Sanders ramps up battle against Clinton in Nevada

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LAS VEGAS – Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders skirts Biden's claim that he'll endorse Clinton The Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief Biden spills beans: Sanders will endorse Clinton MORE is aggressively expanding his presidential campaign in Nevada in the hopes of proving he has an appeal beyond white college-educated liberals. 

The Vermont senator is running close to front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: 'I’m just flabbergasted’ by Clinton-Lynch meet AFL-CIO head: Trump’s ‘a fraud’ Sanders skirts Biden's claim that he'll endorse Clinton MORE in Iowa and ahead of her in New Hampshire, states with a lily-white Democratic electorate. But he faces deep holes in both South Carolina and Nevada, where more black and Hispanic voters, respectively, are part of the likely voter pool. 

Still miles behind Clinton in South Carolina despite picking up efforts to win over African-Americans, Sanders’s team is coming to view the third voting state of Nevada (fourth for Republicans) as another vehicle to shift the narrative.

As the earliest voting state with a sizable Hispanic population, a strong showing from Sanders in Nevada would go a long way to convincing doubters that he is electable. 

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A win in either state could enable him to assert that he has the strength to take on Clinton in the remaining 46 states — but a loss in both would bolster the hypothesis that he’s doomed in states with diverse electorates.   

“In Nevada, the question is whether he can go beyond the coalitions of the past and make inroads with the growing number of Hispanic voters,” said Jim Manley, former senior communications aide to Sen. Harry ReidHarry ReidOvernight Finance: Obama signs Puerto Rico bill | Trump steps up attacks on trade | Dodd-Frank backers cheer 'too big to fail' decision | New pressure to fill Ex-Im board Iowa poll: Clinton up 14 on Trump, Grassley in tight race with Dem Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton creates firestorm for email case MORE (D-Nev.). 

"Nevada has become a key part of the Democratic presidential primaries. Not only does it represent the changing demographics of the country as a whole, but it stands out in part because it is the first primary out west."  

On Tuesday the Sanders campaign launched a statewide TV advertising campaign, the largest television buy in the state by any presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat. His team is already running Spanish-language advertising on Nevada radio and in newspapers and the new buy will keep the campaign on the air through to caucus day on Feb. 20. 

“The state of Nevada is almost a mirror to the entire country,” said Sanders’s Nevada communications director Emilia Pablo, referring to the state’s diverse demographics. 

The Sanders campaign strategy to win the Latino vote involves marshaling a ground force of young Hispanic volunteers and paid staffers, including many undocumented immigrants, to win over a population that knows and likes Clinton but is unfamiliar with Sanders.

Hispanics made up 14 percent of the Democratic caucus participants in 2008, according to ABC News exit polls, and that number could be higher as the population in the state grows.  

Clinton, who leads Sanders by a double-digit margin in national polls, has a head start in Nevada. Her team has been there organizing since April; the former secretary of State was quick to poach the state’s best operatives, and her popularity among Nevada’s large and growing Hispanic population far exceeds Sanders’s. 

The Sanders campaign only started getting its act together in November. 

“There wasn’t an office until, I think, the end of October,” said Pablo, who was hired in November. “We’re moving quickly given the amount of time.” 

The Sanders campaign has since gone on a hiring and office-opening spree and now has more than 40 paid staff and nine offices in Nevada. That is a comparable staff size to Clinton's, with three more offices. 

To put the growth of Sanders’s operation in perspective, as well as the scope of both Democrats’ efforts in the state, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush leads the Republican pack in resources in the state with two offices and eight staff.

Over the course of a week in Nevada, The Hill spent time with both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns and had off-the-record conversations with veteran Democratic operatives and strategists. 

The consensus is that Clinton is the prohibitive favorite to win Nevada. She has more experienced staff, better systems and a stronger organization, say a number of Nevada-based Democratic sources who are unaligned to any presidential campaign. 

Nevada is a hard state to poll — those on the ground cite low turnout, a transient population and reliance on cellphones as key impediments. In CNN’s latest poll from November, Clinton held a 16-point advantage over Sanders before Vice President Biden officially swore off a bid. But no recent poll has broken down support from non-white or Hispanic voters. 

Few Nevada Democrats believe Sanders has a chance here.

But a number of Democratic sources admitted being surprised at the size and aggression of the Sanders investment, which suggests his campaign thinks it has a genuine shot. 

The Sanders effort centers on youth. 

A key strategy is setting up offices near high schools and holding events catered to the students, even if some of them are not old enough to vote. 

Pablo is using Hispanic teenagers as messengers to their parents, many of whom are not politically engaged and may have never heard of Sanders. 

“The young kid comes in from high school or from college and then he tells his parents about Bernie Sanders, and then the parents have second thoughts,” said Pablo, explaining how the strategy works. “So that’s the story I’m hearing again and again. It’s the youth informing the parents.” 

The Sanders team also has undocumented immigrants helping with outreach in Hispanic neighborhoods. The campaign uses DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and get a reprieve from deportation as a result of meeting certain requirements. 

Pablo says that being Hispanic and having on staff Dreamers such as Cesar Vargas (the first undocumented lawyer in New York) gives them instant credibility when they go door-knocking in Las Vegas’s minority communities. 

“Kids are showing up from the high schools ... they show up to our office and tell us, 'I'm going to be honest, I'm undocumented, I don't have papers. I can't vote but you know what I can help you go knock 100 doors today,’” Pablo said. 

The Sanders campaign is also building a strong presence on college campuses, including the University of Las Vegas Nevada. The campaign set up an office opposite the campus and when The Hill visited, students were volunteering at phone banking and data management.     

But the Sanders campaign will have to compete with Clinton’s efforts. 

Tim Hogan, Clinton’s Nevada communications director, pointed at the campaign’s organizational strength as part of its successes, as well as its “diverse team” reaching out to communities. 

“From Spanish-language caucus trainings to Filipino Kamayan dinners to poetry slams at local small businesses, we are organizing across the state in traditional and non-traditional ways to build a strong base of support,” he said. 

Clinton has a long and successful history in the state, having beaten then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaSocial Security to run dry three years sooner than expected: study Former CIA chief shuts down Trump's calls for waterboarding Clinton camp: Trump's fundraising 'bragging is total bunk' MORE (D-Ill.) in the 2008 caucus. But Obama ended up with a slight lead with Nevada’s delegates to the national convention, a sign that a victory in the state may be harder than just winning the popular vote. 

Despite the late push by Sanders, almost two months before the caucuses, his team is aware of its candidate’s name recognition gap. Instead of focusing the ad buy on an issue, the campaign plans to run a biographical ad as its first spot. 

Sanders has only traveled to Nevada five times so far, compared to 18 and 16 stops in New Hampshire and Iowa respectively, according to National Journal’s campaign tracker. Clinton’s been to the state seven times. 

“I would book him every day if I could, but that’s a decision made higher up than me,” Pablo said. 

But despite the push, most Democrats agree the state remains a difficult hurdle for Sanders to mount. 

“Based on polling and the general make up of the crowds he is drawing winning Nevada was always going to be a long shot,” Manley said. 

This story was updated at 2:32 p.m.