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Will Youth Vote Transform the Nevada Caucuses?

The Silver State's new workforce is younger and more likely to skew Democratic, but its members’ political affiliations remain opaque.

Cesar Marquez had an epiphany last spring while listening to then-Democratic Party presidential candidate Andrew Yang tell podcaster Joe Rogan that approximately three million truck drivers would soon be automated out of their jobs by self-driving trucks. Marquez, who lives in Reno, Nevada and works as a production supervisor at Tesla, had a special insight about Yang’s claim, because he is one of the people building the type of drive unit, or engine, that will go inside the self-driving trucks. It is not a responsibility Marquez takes lightly.

 
Marquez, who is 29 and typically dressed head to toe in Yang merch, voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016, but didn’t volunteer or donate money to the Vermont senator’s campaign. In this election, however, he wanted to do things differently. So after hearing Yang and deciding the entrepreneur was The Guy, Marquez made his first of 15 donations. Soon YANG FOR US and YANG 2020 stickers were plastered on Marquez’s laptop and car. He textbanked, canvassed and even flew to Iowa for Yang Week, so that he could talk to people about automation and what that had to do with so many of their brick-and-mortar stores closing — which, Marquez said, “resonated with Iowans a lot.”

 

 
Cesar Marquez in Reno before Andrew Yang ended his presidential bid. (Photo: Devin Boone)
 
Marquez came to Reno from Northern California — he is one of many to have moved here in the last four years to work in the city’s burgeoning tech sector. Beside Tesla, Panasonic, Apple, Switch, Blockchains and others have opened outposts here, attracted to Northern Nevada not just for the large swaths of cheap land, but for the speed at which things can be built on it. Today the story of how Tesla picked Nevada in 2014 over Texas, Arizona and California as the site for its Gigafactory–a lithium-ion battery and electric vehicle assembly factory in what is expected to become the largest building in the world–is a well-known parable. While touring the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, the scout for Tesla supposedly asked how long it would take to get a grading permit. In response, a county official handed the Tesla scout a signed permit on the spot — and a developer told him he had a shovel in his trunk and could start digging right now, if he liked.

More people living in Nevada were born in California than in Nevada.

 
Nevada was among the states hardest hit by the mortgage meltdown in 2008. To recover, Reno took a different tack than Las Vegas, which simply weathered the crash but then gradually began to grow again with the same industries at its center. Reno, by contrast, wanted to rebrand—away from both casinos, whose revenues had been shrinking since Congress passed the Indian Regulatory Gaming Act in 1988, and from construction, which had tanked during the housing bust.
 
In 2011, the city recruited Mike Kazmierski, the former president and CEO for the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corporation, to head this effort. He decided Reno’s best bet was in advanced manufacturing. “I knew this because I had been flying companies over Nevada for many years, bringing them to Colorado,” Kazmierski says. “California doesn’t like manufacturing—they don’t like trucks, they don’t like [to scare] the birds, you might upset a turtle along the way—and so the manufacturers that really built California were going overseas or to Mexico. And we wanted to be a viable option for them to come here.”
 
In the beginning, he landed companies like the packaging giant Ardagh and diapers.com, but eventually he persuaded Tesla to choose Reno. After that, convincing companies to come here became much easier. The economy in the Reno-Sparks Metropolitan Area, population 425,000, is growing at an average of 11,000 new jobs per year.

Nevada’s newcomers from California were once conservative, Republican and retired. Today they are mostly young workers.

A portion of Reno’s new jobs go to locals, but many go to people from other places, and as these new people arrive, they bring their politics with them. Most are from California, which has long been the case. “We’ve often been described as a colony of California,” says Fred Lokken, the chair of Truckee Meadows Community College’s political science department. “Most of the people here have strong roots in California.” In fact, more people living in Nevada were born in California than in Nevada. “We love California — I just don’t know how anyone can afford California, so it’s the next best thing, [as we’re] right next door.”
 

*    *    *

 
Traditionally, Southern Californians have moved to Las Vegas in the desert, and Northern Californians, to alpine Northern Nevada. This remains true, but Lokken says what has changed is the type of Californian now arriving. For years, the quintessential newcomers were conservative, Republican, retired and typically fed up with California’s regulations and taxes. But now, he says, they’re mostly workers.
 
This new workforce is younger and more likely to skew Democratic, but beyond that, its members’ political affiliations are a bit opaque. As of late January, with less than one month remaining before the Nevada caucus, there was hardly a political bumper sticker or yard sign to be seen anywhere in town. Lokken says some of his students have talked about Tom Steyer, but aren’t sure why he began running ads so early, apparently unaware that the caucus is on February 22. He says only a small percentage of his students even know how to caucus. The latest polling averages show Sanders and Joe Biden in close competition, but veteran pollsters, including Nate Cohn of the New York Times’ The Upshot, say Nevada is so expensive to poll that there aren’t that many of them to begin with.

There is no state income tax in Nevada, giving some Californians the feeling they’re getting a pay raise simply by moving here.

 
Nevada has historically struggled with low voter turnout, particularly among its youth—only 29 percent of eligible young voters cast ballots in 2018, although this was considerably up from the nine percent who voted in 2016. This is partly due to lower education levels, which track with political engagement, but in Lokken’s experience there is something else at play: Many new residents are simply happier here and thus less motivated to engage in the fight for political change.
 
