Latino Community, Female Voters Push Clinton Over the Top

By Paul Kane and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 20, 2008

For all the predictions of a key labor endorsement tipping the scales against her, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's ties to the Latino community and her connections to female voters provided the critical margin for her victory in Nevada's Democratic caucuses yesterday.

The support of those two key voting blocs, along with her continued strong showing among union and working-class households, provides the New York senator with a potentially critical edge as the campaign moves toward Feb. 5, when 22 states, including key Western and Southwestern states with similar demographics as Nevada, cast their ballots in a near-national primary.

In the days before the caucuses, her campaign -- led by former president Bill Clinton -- angrily denounced the process as undemocratic. But aides continued to feverishly work behind the scenes to drum up support among female voters while also peeling workers away from the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, whose endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) failed to yield him the huge cache of expected delegates from the nine precincts in Las Vegas casino ballrooms.

Combined with the endorsement of the smaller local affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, Obama was supposed to have 78,000 labor foot soldiers working on his behalf.

"It's a sad day for the Culinary. It's sad day for SEIU. Maybe next time when they come out with an endorsement, they'll consult with their members," said Gerald W. McEntee, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest union supporting Clinton.

Network entrance polling showed the overall union vote -- about 30 percent of caucusgoers -- almost evenly split among Clinton and Obama. She had a decisive, 13 percentage-point edge among women, who made up 59 percent of caucus participants. More startling, Clinton had a nearly 2 to 1 edge among Latino voters, many of whom are culinary union members who work in casinos and caucused in hotel ballrooms on the Las Vegas "Strip."

Dina Titus, a Clinton backer and political scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said she hosted two Clinton volunteers -- one from Baltimore, the other from Boston -- who worked the Las Vegas barrios from sunrise to sunset. Ultimately, those personal appeals may well have broken the power of the union leaders who had endorsed Obama, she said. Bolstered by nurses and food workers, both unions are heavily female.

Clinton's ground troops seeded Las Vegas beauty salons with folders displaying Clinton's hairstyles through her career and declaring, "Worry about your hair. If you don't, someone else will" -- a dig at establishment sexism, Titus said. That issue came even more into focus when MSNBC political talk show host Chris Matthews was forced to apologize for comments that he conceded could have been regarded as sexist and demeaning to Clinton.

For the Latino vote, Clinton leaned heavily on Las Vegas's dynamic state assemblyman, Ruben Kihuen, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. On Clinton's first foray into Las Vegas after her victory in New Hampshire, Kihuen, 27, escorted the former first lady through a Latino neighborhood, made up largely of culinary workers, knocking on doors and sitting in the homes of union members.

Fearful that the vote in the casinos would tilt heavily in Obama's favor, Clinton allies filed a suit to block the precinct sites on the Strip, arguing that a disproportionate share of delegates were being awarded there. A federal judge dismissed the suit, but the campaign continued to malign the process, with Bill Clinton accusing the culinary union of trying to suppress votes for his wife.

Although turnout exceeded expectations in the rest of the state, the casino sites fell short of projections. And Clinton won a larger share of delegates at seven of the nine casino sites.

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, told reporters that "all of the confusion and disparaging" of the casino sites may have depressed turnout among union workers.

Cassandra Butts, a senior Obama strategist, noted that the Clintons had been involved with the Latino community far longer than Obama. "I'm not prepared to say brown people won't vote for a black guy," she said. "If both of them were equally well-known, if they had worked the community as long, you might be able to draw that conclusion, but it's an apples-to-oranges comparison."

McEntee pointed to Feb. 5 battleground states such as California and Arizona as friendly territory for Clinton with large Hispanic populations. "They believe she is their friend. They truly believe in her," he said. "It speaks well for the campaign ahead."

However, polling showed more than 80 percent of black caucusgoers in Nevada went for Obama, a number that, if matched next Saturday in South Carolina, would make him a prohibitive favorite to win that primary. And some of the largest Feb. 5 states, including his home state of Illinois, Clinton's home state of New York and neighboring New Jersey, have large African American voting populations.

Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report from Las Vegas.

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