LAS VEGAS -- Minority voters on Saturday will play a critical role for the very first time this election, and yet, the major powerhouse that typically drives Latinos to the polls is instead staying out of the process almost entirely.
Nevada’s influential Culinary Union has shied away from activating its massive voter mobilization machine, leaving the bulk of its political organizing on ice after union leaders decided to hold back on endorsing a presidential candidate just yet.
But Culinary is not just declining to chose sides. In fact, the union has done uncharacteristically little to ensure that its 57,000 members -- nearly half of whom are Hispanic -- will turn out to caucus on Saturday.
In the critical days leading up to the Nevada race, union leaders have not held any caucus training sessions or campaigns for members to commit to caucus. Instead, they are focusing on upcoming contract negotiations, Culinary spokesperson Bethany Khan said.
“We’re not a political organization, we’re a labor union,” Khan told MSNBC. “Our No. 1 focus is growing the union.”
The union’s absence from the political process is a major hit to the campaigns and state Democratic leaders hoping to see voter turnout exceed expectations. Nevada only just gained its early-state status in the Democratic primary in 2008, largely thanks to its growing Latino population, which now stands at more than 17 percent of eligible voters. But many voters are still new to caucusing. Language barriers add an extra layer of intimidation to an already unfamiliar process.
If Latinos fail to participate, the political repercussions will likely ripple through to Super Tuesday. For Clinton, the Nevada caucus will be a major test to her stronghold on support from minority voters. Bernie Sanders, for his part, could dramatically reshape the race moving forward if able to prove that his support extends far beyond white voters.
There are signs that the Clinton campaign is feeling anxious about its lock on Latino voters without Culinary to draw members to caucus.
A flurry of top Clinton surrogates and icons in the Latino community have worked the circuit of hotels and casinos along the Las Vegas strip, meeting with housekeepers, bartenders and “back of house” workers in break rooms during their time off.
Dolores Huerta, a legendary civil rights activist with the United Farm Workers union, and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine courted casino workers this week. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a prominent backer of comprehensive immigration reform, met with union leaders in Las Vegas the week before.
Huerta, a longtime Clinton supporter, said she was so disappointed to find that Culinary workers were not even aware of the approaching caucus that she planned to take issue up with union leaders directly.
“I am very concerned,” Huerta told MSNBC. “We went to one of the casinos, and I was amazed at the number of people that didn’t even know about the caucus. I know that a lot of the Culinary workers will vote for Hillary if they knew.”
The Sanders campaign has also tried to reach the union's membership directly. But supporters last month damaged their standing with the union after Sanders staffers posed as union employees to gain access to casino worker break rooms. Union leaders said they were "disappointed and offended" by the stunt. Sanders' campaign spokesman later apologized.
The endorsement stalemate builds on bad blood out of the 2008 presidential contest, when Culinary bosses bypassed Clinton, despite her roots with organized labor, and instead backed Barack Obama. Clinton ultimately bounced back from the snub by edging out Obama in the precincts where the majority of union members live.
But the riff angered the Clinton world so much that her supporters sued the Culinary union over caucus sites for casino workers placed on the Las Vegas strip. Bill Clinton also reportedly called up casino bosses to complain about the Obama endorsement.
The Culinary Union’s unwillingness to make waves this election speaks to the razor-thin margin dividing the Democratic candidates in a race where Latino voters could be pivotal.
Clinton and Sanders have each tried to reach the union's membership directly. Both briefly joined a Culinary rally outside of Sunrise Hospital on Thursday, missing each other by just minutes before jetting off to their final forum ahead of the caucus.
Clinton has been racking up face time with back-of-house workers at any chance. She stopped by the linen room of Caesar’s Palace around midnight on Wednesday, where she embraced hotel workers before heading to her room to sleep.
One of the housekeepers, a member of the Culinary Union, told pool reporters later that she had never heard of the caucus before Clinton gave her the hug.