In Nevada, Sanders volunteers campaign with rag-tag enthusiasm

Alex Nunez wasted no time Sunday morning when the first person he spoke with told him, with a clipped “No,” that he was not a backer of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Months ago, when Nunez first began traveling from Silicon Valley to Reno as a Sanders volunteer, he would stick around when he got a “No,” hoping to sway more voters to Sanders' side. But there's no time for that now — not with the Nevada caucuses less than a week away.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Sanders in Nevada: An article in Section A on Feb. 15 about volunteers for Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in Nevada said that Christina Hughes was the founder of Washoe County 4 Bernie Sanders. Hughes was one of a group of founders. —
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Without skipping a beat, Nunez politely bade the man farewell and moved on.

Sanders' supporters in Nevada are clearly energized by his ascendant campaign, boosted by the razor-thin loss to Hillary Clinton in Iowa and a double-digit victory in New Hampshire. Their challenge now is to harness that enthusiasm into organization.

The effort can be a little rag-tag, they admit.

A rally at Reno's convention center Saturday was half-full, and volunteers said the event had been sparsely advertised. On Sunday, as Nunez and fellow volunteer Dominique Lopez visited homes of likely supporters, they often found that other volunteers had already been there, indicating a mix-up in planning canvassing routes.

“Probably the Hillary Clinton campaign is better organized,” Nunez conceded. But, he said, the fervor of fellow Bernie-ites was the campaign's “saving grace.”

“What would carry us through is the message — Bernie's message — more than anything else,” he said. “And also, the enthusiasm and the almost visceral support that the supporters have for Bernie Sanders.”

The campaign day began with Sanders and Clinton attending services at the same church in Las Vegas, Victory Missionary Baptist Church on the city's heavily African American west side.

African Americans made up about 15% of Democratic caucusgoers in Nevada in the last contested caucus, in 2008. Together with Latinos, they are expected to make up about a third of the vote on Saturday.

Clinton was introduced to the church by a revered civil rights figure, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Pastor Robert E. Fowler has also endorsed her. But he welcomed both candidates, inviting each to give brief remarks to the congregation.

“We thank God,” he said, that the church “is singled out today to have both presidential candidates.”

Later in the day, as both candidates campaigned across the state's largest city, canvassers for both went about the more nuts-and-bolts aspect of the campaign. For the rest of the week, thousands of volunteers on both sides will spend their days in a frenzy of door knocking and phone calling, trying to turn out voters for Saturday's caucus meetings.

The pitch the two Sanders volunteers made to voters here was consistent with their candidate's class-focused appeal: Sanders, they told one person after another, will fight against a system rigged against working people. At one home, Nunez delivered an identical speech in Spanish.

“I don't even bother mentioning immigration,” he said. “We all care about our economy and we care that our system is corrupt. Mexican, black, white — we all care about the same things.”

Whether that's true and whether the Sanders camp's organizational lapses will matter will become apparent in just under a week. Caucuses pose unique organizational challenges. Voters must be registered with the Democratic Party and must attend the caucus for the full duration. Rules of that sort are not an ideal match for Sanders voters, some backers said.

“There's such an unfamiliarity about it, especially with the types of supporters that we've been seeing for Bernie, who maybe aren't — they're anti-establishment. They're not in the system,” said Christina Hughes, a Reno resident who helped found Washoe County 4 Bernie Sanders.

Some supporters have taken planning into their own hands. Doug Smithson, a retired firefighter, walks his Reno neighborhood daily, identifying not just possible caucusgoers but also possible candidates to be delegates, in an attempt to ensure a Bernie-friendly presence at the local, state and national conventions.

“Have you ever thought about having a little extra political power?” he asked in a booming baritone honed in his former life as a vacuum-cleaner salesman, as he handed out homemade informational packets.

Nunez, 24, is also a true believer. Since October, he has commuted to Reno on weekends from Mountain View, where he works in cybersecurity sales, to canvass.

His co-canvasser, Lopez, 28, from Oakland, is the shyer of the two, but both have signature flourishes. On this Sunday, Lopez wishes everyone she talks to a Happy Valentine's Day, while Nunez ends most successful interactions with a high-five.

At one house, the two canvassers met a familiar face: Rosalinda Castaneda, a Bernie “super volunteer” who has been pouring time into the Sanders campaign.

Nunez greeted Castaneda with a hug, but grimaced slightly when she said the Sanders campaign had repeatedly called her — a waste of time with a surefire supporter.

“You could say this is disjointed,” he said. “Somewhat disjointed.”

Twitter: @MelMason@katelinthicum

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