By Barney Jopson
February 16, 2016
When 17-year-old Cynthia Salgado votes in Las Vegas on Saturday she will be just one of a growing number of Latino US citizens newly energised by Donald Trump.
Far from backing the billionaire property developer, Ms Salgado, like many other Hispanics, is aghast at his anti-immigrant diatribes and keen to keep him out of the White House.
“It’s offensive,” she says. “It’s going against morality.”
Such voters not only provide a source of electoral strength for the Democrats ahead of November’s general election; they are also increasingly important in the intensifying battle between Bernie Sanders, the self-styled socialist, and Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, for the party’s nomination.
Nevada could prove crucial. Mr Sanders scored a crushing victory over Mrs Clinton in New Hampshire and almost tied with her in Iowa, both states with overwhelmingly white populations.
If he could defeat her in Saturday’s contest in Nevada, he would add to his momentum and demonstrate that his appeal extends to ethnic groups formerly considered part of Mrs Clinton’s coalition.
A total of 17 per cent of the state’s eligible voters are Hispanic — including thousands of cleaners and waiters in hotel casinos — and they are overwhelmingly Democratic.
Ms Salgado’s story also suggests vulnerability for Mrs Clinton. The high school student, whose mother immigrated from Mexico, previously backed the establishment Democratic candidate but is now volunteering to rally voters for the Sanders campaign from a dingy phone bank.
She is swayed by the 74-year-old’s consistency, contrasting it with Mrs Clinton’s perceived expediency on issues such as gay rights. “He sticks to his word. He’s always been for the same stuff he’s for now. He hasn’t changed his mind,” she says.
Ms Salgado, who is able caucus because she will be 18 by the time of the November election, also likes the promise of free tuition at public universities. “We have potential, but we need the opportunity to get better. That is not affordable right now, so making college free is amazing.”
In battling for the Hispanic vote, the two sides have made direct appeals to voters’ immigrant heritage.
Mr Sanders has played up his immigrant roots, running a Spanish-language radio advert that recalls how his father arrived in the US from Poland “penniless and unable to speak English”.
The Clinton campaign is tapping into alarm among Latino voters over Mr Trump, who has claimed that Mexico is sending rapists to the US and has vowed to build a wall on the southern border.
A Clinton Spanish TV advert running in Nevada begins: “When it seems that everyone is against you, you find out who your real friends are.”
A campaign worker also plays up Mrs Clinton’s decades-long support for Latinos, stretching back to the 1970s when she helped to register voters in Texas.
“The facts just speak for themselves. Hillary has a great record of getting things done. Things she says are not false promises,” says Vanessa Valdivia, a member of the Clinton campaign.
More generally, Democrats are hoping that Latino outrage at the anti-immigrant stance taken not just by Mr Trump but other rightwing presidential aspirants will prove a decisive factor in the November contest against the eventual Republican nominee.
Even the Republican party itself has highlighted Latino voters’ reluctance to support it.
After more than two-thirds of them voted for President Barack Obama in 2012, a Republican inquiry said the party must champion immigration reform to woo Hispanics. But Mr Trump has obliterated that idea.
“Latinos are under attack,” says Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the Nicaraguan-born leader of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the biggest Democratic vote machine in Las Vegas, which is on a drive to register 12,000 new voters.
The fast-growing US Hispanic population is not, however, monolithic. People’s views vary according to where their families came from and when and how they have made their way in the US.
The conflation of ethnicity and immigration policy is a Democratic ruse, says Elizabeth Sclafani, 27, a daughter of Cuban and Nicaraguan parents who is supporting the Republican Ted Cruz. “They make it seem that anyone who is not pro-immigration is racist.”
There is evidence that negative forces — namely Republican hostility — can do more to boost turnout among Hispanics than Democrats’ promises of immigration reform.
When California voted on a ballot initiative to deny social services to unauthorised immigrants in 1994, the “sense of racial threat” inspired a wave of first-time Hispanic voters, says Lisa García Bedolla, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Still, turn out among Hispanics is often low: nationally just 48 per cent of eligible Latinos voted in 2012 compared with 64 per cent of whites.
Nevada’s Hispanics are particularly unreliable, partly because many struggle to get an hour off work to attend caucus meetings.
In 2008, the last competitive Democratic caucuses, Hispanics made up less than 10 per cent of the 117,000 who voted. Mrs Clinton defeated Mr Obama in Nevada, even though the Culinary Union endorsed the now president. This year the union is staying neutral, although it has chided Mr Sanders’ campaigners for sneaking into its dining rooms to lobby members.
Pressed on Mr Sanders’ chances with Hispanics, Ms Arguello-Kline says: “He has to do a lot of work.”
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