MESQUITE, Nev. — Laura Aguilera is 19 and works seven days a week in this city in the baking Nevada desert to earn money for nursing school. So, she explained after a 10-hour shift at Los Lupes Mexican restaurant, “I haven’t had time to focus on who is running for president yet.”
But unprecedented efforts to get Aguilera’s attention are beginning all around her because her vote, and those of the growing number of Latinos who live in battleground states like this one, is considered vital to winning the White House in 2016.
Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the two Republican presidential candidates seen as having the greatest chance to make inroads with the Latino vote that traditionally leans Democratic, recently stopped in Nevada, Bush showcasing his fluent Spanish and Rubio highlighting that he is the son of Cuban immigrants. Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed 1,200 Latino leaders gathered in Las Vegas last week and said that she would do more than President Obama — and certainly far more than any Republican rival — to stop deportations and enact immigration reform.
Clinton’s campaign is registering voters outside Hispanic grocery stores and churches, while a conservative group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers is compiling valuable contact lists as it offers free services, such as driver’s license prep classes, in Spanish. And, critically for a demographic that skews young, campaigns are creating bilingual Web sites, videos and messaging for Facebook and other digital platforms.
“I have never seen the Latino vote prioritized in this way — and this early — in a meaningful way,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of the Democratic-backed Latino Victory Project.
Because Nevada hosts one of the first primaries and is a purple state — it went for Obama for president in 2008 and 2012 but overwhelmingly reelected Republican Brian Sandoval for governor in 2014 — both parties are putting in early and extra efforts here. Twenty-seven percent of Nevada’s population, and about 16 percent of its eligible voters, are Hispanic, and each party sees the vote of Aguilera and people like her as both critical and gettable.
“I am way more interested in what the person says, not what party they are from,” Aguilera said.
The U.S.-born daughter of Mexican immigrants, she is the face of a changing state and nation. Her city of 18,262 people ringed by spectacular red rock that rises out of the desert was founded by a few Mormon families a century ago. Because of nearby Nellis Air Force Base and “an old-fashioned, flag-waving community feel,” many retired military veterans settled here, Mayor Allan Litman said.
About 15 years ago, Mesquite got into the casino business, and thousands more people, many of them of Mexican heritage, moved in and went to work in the new hotels and restaurants.
“The makeup of the city has dramatically changed,” said Litman, 72, who teaches a spin class at the rec center. Half of all school-age children and as much as 30 percent of the town is Hispanic.
Nationally, 800,000 Latinos turn 18 every year, making them eligible to vote. The largest numbers of Latinos live in California and Texas. But the focus on the Latino vote for 2016 is sharpest in states both parties see as up for grabs: Nevada, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and a handful of others, such as Virginia, where no party is dominant and Latinos, though not as numerous, can play a significant role.
Obama won all of these states in 2012.
Just look at the electoral college map, said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a center-left think tank. “There is no path for Republicans to win the presidency in 2016 without flipping heavily Hispanic states” that went for Obama, he said, which is why “unprecedented amounts of money will be spent speaking to this community.”
Daniel Garza, the executive director of LIBRE, the Koch-backed initiative offering free services to Hispanics in many battleground states, said Republicans cannot afford to have the Democrats win 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, as Obama did in 2012.
“We intend to double down our efforts” in this “constituency at a crossroads,” Garza said. Republicans “don’t need to win a majority, just inch it up.”
More Latinos are registered as Democrats, but Republicans say they see an opening because so many are young and without hardened, partisan voting habits and because many hold some conservative social values, including opposition to abortion rights.
So far, Clinton’s campaign is the most visible on the ground in Nevada, with staff already beginning to knock on doors.
Many people interviewed said they had never heard of Marco Rubio. But the senator from Florida is hoping his life story, as the son of a hardworking hotel bartender from Cuba who worked in Las Vegas for years, will resonate. He has signed on Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison to chair his campaign in Nevada.
And there is speculation about whether Bush will ask Sandoval, the popular governor, to be his running mate. Bush’s son, George P., was in Reno last week, reminding people that his mom is from Mexico. “Claro que sí” — “of course” — the younger Bush said, when asked if his father would be speaking more Spanish, as he did at his campaign kickoff in Miami.
The most difficult issue for Republican candidates has been how to deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of them Latino, in the country. Latinos want a path to citizenship for their relatives, but many in the GOP base — those needed to win the primary — are dead-set against rewarding those who entered the country illegally. There has been fierce Republican opposition to Obama’s executive action on immigration, which would provide legal status to many of the undocumented and remove the threat of their deportation.
“It’s a really important issue for me,” said Aguilera, who said a close relative who has worked in the United States for nearly 20 years cannot return to Mexico to see her family. If she does, she can’t come back because she has no legal papers.
“Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one,” Clinton said at a Nevada stop this month. “When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that is code for second-class status.”
But many Latinos interviewed said they were disappointed with Obama for not fulfilling promises to do more and are fed up with all politicians. Last November, they stayed home, and exceedingly low Latino turnout has been widely seen as helping Republicans in Nevada take control of the legislature for the first time in nearly a century, win statewide offices, and knock off a Democratic House member in what was considered a very safe district.
“What happened in 2014 spooked the hell out of Democrats, and they realize they don’t own the Latino vote,” Garza said.
Alex, from the Latino Victory Project, said the battle is on to engage disaffected voters, and a major effort will be made to target “the firsts” in families — the first to speak English, the first to attend college, the “influentials” who can sway other relatives to vote.
Democrats are making a special effort to win over Latino women, including setting up women-to-women phone banks that will tap grandmothers, moms and daughters to support Clinton.
Across the board, more women than men vote for Democrats, and many observers say women in Latino families can be especially influential.
“It’s time for a woman in the White House,” said Rocio Ramirez, 42, who was shopping at the Wal-Mart in Mesquite with her daughter. She said that she voted for Obama and, before that, for George W. Bush, but that the only interesting thing in this race, at least so far, was that finally a woman might change things up.
But over at the La Mexicana Market, Roger Rojas said he voted for Obama but now thinks he will vote Republican. “I just feel maybe a Republican will get us back on track again.” His father, who was working behind the meat counter, where a huge statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe rested, got his permanent residency because of Ronald Reagan, he said. While his father is still not a citizen and therefore can’t vote, his U.S.-born son will. “Reagan was the last president that did anything for us, and I have been really disappointed in Obama.”
Amanda Renteria, a Latina who serves as Clinton’s political director, said Latinos will ultimately vote for Democrats because their policies more closely align with Latino interests, from immigration reform to an increased minimum wage to affordable health care.
“When you look at the track record of Republicans over the course of history, they haven’t been with them,” she said.
Asked about efforts to focus on women in the Latino community, Renteria said, “We have all been influenced by the strong Latina, the woman who keeps the family together.” Since Clinton is a grandmother — an abuelita — it might be a good idea to start “abuelitas for Hillary.”
Because social media has vastly changed since 2012, Renteria said big efforts are underway to connect with Latinos where they get their news — often on their phones.
She said that in the campaign’s conversations with Spanish-language media, the reaction has been: “Wow. You haven’t been here so early. Thanks for not showing up two weeks before the election.”
Aguilera, who works as a hostess at a Mexican restaurant on the weekends and at a health clinic during the week, said she is waiting to hear candidates tell her “where our country is going to be in 20 years.” And, she said, “I want to hear that they will fix immigration and make things more equal for everybody.”
Then, she said, she will get her brother and cousin to go to the polls with her and vote.