LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton wants to unmask rival Bernie Sanders as a one-note candidate who, she contends, is unprepared to be president because he mostly rails against Wall Street. This might be the worst possible place to do that.
Nevada, which will hold a Democratic presidential caucus on Saturday, suffered deeply from Wall Street’s insatiable appetite for securities backed by risky mortgages. The state led the nation in home foreclosures for five years in a row during the financial crisis, when blocks and blocks of houses were repossessed by the banks, and the hangover continues.
“If there is one state that should still hate Wall Street with white-hot passion, it is Nevada,” said a former US representative, Brad Miller, a Democrat who represented North Carolina and served on the House Financial Services Committee.
Public polls reveal that Saturday’s caucuses are a toss-up, despite the advantage Clinton has among Hispanics and blacks, who make up a large portion of the electorate. Though surveys in this state are notoriously unreliable, Clinton’s own pollster has acknowledged the race is tight.
Nevada is fertile ground for Sanders’ argument that he is the right person to hold large financial institutions responsible for the state’s foreclosure crisis.
On Wednesday, his campaign launched a 30-second ad with foreclosure signs and aerial footage of devastated neighborhoods. Erin Bilbray, a Las Vegas resident with a well-known name in state Democratic politics, speaks straight into the camera about how her neighbors were harmed by cratering home values.
“I’ve watched as the house across the street has sat empty for over six years,” says Bilbray. “I’ve watched good friends have their homes foreclosed on. People are still really suffering, and they’re looking for somebody who is going to create bold change.”
Political observers say that message resonates.
“The economy here was pounded by the recession,” said Jon Ralston, a nonpartisan political analyst who says that Sanders’ economic message is hitting a chord. “A lot of these workers, they think they’ve been screwed. They see people like Sheldon Adelson and [Donald] Trump who happen to have the gleaming edifices right where they work.”
Even now, in the vote-rich neighborhoods near the Vegas strip, 28 percent of all mortgages in Las Vegas are for amounts larger than the value of the homes. What that means is that Las Vegas has the highest rate of so-called underwater mortgages in the country, according to RealtyTrac, which compiles housing data.
Sanders’ 22-point blowout victory in New Hampshire earlier this month is also prompting the state’s Democrats to give him another look.
“Momentum is a very strange thing in politics,” Ralston said.
Clinton, though, has plenty of advantages. The former secretary of state opened her first office here almost four months ahead of Sanders.She hired some of the state’s top strategists and made frequent trips last summer. After Clinton barely eked out a win in Iowa, Clinton’s staff boosted its goals for contacting voters in Nevada, according to one Democratic strategist close to the Clinton campaign.
As polls tightened last week, Clinton ditched a planned trip to Florida to spend time in Nevada instead. She summoned the press corps on Thursday to witness a post-midnight visit with housekeepers folding sheets and towels in the basement of the Caesars Palace hotel, where she is staying.
“So, is it towels and linens every day?” Clinton asked the women. They laughed.
“I flew in from Chicago, so before I went to my room I said, ‘Well, who is still working?’ ” Clinton told the women, before asking if they would caucus for her Saturday.
Her final TV ad is geared toward Hispanics, a one-minute spot far more raw and emotional than her typical ads. It features an exchange between her and a Latino girl who said at a meeting in Nevada last week that she’s worried about her parents getting deported. Clinton embraces the girl and tries to reassure her. “Let me do the worrying,” Clinton says.
Clinton’s supporters say that her team is far more organized in the state than Sanders’ and has done a better job of keeping in touch with key leaders.
“It’s possible to run a perfect campaign and lose,” said Andres Ramirez, a Nevada super delegate who is committed to Clinton and is president of a Democratic consulting firm. “But generally the campaign with the better infrastructure and volunteer base wins.”
Though the local state party is officially neutral, some of its actions favor Clinton. The party is running radio ads reminding Democrats about the caucuses targeted at African-Americans, a community in which Clinton has stronger support.
At a caucus training session sponsored by the Democratic party, organizers used “Star Wars” characters as stand-ins for Clinton and Sanders. They selected Princess Leia and Darth Vader. (Leia won the training caucus.)
Sanders got a break when the Culinary Workers Union, the largest organized labor group in the state, decided to stay out of the race. The union backed Barack Obama in 2008, when Clinton won the popular vote but Obama racked up more delegates due to quirks in the rules.
Yvanna Cancela, political director of the Culinary Union, said she believes Nevadans are attracted to Sanders’ message because it’s new.
“I think people have had a relationship with the Clinton political brand back to Bill Clinton’s presidency,” she said. “They’ve heard the secretary talk about these economic issues in different ways over the years. They’ve never heard Bernie Sanders. They’ve never heard a politician reach the national stage who talks about economic justice in the way Sanders has.”
“It means people listen. I don’t know if it means people caucus for him on Saturday.”
Sanders’ field team is asking voters to caucus with economic issues in mind.
Bret Maikranz, 36, a Sanders volunteer, mentioned Wall Street and banks when going door-to-door in a North Las Vegas neighborhood with commanding views of snow-capped mountains.
“We were among the top-hit ZIP codes in the housing crisis,” he said as he walked through one neighborhood. He brought up the investment bank Goldman Sachs and reminded caucus-goers that “others” in the presidential primary have taken thousands of dollars in speaking fees from the bank.
Without prompting, neighbors discussed the waves of foreclosures — like chatting about weather or the flu season.
Shane Walley, 42, who was walking his dog, said his parents had to get a second mortgage on their home during the crisis. “Pretty much everyone here talks about it,” he said, after saying he’s going to caucus for Sanders. “It was bad.”
A few doors down was Robert Lujano. He volunteered that he bought a home in 2004 for $250,000, only to watch $100,000 of the value evaporate.
“That’s thanks to the people in Wall Street,” he said, standing in his driveway and nodding his head in disgust.
His 89032 ZIP code still has among the highest foreclosure rates in the state, according to data compiled by RealtyTrac.
But for Sanders, Lujano presents another problem: He says he’s too fed up with politicians to vote. And he can’t make Saturday’s caucuses anyway. He must work a shift at a local golf club.