Las Vegas – In a back corner of Bally's Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, Ingrid Montenegro spends her days taking people's orders at a deli and watching gamblers shuffle in and out of the nearby poker room to refuel on cigarettes and coffee.
While her job may not be as glamorous as the dealers in the casinos, it is what has attracted thousands of Latinos to move to Nevada in recent years in search of jobs in the state's recovering economy. These Hispanics filling jobs in the service sector have helped shift the state's ethnic and geographic make-up toward a more diverse, urbanized populace.
Montenegro, 41, a Guatemalan immigrant who moved to the United States with her mother at 14 and became a citizen nine years ago, is indicative of the Silver State's growing Latino community – more than 716,000 legal residents, or about 27 percent of the Nevada's total population – and their concerns have captured the attention of the 2016 presidential candidates looking to win over caucus goers in this early battleground state.
"Everybody has different opinions on all the issues and I'm just trying to learn what each of them has to say on issues like immigration and healthcare," Montenegro told Fox News Latino.
How the West Will Be Won
The burgeoning Hispanic population paired with the newly vested importance of the state in presidential politics has many analysts and insiders warning candidates that, if they hope to lock down Nevada, they have to listen to the concerns of Hispanic voters — namely on topics such as immigration reform, jobs and education.
"Nevada is a microcosm of what is happening in the U.S.," David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and a researcher for Latino Decisions, told FNL. "That means increased diversification and increased urbanization."
The presidential candidates, at least so far, appear to be heeding this message.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been to the state at least three times and has operatives on the ground, while Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Vermont Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders have been here twice. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and neurosurgeon Ben Carson are just a few of the other presidential candidates who have made a visit to the Nevada desert since declaring their bids.
The most visible presidential candidate in the state appears to be Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has made three trips to Nevada since declaring her candidacy in April — including two trips where she directly met with Latino leaders. Clinton is the only candidate, so far, who has a campaign office up and running here. Her campaign has also been going to different community sites to meet with caucus-goers and hold caucus education events.
"We are not taking anything for granted," Jorge Neri, the Clinton campaign's organizing director in Nevada told FNL. "A lot of the work is being part of the community and being a culturally competent campaign that is reaching out to people."
While the Clinton campaign may have the most boots on the ground in Nevada this early in the campaign season, political observers say that this doesn't guarantee her a lock on the Latino vote. They say some of her Republican counterparts can make a strong case to Nevada's Hispanics – a traditional stronghold for the Democratic Party – thanks to a discontent with the Obama administration over issues like immigration reform and the Affordable Care Act.
"Hillary Clinton keeps saying that she'll get undocumented immigrants citizenship, but we've had eight years of this under Obama and nothing has happened so far," said Fernando Romero, the president of the Las Vegas-based, non-partisan group Hispanics in Politics. "The rhetoric is nothing but false promises."
Romero, who after 48 years as a Democrat recently switched to the Republican Party, said that his change in political parties was due in large part to the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform while Obama was in office. He said that while GOP candidates like Bush and Rubio may not have the best plans, they at least have tried to come up with a reasonable proposal.
Clinton staffers dispute his assertion by saying that the Democratic candidate has laid down a clear immigration plan if she is elected president.
"She has carefully outlined what she would do and some of that is protecting the president's executive action," Emmy Ruiz, the Clinton campaign's state director told FNL. "The other thing is that Hillary has also clearly outlined where she would go further, whether it be closing detention centers or ensuring that people's cases are being reviewed faster.”
The Elephant in the Desert
About 12 miles from the Clinton campaign headquarters, in the shadow of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, is an office of the aptly named Red Rock Strategies.
Owned and operated by lawyer and longtime Republican political strategist Ryan Erwin, Red Rock is Jeb Bush's eyes and ears in Nevada when it comes to winning the heavily contested state in a packed field of 16 GOP candidates.
"A lot of this is relationship building," Erwin told FNL. "It's one-to-one conversations with people about the core values of Jeb Bush."
Erwin said that through their neighborhood meetings, town hall events and early campaign calls, Red Rock and the Bush campaign are focusing on what he calls quality of life issues, like the economy, family and community safety issues.
"Certainly you hear about immigration, but we hear more about education," he said. "We hear even more about job creation…you hear about all of that."
The lack of specifics and a dearth of a major ground game by most GOP candidates in Nevada have many Latino insiders and activists in Nevada criticizing the candidates for not doing enough to try and charm them. They say Democrats falsely believe that they have the Latino vote in the bag — when in fact many Hispanics are undecided.
There is a feeling among Latinos in Nevada that the GOP candidates are beginning to make a more concerted effort than they did in the past, hosting town hall and neighborhood meetings, making multiple visits to the state. But they say the grassroots efforts evident in the Clinton camp, and to a lesser extent other Democratic candidates, is not there yet among Republicans.
"Jeb Bush is making a good effort here and so is Marco Rubio," Hispanics in Politics' Romero said. "But even Bush and Rubio – the two best candidates for Latinos – are not doing enough outreach right now to win over the Latino vote."
The Big Unknown
But first, Latinos must turn out to vote in both the caucus and general elections. During the 2014 midterm elections, less than half of the eligible voters showed up at the polls.
"In 2014, there was a lot of disenchantment among Latino voters because of the failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform," UNLV's Damore said. "The big unknown in 2016 is going to be the size of the electorate. They could make up 20 percent of the electorate, but that assumes a very high turnout among Latinos at the polls."
The silver lining in the Silver State for both parties is that it is still very early in the presidential campaign season – not to mention the general election – and the caucus is still months away. Analysts and observers say that given the key role the state will play in the 2016, more of the political campaigns will likely start investing more money and political troops into the fight for the state.
"We're a heavily contested state," Romero said. "Nevada is always at the forefront in terms of the presidential elections."