LAS VEGAS ― Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) talks about the political revolution. But it’s up to people like Vaneik Echeverria to make it happen.
Echeverria, a New York City-based theater professional spending the final week before the Nevada caucuses knocking on doors for Sanders, was in between canvassing stops in a working-class section of East Las Vegas when he spotted Adrian Silva leaning on his car.
Silva, a 28-year-old father of four who has earned a living through assorted warehouse and service sector jobs, had recently moved to the city from his native Los Angeles, fleeing crime and the high cost of living. He told Echeverria he has never voted in his life.
“I just know they’re all just puppets,” Silva said, referring to politicians. “There’s a bigger system out there than the United States, you know?”
Echeverria, whose jean jacket flair included buttons for Sanders as well as a tongue-in-cheek image of Karl Marx, immediately expressed sympathy for Silva’s perspective.
“This feeling that you’re having ― they’re all fuckers, they’re all liars, none of them watch out for us ― I feel the same way, except when it comes to Bernie Sanders, man,” said Echeverria, who, like Silva, grew up in Los Angeles and is the son of Latino immigrants.
Silva nodded. Without making any commitments, he filled out a card with his personal information so the campaign could contact him. He also accepted a button for the Las Vegas chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is coordinating with the Sanders campaign and is operating a staging area for volunteers called the “leftist garage.”
Echeverria’s conversation with Silva seemed like it had almost been staged to illustrate the Sanders campaign’s fundamental conceit: That it can not only win the Democratic presidential nomination but can do so by mobilizing infrequent voters ― often working-class, young and nonwhite ― that put the Vermont senator in a uniquely strong position to unseat President Donald Trump.
“In order to beat Donald Trump, we’re going to need the largest voter turnout in the history of the United States,” Sanders said on Wednesday night on the debate stage. “What our movement is about is bringing working-class people together, black and white and Latino, Native American, Asian American, around an agenda that works for all of us and not just the billionaire class.”
As Sanders has emerged as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination and a clear favorite to win here in Nevada, his moderate critics have increasingly expressed skepticism about the idea that a large number of unactivated voters are sitting around, waiting to be motivated by a sufficiently bold progressive ― such as Sanders, who supports “Medicare for All,” a substantial wealth tax, worker ownership of major companies and a drastic liberalization of the immigration system. Any spike in progressive voter turnout will be matched by a spike in conservative voters, critics argue, and Sanders’s policies will alienate a shrinking but still crucial number of swing voters.
They also note that voter turnout didn’t spike in Iowa, and while it went up in New Hampshire, the areas with a boost in turnout mostly saw voters casting ballots for former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
“His whole theory of how he’s going to get elected is based around the idea that he’s going to get out people who have never voted before,” said Lanae Erickson, a senior vice president at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank critical of Sanders. “It didn’t happen for him in Iowa and New Hampshire, it didn’t happen for his endorsed candidates in 2018, and it didn’t happen last time.”
Erickson suggested Sanders’s leftist policies appealed to few voters beyond his political base: “His ceiling and his floor are the same thing.”
Sanders’s allies, meanwhile, argue that Iowa ― the nation’s fifth-whitest state ― and New Hampshire ― the third-whitest state and the second-most elderly ― were poor testing grounds for his theory. Nevada, however, is one of the nation’s most diverse states ― it has substantial Latino, Asian American and Black populations ― and a large population of young people.
Sanders, who has a team of volunteers translating campaign materials into 16 different languages and plenty of supporters with a robust social media presence, is poised to do well with both groups.
Chuck Rocha, the Sanders campaign adviser responsible for integrating Latino outreach into every facet of the campaign, embraced Nevada’s significance in the post-debate spin room.
“There’s a lot of working-class brown people here,” he said of Nevada. “This is the first big scalability test of our program, for sure. We started early, we invested, we hired all of these great brown people ― and now we’re going to see if we can turn them out.”
The early signs are strong: More than 77,000 people voted early in Nevada ― almost matching the 80,000 who caucused at all in 2016. And the Sanders campaign said it had managed to knock on 500,000 doors ― nearly doubling its internal goal of 300,000. Though public polling is scarce, much of it shows Sanders leading with Latinos here.
If the strategy works, Sanders will succeed in more than just Nevada. Many of the delegate-rich states that vote on Super Tuesday, especially Colorado, California and Texas, have relatively similar demographics, which the Vermonter could use to build a healthy lead in the race to collect the most delegates to the Democratic National Convention this summer.
