Watching votes trickle in on primary election night in 2020, Laura Becerra said she felt a mix of excitement and anxiety. As the Latinx Constituency coordinator for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in Nevada, Becerra was anxious to see if the months of events they had thrown — from Animal Crossing meetups to lotería nights to soccer tournaments — had paid off.
But on top of the pressure from her fellow organizers, Becerra felt the eyes of the country on her state. Nevada was one of the few states with sizable minority communities that held its primary before Super Tuesday—and the only state with a large Latino population.
“I know that we were going to be able to make a significant influence,” Becerra said. “Everybody was watching Nevada.”
In the past, Nevada has been third in the primary schedule. Still, because they came after Iowa and New Hampshire, the results of their primary — and therefore, Latino voters’ input — have historically been overshadowed by the results from two overwhelmingly white states.
Under President Joe Biden’s and the Democratic National Committee’s new proposed primary schedule, Nevada and other more diverse states would move up in the order. While local leaders and community organizers expect the pressure on them to increase, they say they are excited about how this change will help them build grassroots Latino political power.
The new presidential primary order, which was approved by the DNC on February 4, would start with South Carolina, the only state on the 2020 schedule with a significant amount of Black voters. Three days later Nevada and New Hampshire would follow, succeeded by Georgia and then Michigan. Iowa, whose caucus-style primary is well known for being an indicator of who will win the nomination, would fall off the early primary schedule entirely.
However, the proposed schedule has faced notable pushback, particularly from leaders in Georgia, Iowa and New Hampshire. While the DNC voted to approve the plan, that does not guarantee it will be used in 2024.
In a letter sent to the DNC Rules and Bylaws committee in December, Biden wrote that the change was designed to give voters of color a larger influence over the nomination. Black voters in particular, he said, have been the “backbone” of the party’s base, yet the vast majority did not live in early-voting states. Moving South Carolina and Georgia up in the process means amplifying Black votes.
“It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process,” Biden wrote.
Judith Whitmer, former chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, echoed Biden’s sentiments that increasing the number of diverse early primary states will benefit the entire party.
“That’s good not only for Nevada, but good for the country as a whole,” Whitmer said. “That is hopeful sign, to me and to others, that the Democratic Party is taking this seriously… and not just paying lip service — that we’re taking action to live our values.”
The new slate of states doesn’t actually have higher Latino populations — the 2024 plan would technically decrease the average number of Latinos in early primary states. However, advocates say that moving Nevada to the number two slot gives the state a real chance of setting momentum for the rest of the primary season, something local organizers have been asking for.
Leo Murrieta is the Nevada director of Make the Road Action, a grassroots organization that organizes to build political power and engagement in Latino and working-class communities. He said that in the past, candidates were too busy campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire to spend time with voters in Nevada.
“Oftentimes we were an afterthought,” Murrieta said. “Everyone was so busy with the two smallest, white states.”
And the time candidates spend on the ground matters. Murrieta said in 2020, the two candidates Make the Road Action NV was considering endorsing, Sanders and Julian Castro, spent time with the homeless population living in tunnels under Las Vegas and gave speeches about DACA recipients—issues Latino Nevadans care about.
Murrieta said other candidates made hollow attempts to connect with Latino voters, playing what he called “mariachi politics.” But because Sanders and Castro spent time with community members, they were better equipped to represent them on a national scale.
“They came to Nevada and they were forced to understand that we are a diverse community with really diverse needs,” Murrieta said. “And we need real solutions.”
Becerra said she and other lead organizers see an enormous influx of money in the six months leading up to elections — so much they didn’t know what to do with it. But in non-election years, funding runs dry and fewer people are willing to volunteer.
She and Murrieta said they hope moving Nevada up in the schedule will encourage Democratic leaders to set a precedent of remaining engaged with working-class communities of color all year round. Murrieta emphasized that if candidates fail to authentically connect with their voters, it could now have dire consequences on the viability of their campaign.
“Democrats have to come right,” he said. “You have to come right to our gente. You have to come right to our communities — and if you’re not ready, then we will tear you apart. And you won’t make it past Nevada.
This new plan comes amid a rise of reports that Latino voters are increasingly voting Republican. According to the Pew Research Center, Latino voters’ Democratic margin has been decreasing since at least 2016. A CNN exit poll of the 2022 midterms reported that Democrats have lost a significant amount of Latino voters, especially men.
However, a recent analysis from Voto Latino, a grassroots organization that works to educate and mobilize Latino voters, showed high Latino turnout helped solidify major Democratic Senate wins in Arizona and Nevada. The study predicts that Latino voters will become increasingly critical to the party’s base.
Kenneth Sandoval, the Vice President of Campaigns and Partnerships at Voto Latino, said the narrative that Latino voters were significantly swinging right was unsubstantiated by polling. The overall concept of a monolithic Latino vote is also problematic, he continued: it oversimplifies a diverse community with diverse needs into just one voting bloc.
Becerra said grouping all Latino voters together is a problem she has experienced, too. Although she is a Venezuelan immigrant, she said people frequently assume her culture is the same as Mexican voters in her area. She said event organizers always order tacos for Latino events instead of other, more diverse Latin food. She was once asked if she spoke “Mexican.”
Becerra attributes this larger lack of cultural competence to the fact that the Democratic party hasn’t been forced to listen closely to the needs of people of color. She and Sandoval said they hope the revised primary schedule will force politicians to stop oversimplifying Latino voting blocs.
“When you break down the Latino vote into smaller, more significant pieces, you do see more nuances and the needs of the communities,” Sandoval said.
According to a 2022 study from the UCLA Latino Politics and Policy Institute, Latinos have been the largest contributor to U.S. population growth over the past two decades. The Pew Research Center reported that they are the second-biggest voting bloc as of 2022, and among the fastest growing: every 30 seconds, a Latino turns 18.
Sandoval said they hope the updated primary schedule reflects how the DNC is reckoning with these statistics. Candidates in the past have blamed Latinos and other voters of color for losses but rarely thank them for wins. Sandoval said this change might indicate the party now realizes how heavily they rely on these voting blocs “to get over the top”
Although the most recent election cycle just wrapped up, Becerra said she is looking ahead to 2024. She knows it’s going to be different than 2020 and 2022 — she said she hopes it will be for the better.
No matter what the primary schedule looks like during the next presidential election, she said she wants Democratic candidates to use the opportunity to genuinely connect with the voters who could decide their electoral fate.
“It’s important to talk to all demographics,” Becerra said. “If you want to use us, then you gotta actually truly care about our life experiences.”