This has been a dark month so far for Democrats and progressives. Between the Iowa caucus debacle, President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address and his impeachment acquittal, we were gut-punched not once, but three times, and left deeply worried about the political road ahead. But for those seeking a silver lining, perhaps we need to look no further than the Silver State caucuses on Saturday.
Nevada, which has been trending blue in recent elections, shows Democrats how to actually beat Trump and win, in states and nationally: Take advantage of demographic shifts, couple that with authentic on-the-ground organizing, and stress bread-and-butter issues.
Based on my calculations using the 1990 Census and the 2018 American Community Survey, Nevada’s population grew a staggering 154% over that period — far higher than the national rate of 32%. Much of that growth has come from immigrants and people of color. Nevada’s population had about 21% people of color in 1990 and now is “majority-minority” at 52% — the fifth state to reach that threshold. The bulk of that population is Latinos, who make up 29% of the state. Blacks and Asian Pacific Islanders are at about 10% apiece.
Of course, just because a state’s demography shifts doesn’t mean that its politics will as well. This is for two reasons.
Change won’t happen on its own
The first is that minority populations in general and the Latino population in particular tend to be both younger and more non-citizen. As a result, my calculations show, Nevada has the largest divergence of any state between the demographic make-up of its population and the demographic breakdown of its citizen-voting age population.
A second reason is that demography is not destiny. Translating people power into political power requires not just wishing for change but mobilizing at scale. And that requires the sort of high-touch cultivation of emerging constituencies that goes beyond the usual suspects and brings in new and occasional voters.
Fortunately for Democrats, the powerful Las Vegas-based Culinary Workers Local 226 has proved expert at both persuading immigrants to become citizens and engaging their members at election time. Organizations like the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) have sought to weave together social and environmental issues, and offer up policy ideas that can appeal.
Nevada has even benefited from proximity to California. Bored with easy victories in the Golden State, California organizers have taken to spending weekends walking precincts in elections where their efforts can perhaps make a more substantial difference.
The results have been tangible. In 2016, Republicans held all six top executive positions (governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, and controller) as well as majorities in both the state senate and state assembly.
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Today, five of the six executive positions are held by Democrats and the party controls more than two-thirds of the assembly and over sixty percent of the Senate. Among the many things new Democratic power has made possible: New laws raising the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour and restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated.
Building lasting state power
A blue wave is likely to continue. Of the U.S.-born turning 18 this year — and thus gaining the ability to vote — nearly two-thirds are kids of color. And over 100,000 immigrants in the state are long-term legal residents who are eligible to naturalize; if they did so, that would raise the citizen voting age population by roughly 6 percentage points.
How this all plays out on caucus day remains to be seen. This is a state whose voting process, complete with early caucuses and a 122-page document explaining delegation selection, seems designed to make Iowa look simple.
Particularly after the counting stumbles in Iowa, that may discourage the rising electorate (although unions and other organizations are likely to provide support for participation in the caucuses and mobilization in the general election this fall).
Nevada may only be a small thread on a long-needed silver lining, but it’s a start. If we take heed from history and follow the rules, Democrats and progressives could use Nevada as the catalyst to turn the tide and show how building lasting state power can both turn the states you need to win and also create lasting impacts in everyday lives.
Manuel Pastor is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter: @Prof_MPastor