“There’s a lot of working-class brown people here. This is the first big scalability test of our program, for sure. We started early, we invested, we hired all of these great brown people ― and now we’re going to see if we can turn them out.”
If the revolution has a heartbeat in Nevada, it’s Sanders’s campaign office in a strip mall in heavily Latino East Las Vegas. The office, which is decorated with Mexican papel picado (perforated paper flags) and often blares cumbia music, is home to a never-ending stream of volunteers from across the country ― some of them exchanging words in Spanish with the office’s many bilingual staffers as they prepare to spread the gospel of “nuestra lucha” (our fight). Many of Sanders’s Latino staff members have flown out from D.C. to base themselves here for the week.
The friendly vibe in the East Las Vegas office is by design: The campaign sees it as ground zero for its efforts to fuse “culturally competent” community-building with more traditional campaign work.
“What this functions as is not only a place to send volunteers out, but also a place to bring the community in,” campaign spokeswoman Maddy Mundy said. To that end, the office was the site of a raucous Día de los Muertos celebration last October and a bilingual Thanksgiving feast the following month.
On Tuesday night, Lourdes Esparza, a 38-year-old Sanders campaign volunteer who works for the Clark County Education Association and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, was there to explain why she’s spent so much of her time recently working to elect Sanders.
She doesn’t cite a need to oust Trump or to restore integrity to the country, but material concerns: The educators she works with are among the lowest-paid in the country. She lives with both her disabled mother and grandmother, and the two of them are forced to share insulin because of high prescription drug prices and rising housing costs.
“He sees me, and my family, and my struggles,” Esparza said of Sanders. “He speaks to my everyday life. And I think that’s why he’s so popular. People feel seen.”
“I don’t need him to speak Spanish,” she quickly added.
A potential X factor for Sanders is the de facto opposition of Nevada’s mighty Culinary Workers Union. The union has informed its 60,000 dues-paying members, a majority of whom are Latino, that Sanders would end the union’s multi-employer health care plan and require Medicare for All.
Sanders has vowed that Medicare for All, which promises to eliminate all out-of-pocket costs, would offer an improvement over their current coverage. He also updated his plan to facilitate the reopening of collective bargaining after the law’s passage so unions could ensure they share in the company’s health care savings.
But there is already some anecdotal evidence that the Culinary Workers Union’s stance ― and a subsequent blowup over nasty remarks Sanders supporters allegedly directed at union leaders ― is making a dent in Sanders’s performance. CNN found a union member who admitted she didn’t believe Sanders’s assurances that he’d make sure union members would receive even better coverage under Medicare for All; the Republican opposition research group America Rising promptly promoted a clip of the exchange.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Buttigieg, who has a robust operation in Nevada, may be best positioned to take advantage of attrition from Sanders over the union’s stance.
Buttigieg, in particular, has made preserving health care “freedom of choice” a cornerstone of his closing pitch in Nevada, highlighting it in Wednesday’s debate in an exchange he subsequently promoted on social media.
Nevada Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui (D), who has endorsed Buttigieg, said the Culinary Workers Union’s decision not to endorse a Democratic candidate before the caucuses, despite the union’s relationship with Biden, is a sign of the inroads Buttigieg has made with his health care message.
“That health care message is resonating with a lot of Nevada,” she said.
Sanders has his own outside support. On Tuesday afternoon, two young organizers for the immigrant rights group Make The Road Action canvassed residents of a series of stucco apartment buildings in East Las Vegas. (Make The Road is part of a coalition of progressive groups backing Sanders.)
Salma Garcia Hernandez, a 22-year-old DACA recipient who came to the United States from Mexico when she was 7 years old, had marched with Sanders to the polls a few days prior. On Tuesday, she dashed from door to door, reminding Sanders supporters to vote and helping them make a plan to caucus on Saturday. If they weren’t home, she left a door hanger highlighting Sanders’ support for affordable housing, “citizenship for all,” Medicare for All and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
As she walked back to a car to hit another set of doors, Hernandez was buzzing about Sanders’s expected victory and the potential results of the revolution.
“I have a good feeling that Bernie is going to win,” she said. “The whole thing.”
She added with a smile: “These billionaires, the top 1%, they’re probably crapping their pants.”