On some level the reasons for this in Reno’s case are clear. First, the Biggest Little City is beautiful — Reno is at the base of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Truckee River runs through town and Lake Tahoe is only 45 minutes away. Second, there is no state income tax in Nevada, which means even if incomes stay the same, it feels to many residents as though they get a raise simply by moving here from California.
 
“A lot of people that come here start doing better than they did wherever they were [before],” Lokken says. “My students will tell those stories—they’ve been able to get a start here, they’ve finally been able to come back to school, they’ve got a job, they can keep a job, they have choices of jobs.” Many of these jobs are not high-paying, but relative to jobs in casinos, which used to account for more than 30 percent of the local economy, they’re a better choice.

Even with Reno’s robust economy – and possibly because of its tech-driven nature — the threat of massive automation looms.

 
The one thing there doesn’t seem to be enough of here is housing, and rents have risen astronomically as a result.
 
But most residents of Reno are looking to the city and county to ameliorate this problem, not the federal government. (Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve recently announced a plan to build 1,000 homes in 120 days.) So in lieu of any crisis in Northern Nevada that residents want the federal government to solve–aside from health care, which is the number one issue for Democratic voters in Nevada and around the country–many voters are making their decisions based on character, or temperament, and not on ideology.
 
“I just don’t want another old white man in his 70s in office,” said Margaret Mello, a member of the Carson City Democratic Men’s Committee, which also welcomes women. “I feel like us old farts have screwed it up enough and it’s time for someone from the next generation to give it a try.” She is leaning towards Buttigieg, with Klobuchar in second place.
 
Amanda Lattin, a nurse, said she’d heard a friend describe Sanders as a “tío” or uncle. “He’s kind of grumpy and he yells a lot,” her friend said. “But you know he’s doing that because he cares about you, he’s looking out for you.” That seemed right to her. She’s planning on voting for Sanders.
 

*   *   *

 
Even though Andrew Yang has suspended his campaign, Marquez says he still plans on voting (and early) for him, with Bernie Sanders as his second choice — although “these Berners on Twitter are making me think twice.” He likes Andrew Yang’s easygoing temperament, but he likes his policies more.
 
When he was growing up outside of Chicago, Marquez’s family relied on assistance from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, and since his mom only read Spanish, he was often responsible for filling out the paperwork. This experience produced in him a strong aversion to bureaucracy, which he thinks Yang’s Freedom Dividend, which would have given $1,000 each month to every American citizen over the age of 18, essentially eliminates. (The dividend would have supplemented certain forms of assistance, including WIC, up to $1,000 per month, and would have been stacked on top of others, like Social Security and Veterans Disability benefits.)

Nevada

Cesar Marquez unloading his trunk. (Photo: Devin Boone)
 
“I feel very confident,” says Marquez, “if I were to go back to my hometown—most of it black and Latino—and ask, like, ‘Hey, would you prefer straight cash or having to go through all these bureaucratic [programs] with people having to check on your income?’ I know the vast majority would choose the cash.”
 
But even with Reno’s robust economy – and possibly because of its tech-driven nature — the threat of massive automation looms. Kazmierski, the president and CEO of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, estimates that about half of the jobs that now exist, many of which he helped bring to Washoe County since his arrival in 2011, will be obsolete within the next 10 years. These jobs — in logistics, distribution and e-commerce — tend to be low-paying, but Kazmierski is optimistic that higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs are on the way.
 
He’s in the process of launching the Incumbent Worker Training Program, which he hopes will be funded by both government money and private investment, to retrain workers for the jobs relevant in the so-called fourth industrial revolution. (Government training programs have historically fared poorly in the short term, and mixed, at best, in the long term: Often, only a small percentage of participants end up in the industry they’ve been retrained for, and a much larger share ends up leaving the workforce all together.)
 
One issue nearly every Nevadan does seek a federal decision on is the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. Nevadans from both parties are staunchly opposed to it. The subject comes up at nearly every town hall and forum for Democratic candidates, and registers as important enough to Trump that he recently tweeted that he will now seek an alternative to Yucca Mountain. (His previous budgets allocated funding for the nuclear repository.)
 
That Trump is changing course on this issue in an election year suggests the GOP views Nevada as a battleground state, though it’s not designated one by the Democratic National Committee. Nevada has voted blue in every presidential election since 2008, and all demographic trends here—a growing Latino population, an increase in the share of residents who have college degrees in Northern Nevada—indicate it will continue to do so.
 
But that won’t stop Republicans from trying. Donald Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Vice President Mike Pence are all on their way to the Silver State to make their case, and Paul Strasser, the chairman of the Carson City Republican Committee, says if there was ever an election that will turn the state back to red, it’ll be this one.
 
“We have a presidential candidate who energizes the base,” he says. “[The Democrats] have the majority of the registered voters, but that doesn’t mean they’ll get out the voters. We think Trump will get out the voters.”
 
Marquez, meanwhile, is in it for the long haul. He still wears a MATH beanie with two Andrew Yang pins, an I KNOCK FOR YANG hoodie, an American flag scarf and a NEVADA VOLS FOR YANG button. And he’s still hosting YangGang hangs and, soon, he’ll start hosting other events to bring attention to automation and universal basic income, along with other Yang ideas. He hopes to have a big group of “super volunteers” for the 2024 election, just as he did for 2020.
 

Top photo: Early voters line up prior to Nevada’s February 22 caucus date.
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

 


 
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