Sen. Amy Klobuchar. | John Locher/AP Photo
LAS VEGAS — First Amy Klobuchar had to acknowledge in a recent interview that she couldn’t name the president of Mexico. Then, speaking at a Black History Month event in Las Vegas, she met a crowd full of people who had difficulty naming her.
Pete Buttigieg has difficulties, too. His speech at a Nevada Black Legislative Caucus brunch over the weekend competed with the din of a buffet line — and whole tables of people who rarely looked up.
For Buttigieg and Klobuchar, the ability to connect with people of color has become an existential threat to their campaigns. Both Democrats will likely wither if they cannot make inroads before Super Tuesday. And even if they could survive the primary without broadening their support, black and Latino voters are such a critical constituency in the modern Democratic Party that a nominee who fails to excite them is all but assured of defeat in the fall.
For now, as the primary shifts from the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire to the more diverse states of Nevada and South Carolina, it is a source of weakness. Both moderates are running in single digits nationally in support among people of color, with Klobuchar barely registering in recent polls. And in Nevada, the first state with a significant non-white voting population, they each have 10 percent support — tied for fifth, according to The Nevada Poll.
Asked about Buttigieg and Klobuchar following a Monday event with one of their competitors, Elizabeth Warren, Héctor Sánchez Barba, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, declined to address the candidates specifically. But he said, “A lot of these campaigns have never engaged with the Latino community. So, I’m not speaking about which one does or doesn’t, but for us, it’s important to see their past, their present and their commitment for the future, because we know this game: They come every four years and make all kinds of promises, and then they forget about our community until the next election.”
He called Klobuchar’s inability to name Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “unacceptable” and “embarrassing.”
Iowa state Rep. Ross Wilburn, a Klobuchar surrogate who spoke at the legislative caucus brunch, characterized Klobuchar’s blunder as a “small gaffe,” adding, “I’m sure that she knows President Obrador’s name now, as well as Prime Minister Trudeau and Angela Merkel and on down the line.”
He said, “What’s more important is the policies that she will put in place as president respecting our international partners, respecting our allies, as opposed to what the current president is doing.”
But Klobuchar’s lapse was still resonating throughout the campaign days after she committed it — a running joke and a source of bewilderment in Democratic circles here.
Buttigieg, who did know Obrador’s name, used the opportunity to needle Klobuchar about it at a rally on Sunday.
“I guess what it says is that there is more to being prepared than how many years you’ve spent in Washington,” he said.
Nevada is notoriously difficult to poll, with its high transitory population, shift-work and relatively short history of caucusing. Many people, said Aaron Ford, the state’s attorney general, are still making up their minds.
For Buttigieg and Klobuchar — as well as Warren, who is also struggling with people of color —it is almost imperative that the electorate break late. They are counting on momentum from their performances in Iowa and New Hampshire to turn caucus-goers toward them here — and to propel them in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday.
To that end, Klobuchar and Buttigieg are both airing Spanish-language TV ads in Nevada. And Buttigieg — who developed an expansive field operation in the state long before Klobuchar surged — has had staffers focused on organizing people of color for months.
On Monday, his campaign pledged to “use housing policy at every level of government as a tool to address the injustices done to reverse the discriminatory impacts of racist redlining and build pathways to lasting economic and social opportunities.”
Klobuchar planned to appear Tuesday at an event with workers at the influential Culinary Union, a major source of Latino voter mobilization in Nevada. That same afternoon, Buttigieg was expected to participate in a forum hosted by the Black Law Students Association at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
He has also been campaigning with — though he was not formally endorsed by — Keegan-Michael Key. After telling CNN over the weekend that the actor-comedian planned to announce his support for the former South Bend, Indiana mayor, the campaign clarified he would not be making an endorsement, despite speaking warmly about him at joint appearances.
At a canvass launch in Henderson, outside Las Vegas, the two men were cheered by a crowd of about 40 people — nearly all of them white.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar have both been well received at some events organized by black and Latino leaders in Nevada. Pat Spearman, a Nevada state senator, said at the Nevada Black Legislative Caucus brunch that “I’ve heard from a number of people who support them both.”
Nevada Assemblywoman Brittney Miller suggested the obstacle for both Klobuchar and Buttigieg has less to do with voters of color than with the broader electorate’s lack of familiarity with them.
But time is short for Buttigieg and Klobuchar to make an impression, with early caucus sites already open before the caucuses on Saturday. And compared to Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden — who both have far more demonstrated support among voters of color — the landscape they are confronting is rough.
“We are very welcoming and try to listen to every person, obviously, that has put themselves out to run for office,” said Rep. Steven Horsford,Nevada’s first African American congressman, who has endorsed Biden.
However, he said, “relationships do matter, and it is not about showing up when it’s time to ask for a vote.”
Biden, who has maintained a relationship with many black voters from his time as Barack Obama’s vice president, was crowded by supporters at the Black History Month event.
Klobuchar drew applause, as well.
But as she left with a trail of cameras, one girl asked her mother, “Who is she?”
“I don’t know,” the mother replied.