Why Obama chose Vegas to make his big move on immigration

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Almost two years ago, fresh off a re-election victory and a week removed from his second inauguration, President Obama traveled to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas and kicked off his push for Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws.


“I’m here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform,” Obama told the crowd, emphasizing that differences between the two parties on the issue were “dwindling.”

He never got any results from Congress. But on Friday, Obama will travel back to Del Sol High School – the same place where he kicked off the push two years ago – to rally support around an executive order that will shield millions of undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation.


It’s a carefully crafted move that strategists consider an important part of what will be a brutal battle with congressional Republicans. One Democratic strategist called it “smart” to go back to the same school in Nevada, as part of reinforcing a narrative that Obama has been pushing for reform for the past two years and more.

Besides the symbolic nature of the setting, Nevada and Las Vegas also make sense for a number of political reasons: Its ever-growing Latino population, the ties of many of its students to undocumented relatives, and the fact that it’s the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will be facing a potentially perilous re-election campaign in 2016.

“It’s one of the few states that really might swing from election to election at the presidential level. So given its competitiveness and the large Latino population, it’s a natural place for Obama to make his announcement,” said Geoffrey Skelley, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Given the strong turnout operation that Harry Reid used in 2010 to surprise the pollsters who had him down relied in part of Latino voters, such a move may also help the soon-to-be Senate minority leader” in his own re-election campaign.


More than 27 percent of Nevada’s population is Hispanic or Latino, the fifth-highest share nationally, according to the Pew Research Center. There are almost 300,000 eligible Hispanic voters in the state, making it the 13th-largest by share nationally in that category. And about 16 percent of Nevada’s eligible voters are Hispanic or Latino, the sixth-largest share in the country.

Latinos were a group that, along with many other demographics, did not show up to vote in the 2014 midterm elections. National exit polling shows the Latino share of the electorate (about 8 percent) was flat compared with 2010 and 2006, despite their share among eligible voters rising about 2.5 percentage points since 2006.


A significant number of people in Nevada – and even at Del Sol – stand to be affected by Obama’s moves.

Pew Research’s Hispanic Trends Project recently found that about 210,000 undocumented immigrants live in Nevada. That population represents about 10.2 percent of the state’s labor force, the biggest share in the nation.


Moreover, Nevada also has the largest share of U.S. students in kindergarten through 12th grade who have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant. About 17.7 percent of Nevada’s K-12 students have at least one parent who is undocumented, according to Pew.

It means Obama’s actions could directly affect the students he’ll be speaking to on Friday.


“The symmetry in selecting Del Sol High School as the backdrop for President Obama’s continued push for immigration reform is no accident,” David Damore, a senior analyst at Latino Decisions, wrote on Thursday. “The school serves a majority Latino student body and many of these students come from families who would likely benefit from the president’s executive action.”

Reid will be at the event on Friday, and he’s another person who stands to benefit from the president’s move. Reid owes much of his political survival in 2010 to Latino voters, who helped him soar to a near six-point win over Republican candidate Sharron Angle in a win that defied the predictions of most pundits and polls.


Latino voters broke 90-8 for Reid, far outpacing even Obama’s 2008 and 2012 shares among the demographic. Reid has said he will run for re-election, but he faces an even more daunting path in 2016 if Republicans get the candidate they desire.

By the end of the 2010 race, voters viewed Angle in a highly unfavorable light. If Republicans get their man, Reid could be facing incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in Nevada.


A GOP-commissioned poll released earlier this year found Sandoval would lead Reid by 10 points in a hypothetical matchup. Sandoval is one of the most popular governors in the country, having been re-elected with almost 70 percent of the vote. And Reid’s approval rating, according to a recent survey from Harper Polling, sits at just 41 percent.

“This is a lot about Reid and his re-election,” said Jon Ralston, a veteran Nevada political reporter who has covered Nevada politics for more than a quarter-century. “He needs the Hispanic vote, which was dormant a couple of weeks ago but critical for Reid in '16.”


Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.

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