Laura Aguilera is 19 and works seven days a week in this city in the baking Nevada desert to earn money for nursing school. So, she explained after a 10-hour shift at Los Lupes Mexican restaurant, “I haven’t had time to focus on who is running for president yet.”
But unprecedented efforts to get Aguilera’s attention are beginning all around her because her vote, and those of the growing number of Latinos who live in battleground states like this one, is considered vital to winning the White House in 2016.
Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the two Republican presidential candidates seen as having the greatest chance to make inroads with the Latino vote that traditionally leans Democratic, recently stopped in Nevada, Bush showcasing his fluent Spanish and Rubio highlighting that he is the son of Cuban immigrants. Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed 1,200 Latino leaders gathered in Las Vegas and said that she would do more than President Obama to stop deportations and enact immigration reform.
“I have never seen the Latino vote prioritized in this way in a meaningful way,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of the Democratic-backed Latino Victory Project.
Because Nevada hosts one of the first primaries and is a purple state both parties are putting in early and extra efforts here. Twenty-seven percent of Nevada’s population and about 16 percent of its eligible voters are Hispanic, and each party sees the vote of Aguilera and people like her as both critical and gettable.
“I am way more interested in what the person says, not what party they are from,” Aguilera said.
The U.S.-born daughter of Mexican immigrants, she is the face of a changing state and nation. Her city of 18,262 people ringed by spectacular red rock that rises out of the desert was founded by a few Mormon families a century ago. Because of nearby Nellis Air Force Base and “an old-fashioned, flag-waving community feel,” many retired military veterans settled here, Mayor Allan Litman said.
About 15 years ago, Mesquite got into the casino business, and thousands more people, many of them of Mexican heritage, moved in and went to work in the new hotels and restaurants; the city has dramatically changed, half of all school-age children and as much as 30 percent of the town is Hispanic.
Nationally, 800,000 Latinos turn 18 every year, making them eligible to vote. The largest numbers of Latinos live in California and Texas. But the focus on the Latino vote for 2016 is sharpest in states both parties see as up for grabs: Nevada, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and a handful of others, such as Virginia, where no party is dominant and Latinos.