Inside Pete Buttigieg's make-or-break appeal to Latino voters in Nevada

  • Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is making an appeal to Nevada voters in an effort to prove he can win over a diverse state.

  • Buttigieg touted his credentials helping undocumented immigrants in South Bend, Indiana and marched with a bilingual group of Culinary Union workers fighting to win labor contracts from casinos.

  • After strong finishes in two mostly white primary states, Buttigieg's performance in Nevada may either cement or upend the narrative about his relationship with black and brown voters.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Pete Buttigieg is making a pitch to Latino voters as he tries for a strong showing at Nevada's caucuses on Saturday to prove he has staying power as a Democratic candidate for president.

At this week's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, he discussed his advocacy for undocumented immigrants as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, attacked the record of rival Sen. Amy Klobuchar on immigration, and spoke Spanish in a state where 29% of the population is Hispanic.

To the group known as DREAMers, the undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, he said, "Este país es tu país también" — "This country is your country too."

Buttigieg's efforts leave little doubt that he seeks to change the perception that he can't win over voters of color, with whom both he and Klobuchar have polled particularly poorly. After strong finishes in two mostly white states — he topped the Iowa caucuses and placed second in the New Hampshire primary — the former mayor's performance in Nevada may either cement or upend the narrative about his relationship with black and brown voters.

Along with California, Texas, New Mexico, and Hawaii, Nevada is one of the nation's five majority-minority states, and it's the first racially diverse state to hold a nominating contest. Buttigieg's showing there could be a harbinger of what's to come in South Carolina, a state where black voters make up the majority of the Democratic electorate.

"If Pete Buttigieg does not do well in Nevada and South Carolina, it will make putting the resources together for a successful Super Tuesday effort challenging," Megan Jones, a Nevada-based political strategist, told Insider. "It will have proven what the pundits and media have said for months, that he can't get diverse support to win a general election."

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

A make or break moment

Described as a "make or break" moment for his candidacy, the Buttigieg campaign has prepared for the Nevada caucuses by opening a dozen offices and putting more than 55 organizers and operatives on the ground there.

Nevada's demographics have made his campaign stops in the Silver State stand out, Buttigieg told me.

"One of the things that's exciting to me about Nevada," he said, "is some of the most diverse crowds we've yet seen during my campaign events have been during my visits to Las Vegas in particular, which demographically reflects today what the whole country is going to look like in the 2050s, which is what I often talk about as the years that we should be aiming our policies towards."

During the Nevada Democratic Party's "First in the West" event in November, which celebrated the state being first in its region to vote for a nominee, Buttigieg's supporters looked just as he described them.

With yellow boom sticks and Pete 2020 shirts emblazoned with rainbows, they were Latino, white, black, and Asian American. And hours before the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, Buttigieg marched along to cumbia music with a bilingual group of Nevada Culinary Union workers fighting to win labor contracts from Station Casinos. Four other presidential candidates — Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — participated in the march as well.

This month, Culinary Union members have made headlines for criticizing the Medicare for All plan proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, another candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, for fear it would replace their private healthcare with a government-run model. Buttigieg raised the concerns about Medicare for All during the debate.

"As a matter of fact, you're the one who is at war with the Culinary Union right here in Las Vegas," he told Sanders, Nevada's frontrunner. "We can actually deliver health care without taking it away from anyone. We can actually empower workers and lift wages without further polarizing this country."

Aligning himself with Nevada's Culinary Union, which is 54% Latino and the state's largest immigrant organization, isn't the only way Buttigieg has framed himself as Hispanic-friendly. He has increasingly discussed his 2016 effort with the South Bend nonprofit La Casa de Amistad to develop a "Community Resident Card" that undocumented immigrants can use at city agencies and businesses, including schools, libraries, pharmacies, and banks. La Casa de Amistad funded the program and distributed the cards, while the mayor signed an executive order requiring South Bend institutions to accept them as ID.

"One thing I realized very quickly as mayor is that I'm responsible for supporting every resident of our community regardless of citizenship status, and we saw a lot of people who were at risk because they didn't have a way to get ID," Buttigieg told Insider.

South Bend is home to roughly 4,500 undocumented immigrants, and more than 2,000 have reportedly signed up for the Community Resident Card. Buttigieg said he wanted to help the undocumented population since the federal government has failed to prioritize "meaningful" immigration reform.

"Now immigration is one of many issues that are important to the Latino community where I live, including entrepreneurship, economic opportunity, safety, and healthcare," he said.

Today, Latinos have more political clout nationally than ever.

"We are now the second-largest voting bloc," said Danny Turkel, spokesman for advocacy group Voto Latino. "Latinos are on average decades younger than the average white voter. As our influence grows and grows, it will be harder to ignore us."

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

'Nevada's role will be pivotal in deciding who the next president is'

Hispanics may have more influence in Nevada and the nation alike, but successful candidates will court a variety of voters, according to Mariela Hernandez, Latino advocate for the Nevada State Democratic Party.

"Candidates can't focus on one pocket of voters," she told me. "They have to cultivate relationships with communities of color. Talk to those voters about issues that really hit home. The work I have seen the candidates and their staff here do with communities of color has been very impactful. You have a good team of on the ground folks who have worked on outreach to the black community, to the Latino community, to the Asian American community."

But some Nevadans feel that both the press and the candidates haven't given their state as much attention as Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina, which votes February 29. Politico reported earlier this month that, of the first four voting states, Warren, for one, has visited Nevada the least.

"We're the newest early state, I think the most demonstrative of where the country is at," Nevada State Sen. Yvanna Cancela told me about its significance. "I think Nevada's role will be pivotal in deciding who the next president is."

Cancela is a senior adviser to Biden's presidential campaign and former Culinary Union political director.

"Nevada is certainly much more representative of the rest of the country than either Iowa or New Hampshire," she said. "There's a broad diverse coalition of people from all walks of life."

Buttigieg has also been making appeals to Nevada's unions — from culinary workers in Las Vegas to autoworkers in Reno.

One factor will determine how well he performs in Nevada, especially among voters of color, he told Insider.

"I want to make sure that I've done my job of conveying all of the answers and the policies that we envision," he said.

Related: Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg

Originally published