California and Nevada Ask: Iowa Who?

Source: By Jennifer Medina, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The 2020 Democrats headed West to campaign in two key states. “I don’t think it matters what happens in New Hampshire or Iowa, which are not representative of the country,” Harry Reid said.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang at the Nevada Democratic Party’s “First in the West” event in Las Vegas on Sunday.
Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

LAS VEGAS — Want to understand Iowa’s outsize role in selecting the Democratic presidential nominee? Just come to the West, where anyone in Nevada or California will tell you: We are the voters presidential candidates should be paying more attention to.

Nevada will be the third state to vote in 2020, with its caucus coming just 11 days after the New Hampshire primary. And voters in California, which sends 495 delegates to the national convention, will start casting early ballots in the Democratic primary soon after the Iowa caucuses begin.

As more than a dozen candidates made their way through the states this weekend for campaign rallies and marathon candidate forums, there were near constant reminders about why each could make more sense to lead the charge to pick the party’s nominee for president.

There are more Latinos in Los Angeles County than the total population of the state of Iowa, as a moderator pointed out at the start of a forum on Latino issues in Los Angeles Sunday morning. Nevada, already a majority-minority state, is also home to one of the fastest growing Asian-American communities in the country.

“I don’t think it matters what happens in New Hampshire or Iowa, which are not representative of the country,” said former Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, speaking to reporters before the state Democratic Party’s “First in the West” event Sunday night, which featured speeches from 14 candidates. “The press focuses on those two states, and I think they do that to the detriment of our country.”

Mr. Reid, the former majority leader, has long been a champion of boosting Nevada’s influence in the primary season by pushing it further ahead in the calendar. Still, it remains a state where politicians occasionally need to be reminded about how to pronounce its name — Ne-VA-da, never Ne-VAH-da. And the concern about potentially being looked over is so great that “we matter” is now both a hashtag and rallying cry to signal that Nevada voters deserve the same kind of attention lavished on those in other early states.

“Nevada is eclectic, in a way that Iowa is just not,” said Nazia Junejo, a physician in Las Vegas who immigrated from India 30 years ago. “We live in a city where people come from all over the world. We used to feel comfortable, but now we’re just not. Now people are scared and we understand that.”

Though the candidates’ basic stump speeches remain largely unchanged whether they’re in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Long Beach, Calif., the questions they face can be entirely different. For every question about farm subsidies or ethanol in Iowa, here they comb over the granular details of housing policies and immigration enforcement.

In a series of forums in California and Nevada this weekend, candidates offered a glimpse of how they were pitching themselves to an electorate that is less white, more likely to be represented by a labor union, and often more liberal than crowds in New Hampshire and Iowa.

With his signature call for a political revolution, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont received a rowdy welcome in both California and Nevada.

“The truth is that this country faces an unprecedented moment in our history with enormous challenges before us,” Mr. Sanders said in Las Vegas on Sunday. “And tinkering around the edges just won’t do what has to be done. In this unprecedented moment in American history, we need an unprecedented response.”

Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts and the latest candidate to enter the race, received a lukewarm reception through much of the weekend, in his first major events since starting his campaign. California Democrats greeted his five-minute speech with a collective shrug, and those in Nevada had mostly left the room before he began his remarks, the last of 14 candidates who spoke Sunday night.

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But the leading candidates were more enthusiastically welcomed. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had the most raucous section of the ballroom in Las Vegas, entering to a thundering marching band and letters spelling out “NV 4 JOE” decorated with twinkle lights. (While Iowa may be known for its steak fries, the biggest night in Nevada politics had no food but plenty of glitz and poker chips.)

“The risk of nominating someone who wouldn’t beat Trump is a nation and a world our children and our grandkids won’t want to live in,” Mr. Biden told the crowd, leaning on one of the central arguments of his campaign. “I can beat Trump. I can beat him.”

Campaign aides were not abuzz over the latest poll in Nevada, which showed Mr. Biden ahead of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Mr. Sanders. Instead, they were focused on the latest numbers from Iowa, where Pete Buttigieg has begun to take a commanding lead. Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., faces significant skepticism in Nevada and especially California, where he is far less known outside of donors backing his bid.

To the crowd in Las Vegas, Mr. Buttigieg touted his health care plan as better for unions, who have fought for paid heath care during contract negotiations for years.

“If you are a culinary worker who negotiated a plan you like, you should have the option to keep it,” he told them.

At the California Democratic Convention in Long Beach on Saturday, candidates were pressed for detailed specifics on immigration policy. Asked about the possibility of sending American troops to Mexico to fight against drug and gang violence, Mr. Buttigieg said he would be open to considering it.

Senator Kamala Harris of California, who arrived at the forum late after her staff said she was stuck in traffic, declared herself a “Sangeleno,” a portmanteau of her former home in San Francisco and her current status as an Angeleno.

“The last time I looked, one in two Californians was born outside the United States or has a parent who was born outside the United States, myself included,” Ms. Harris told the crowd on Saturday.

At the Latino Issues forum the next morning, Ms. Harris said she believed Immigration and Customs Enforcement needed to be radically restructured, calling it the most dysfunctional federal agency.

Julián Castro, the former housing secretary who is calling for Iowa to lose its long-held distinction as the first-in-the-nation nominating state, said issues such as immigration and transportation would be more of a consistent focus in the campaign if states like Nevada, with significant urban populations, voted sooner.

Though Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota typically casts herself as a Midwesterner who wins Midwestern votes, she carefully tailored her speech to the Nevada crowd, praising Mr. Reid and mentioning victims of the 2017 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip.

Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren spent much of their weekend in Nevada, holding campaign rallies. But both sat out the California events, as he held a fund-raiser in Portland, Ore., while she campaigned in Iowa.

Rusty Hicks, the chairman of the state party, derided the choice as “misguided” and a public snub of California and Latino voters.

Their decision showed “blatant disregard and disrespect to California’s grass-roots leaders who make the phone calls, knock the doors and give the money in swing districts and swing states alike year after year after year,” he wrote on Facebook.

Asked about her decision to skip California, Ms. Warren said that she was not ignoring any group of voters, pointing to the time she spends speaking with them on her selfie line as one bit of evidence.

When she stepped onstage in Nevada Sunday night, Ms. Warren reiterated her call for “big, structural change” on issues like health care, taxes and government corruption.

“We’re not going to change it by a nibble here and a little bit of change over there,” she said.