigieg said Sunday, when a town hall questioner asked about Klobuchar's stumble.

More questions, the kind Democrats were not getting in Iowa or New Hampshire, led to more trouble. Asked about her vote for a conservative amendment to the 2007 immigration bill that would have required English as the national language, she said that it was "not a position I take" but that she "did vote that way." In a Sunday interview with CBS News' "Face the Nation," Klobuchar argued that she had not gotten credit for renouncing that vote last year, and that "actually nearly all Democrats eventually voted for it" because it had been added to the bill they supported.

But Klobuchar is competing here against Democrats who were not around to vote on the legislation (Warren, Buttigieg and investor Tom Steyer), and a Democrat who opposed it (Sanders). At a Saturday morning town hall in the Las Vegas suburbs, Klobuchar spoke for 45 minutes and talked about immigration in the context of her family's European roots and how much immigrants add to the economy.

"Something like 37% of your small businesses are owned by Hispanics," she said, referring to Nevada. "That's an amazing figure. It shows what we're seeing in terms of immigrants contributing so greatly to our economy, while 70 of our Fortune 500 companies are headed by people from other countries, and 25% of our U.S. Nobel laureates are born in other countries."

Buttigieg, who took heat earlier than Klobuchar on his mostly white support, has not broken through either. As in other states, he has raced to catch up, squeezing in appearances and interviews at events organized for nonwhite voters and inviting them to join the coalition, though sometimes in clinical terms.

"I think Nevada's unique since it's a state that's looking to the future demographically," Buttigieg said at a Saturday night forum organized by the Latino Chamber of Commerce. "It is what the future of America looks like. And I think this is a fantastic opportunity for our message about moving the country forward and doing it in a way that can actually unify a dangerously divided American people."

Warren and Sanders have faced fewer questions here about nonwhite support, but on the ground, the Sanders advantage is impossible to miss. The senator from Vermont led a march to an early-voting site Saturday, the same one where Reid had been refusing to count out Biden, that was dominated by young Latino voters.

"Half of my family is undocumented, and Bernie has consistently talked about that issue," said Roxana Lopez, 19, as she wheeled a baby carriage to the polling site. "After Trump won, I got pulled over a lot, because of my skin. I never got asked for proof that I was a citizen before Trump. Bernie's going to end that."

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