LAS VEGAS — Kristina Alvarez, a 36-year-old medical aide in Las Vegas, knows how badly the Democrats want her attention and ideally her vote. So does JA Moore, 34, a state representative in Charleston, S.C., whose endorsement was highly sought after.
The people being wooed most aggressively by Democratic candidates at the moment — Latino voters in Nevada and black voters in South Carolina — are essential to victory in both states, where white voters make up less than half of the Democratic electorate. The courtship includes mariachi bands and gospel choirs at campaign events, and an extensive debate stage discussion about the importance of “black and brown” voters.
It’s a one-size-fits-all approach in many mays, and it’s not always resonating with the voters the all-white top tier of 2020 candidates are hoping to reach.
“We want to hear more than just some token words,” Ms. Alvarez, who is undecided about which candidate she’ll support on Saturday, said last week. She cares most about college costs and the worrying rise in hate crimes around the country, but found the Democratic candidates to be more focused on responding to President Trump than anything else. “He’s made it so that if we hear anything aside from racism, we want to say hallelujah,” she said. “There’s something else, but what’s the something else?”
Mr. Moore was even more direct in his assessment of the efforts some candidates were making.
“It’s degrading,” he said, during an event, featuring a gospel choir, for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. last week in South Carolina. “Black people listen to more than gospel music.”
Interviews with dozens of black and Latino Democrats in both states in recent days show that many feel ambivalence or disappointment in the party that is relying on them and anger over the process that narrowed the most diverse slate of candidates in history to the current contenders.
In South Carolina, the word “rigged” came up several times as black voters contemplated the remaining options, expressing sadness that black candidates had been forced out by financial woes and poor poll results before South Carolinians had a chance to cast their votes.
In Nevada, Latino voters said they were resigned to mostly superficial talk around race for the foreseeable future, and expressed resentment that candidates were relatively slow to focus on crafting an appeal to them.
For many people, the frustration was not over the fact that they wouldn’t have the chance to vote for someone who shared their background or who looked like them. Rather, they chafed at the narrowness of the message when candidates address black and Latino voters.
Tierra King, a political science major at the University of South Carolina, was never that enamored with the black candidates.
“There’s a saying that everybody’s who’s skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” Ms. King, 20, said as she walked on campus last week. “I didn’t feel that the candidates were speaking to me.”
Mr. Moore, the South Carolina representative, had considered Mr. Biden, who has been looking to the state’s black voters to resurrect his floundering campaign.
But he ultimately took issue with Mr. Biden’s record, and his suggestion that his poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire was because those states lacked diversity. Now Mr. Moore is backing former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and argues that residents of those two mostly white states actually have a lot in common with people in South Carolina.
“African-Americans are Americans,” Mr. Moore said. “I have a young daughter, so I’m concerned about her public education. I’m concerned about health care. I’m concerned about clean water to drink.”
Zayda Russiello, a 72-year-old retired educator in North Las Vegas, felt similarly about what she’d heard at a candidate forum.
“They are addressing issues with mass incarceration, but they’ve got so many other things they are focused on,” she said. “I want to hear more about education, about action.”
In Nevada, black and Latino voters repeatedly mentioned the similarity of a lot of the pitches they were hearing from Democrats: boasting about the diversity among campaign staff, talking about their family’s migration from European, reminding immigrants that they, too, are welcome in the country. Above all, criticizing President Trump, calling him a racist and decrying the way he has divided the country around racial and ethnic lines.
For some voters, reacting to President Trump is precisely the problem. They say the president has made it so that Democrats devote their speaking time and mental energy to decrying him, rather than articulating their own policy positions.
Isaac Barron, a high school teacher and city councilman in North Las Vegas, a suburb with a large Latino population, has watched nearly every candidate come through his neighborhood in the last several months. They try, he said, to appeal to communities like his own, but there is always something missing, absent a mix of urgency and passion when it comes to talking about the problems they’re facing.
“It just goes to show you that it might be 2020, but things haven’t changed,” Mr. Barron said, adding that in many ways he feels the conversation about racial injustices has lost a sharp focus in recent years. “There’s a real lack of understanding. Poverty is a huge issue, but we’re not talking about it. We care about immigration, yes — I’ve lost track of the number of students who come to me with tears in their eyes because their father got arrested by ICE. But we still have difficulty getting beyond the basics.”
Steven Olmos, a 34-year-old operations manager, initially supported Senator Kamala Harris, but worried that as a black woman she would face too many insurmountable challenges, including being seen as too forceful.
“Right now, they are being careful not to offend anyone, not to take on topics that are too hot and will alienate people,” he said, as he stood outside a rally for Pete Buttigieg in North Las Vegas on Sunday, holding a “Juntos con Pete” sign.
Mr. Olmos was not impressed with this week’s debate, either. “They talk about having support from certain demographics, or reaching out to those groups, but I don’t believe any of them spoke about how their policies correlate to those groups.”
Julián Castro, the former federal housing secretary, had hoped to be in Nevada this week as a candidate but is instead here as a surrogate for Senator Elizabeth Warren. He dropped out of the 2020 race at the beginning of the year and has spoken critically about the way black and Latino voters are essentially boxed out of the earliest and most decisive contests because Iowa and New Hampshire set the terms for the entire race in terms of polling, attention and resources.
“This is really a voting rights issue — who gets to vote for their first choice candidate?” he said. “There are people who dropped out of the race that if other states were to go first, may well have had a stronger footing.”
The question of who makes the ballot also speaks to voter engagement, and who feels represented in the political process.
Darius Davis, a 20-year-old music major from Beech Island, S.C., had never been interested in politics until Senator Cory Booker came to his campus here, Allen University.
Mr. Booker’s speech last year at the historically black college left Mr. Davis with a candidate crush for the very first time.
“I would have voted for Cory Booker hands down,” said Mr. Davis, 20, who had been swayed by Mr. Booker’s upbeat message of unity as well as his oratorical skills. “That made me want to learn more about politics.”
“I was pretty disappointed,” Mr. Davis said of Mr. Booker’s withdrawal. “Not pretty. I was very disappointed.”
Terrence Culbreath, the mayor of Johnston, S.C., was also a Booker supporter.
Last week, though, he found himself packing up the detritus of a failed political campaign — gas canisters used for a barbecue, lapel buttons, posters, and a pile of bright blue “Deval for South Carolina” T-shirts.
Deval Patrick had been the last black candidate standing in the 2020 race, and it was time to shut down his office in the
Before joining Mr. Patrick’s campaign, Mr. Culbreath, who at 35 is one of the state’s youngest black mayors, had been the South Carolina political director for Cory Booker, whose office four blocks away had been shut down in January.
He only worked for Mr. Patrick for 10 days, brought into the campaign in what he described as a “Hail Mary.” Mr. Culbreath said he was now uncertain about the remaining candidates, but optimistic about the future for black candidates, generally.
“It’s a prequel for what the future looks like,” he said. “You’re going to see more black candidates, and not just for president.”
“What size do you wear?” asked another campaign worker, offering a free Deval Patrick T-shirt.
Jennifer Medina reported from Las Vegas, and Stephanie Saul from South Carolina.