“Even though we’re a small minority of the population … we make key differences in key elections, especially when there is a tight race,” said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.
Census estimates from 2013 put the Native American population in Nevada at 1.6 percent of the state’s total population, split up among 27 tribes (all either Paiute, Washoe or Shoshone). The Walker River Paiute tribe—which chairman Bobby Sanchez said has over 3,300 members, 600 to 700 of whom live on the reservation—has unusually strong turnout because they have a caucus precinct right on the reservation.
“People vote here,” said Elveda Martinez, 56, a member of the tribe. “This is probably one of the biggest voting reservations in Nevada … there might not be anybody here, but we vote. We’ve won elections for people.”
In the past, repeated outreach to Native American tribes has been minimal, largely because it’s difficult to do and so rarely affects the outcome of an election. “To the extent you court them, it’s really very hard,” said Russ Lehman, a scholar who has researched the role of Native Americans in U.S. politics. “[Politicians] realize there’s just not much payoff there.”
That was different in 2008, when both Clinton and then-Sen. Obama spent some time meeting with tribal leaders and holding events on reservations—but that happened largely because the primary dragged on into states that normally don’t play a role, like Montana and South Dakota. In May 2008, Clinton held a campaign event on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Kyle, S.D., where she told the gathered tribal members: “I will be your champion.” (Neither candidate came in person to Schurz in 2008, but tribal members here remember seeing both Clinton and Obama in neighboring Fallon, Nev.)
PaaWee Rivera, the director of Native American engagement at the Democratic National Committee, said Obama’s record on native issues has helped give Democrats strong support on reservations that will echo into future elections. “President Obama’s attention to Indian Country has been unmatched by any president in recent history, and that’s why Democrats will continue to earn support from native communities in 2016 and beyond,” he said.
This year’s Indian Country outreach indicates Clinton’s team has learned an important lesson from 2008: winning the delegate vote requires organizing in smaller and more rural parts of the state, not just the big population centers in Las Vegas and Reno. Eight years ago, Clinton won the caucuses in Nevada by 5 points—but Obama, whose campaign had done more to organize in rural areas, still won the overall delegate count here. That’s clearly on the mind of Clinton organizers, who made it clear to the tribal members in Schurz how important they are.
“Here in Schurz … you have the highest delegate count in the county, you guys are able to really have some sway here, and get some things heard,” Parrish told the group, handing out charts showing the delegate counts for precincts in Mineral County. “So now … let’s put some action behind it.”