Nevada Built a Powerful Democratic Machine. Will It Work in a Pandemic?


LAS VEGAS — As soon as someone comes to the door, before exchanging any greetings, Elsa Gutierrez hands over a disposable mask. After stepping back a few feet, only then does she ask how the person is planning to vote, and start in on the pitch for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has the backing of her union.

In response, she hears stories from people who have lost their jobs, fear getting sick and are frustrated that schools have yet to reopen, though casinos have.

This is what it looks like to hunt for votes in a pandemic.

For the past decade, Democrats in Nevada have notched one hard-fought victory after another. In 2010, Senator Harry Reid won his hotly contested re-election campaign, even as the party lost other battles all over the country. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the state, though with a smaller margin of victory than Democrats saw in the past two presidential contests. And in 2018, the Democrats managed to capture the governor’s office and the State Senate.

Nevada’s Democratic political machine was held up as a model for other states where neither party has consistently dominated. But it was a machine built for another era.

Its success relied on hundreds of people knocking on thousands of doors for face-to-face conversations with voters. Now, there are less than half the number of people canvassing for Democratic voters than in September 2016. And some Democratic strategists warn that Nevada could be in 2020 what Wisconsin was in 2016 — a state that the Democrats assume is safely in their column but that slips away by a narrow margin.

“I am saying every day: We are more vulnerable than you think we are,” said Annette Magnus, the executive director of Battle Born Progress, a liberal group that has yet to raise enough money to start the kind of campaigning this fall that it has previously deployed. “We frankly need to fire up our base a little more, and we have so much work in front of us. Nevada does not have the resources we need to do that yet.”

Mr. Biden maintains an edge over President Trump in the state, according to new polling from The New York Times and Siena College, with Mr. Biden leading by four percentage points, though the difference is within the poll’s margin of error. But Democrats worry that they will struggle to get the kind of enthusiastic turnout they need — particularly among Latinos and working-class voters who make up a significant part of the party’s base here.

In 2016, Mrs. Clinton won Nevada by just 2.4 points — 10 points less than Barack Obama’s margin in 2008. Last week, the Cook Political Report changed its rating of the state from “likely Democrat” to “lean Democrat.” Mr. Trump has indicated he intends to fight for Nevada, holding two rallies over the weekend, including a Sunday event entirely indoors, despite the state’s ban on gatherings with more than 50 people.

Nevada has endured many boom-and-bust cycles in recent years. During the Great Recession, it was one of the hardest-hit housing markets in the country. And the Las Vegas Strip has gone eerily quiet before — both after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and when a gunman killed 58 people attending a country music festival in 2017. But lifelong Las Vegas residents say the pandemic has meant the worst of both: deep devastation that came in an instant but will take years to recover from.

This disaster, of course, is also a lethal illness. There have been more than 73,000 cases of the coronavirus in the state so far, leading to more than 1,450 deaths, according to a New York Times database.

When casinos shut down in mid-March, the state’s economy plummeted immediately. With one-third of all jobs reliant on tourism, unemployment topped 28 percent in April, higher than any other state in the country. The unemployment rate now sits at 14 percent, still among the nation’s highest. Tourism is down by roughly 70 percent compared to last summer. Several casinos remain closed and it is unclear if they will ever reopen.

Though they lay blame for the downturn on the Trump administration, Democratic strategists worry that if too many would-be voters are focused on taking care of basic food and shelter needs, they may be less likely to cast a ballot.

Ms. Magnus’s organization focuses exclusively on electoral politics, but for much of the spring and summer she turned her garage into a makeshift food pantry, feeling desperate to do something. Several other political organizers did the same.

After more than 90 percent of members of the Culinary Union, which represents tens of thousands of workers in Las Vegas and Reno, were unemployed in late March, union officials offered assistance with paying utility bills and handed out bags of meat, beans, fruit and vegetables.

Widely considered the state’s most powerful political force, the Culinary Union has built up a remarkably effective turnout operation during elections, helping to get its members to the voting booth for the Democratic…



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