LAS VEGAS — Julián Castro cuts a slight figure at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds. He's lost 10 pounds in the eight months he has been running for president. He is 44, but, even with some fresh flecks of gray around his temples, doesn't look a day older than Pete Buttigieg, at 37, the baby of the Democratic field.
During his three days campaigning this week in Nevada — his eighth visit to the state, the most of any candidate — he listened as much as he spoke and when he spoke it was well considered and generally kind, except of course when the subject turned, as it must, to the president. "Donald Trump is a walking example of the kind of politician that local district attorneys know all too well, who is in politics to enrich himself," he told reporters after his appearance at the Nevada AFL-CIO convention on Wednesday.
Castro's only real campaign-style event during this three days in Las Vegas — which included feeding the homeless and reading Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" to low-income children — was a meet and greet at which he exclaimed to the 100 folks crammed into a small Salvadoran restaurant, "I hope that for those of y'all that are supporting my campaign, y'all will be the biggest loud mouths of 2020."
Castro said that when he launched his campaign in his hometown of San Antonio in January, "we were starting from scratch."
He had served as secretary of housing and urban development in President Barack Obama's cabinet, Castro said, "but I had not run a national campaign before. But little by little, we've been getting stronger and stronger and stronger. And I told people, `Look, I don't want to be a flash in the pan candidate.'"
A modest ambition, but a few hours earlier, as he finished lunch at an Olive Garden on another 100-plus degree day in this arid oasis, Castro described in an interview with the American-Statesman a political destiny that shimmered with the tantalizing promise of a mirage.
"I believe I stand the best shot of summoning the Obama coalition from 2008 and supercharging that coalition to defeat Donald Trump in 2020," Castro said.
Asked to describe the Obama coalition, Castro said, "Diverse. Young. In states that are growing like my home state of Texas, like Georgia, Arizona, Florida."
And why him?
"People are looking for a bridge builder," he replied. "This campaign has a lot of credibility with progressives and also with people who don't consider themselves progressives."
"I actually have a track record of getting things done," he said, ticking off his Obama-like assets. "The way that I handle issues. People appreciate somebody who's passionate, but somebody that's trying to unite people. That I represent a new generation of leadership. I'm convinced that a lot of people are looking for a new generation of leadership in 2020."
"Of course my candidacy would also be groundbreaking as the first Latino," he said, a way in which he is both like Obama and different.
For Democrats, there would be a sublime symmetry if Trump's presidency were bracketed by the first African American president and the first Latino American president.
Obama generated black turnout like nothing before or since. But even Trump hasn't generated the kind of Hispanic turnout in 2016 and 2018 that Democrats hoped and expected.
"What would do it is if I'm a nominee for president," Castro said. "I guarantee that if I were the nominee for president, people would come out of the woodwork and go and vote. And I never understand why folks give that short shrift. What we have not tested yet is if you actually had a Hispanic nominee, what would happen? Remember, the African American turnout rate was lower than whites, right before Obama."
According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of eligible black voters turned out when Obama was seeking reelection in 2012, exceeding white turnout for the first time, but black turnout fell to 60% in 2016, below that of whites. Latino voter turnout remained flat at about 48% in 2012 and 2016, and while Latino turnout in the 2018 midterm election was up 13 points over the previous midterm in 2014 to 40.4%, that was still well below the 57.5% turnout for whites and and 51.4% for blacks.
Even with lower turnout, because of population growth, the Hispanic share of the electorate has been growing. Blacks made up 11.9% of the electorate in 2016 and 2018, down from 12.9% in 2012. Hispanics went from 8.4% of the electorate in 2012, to 9.2% of the electorate in 2016 and 9.6% in 2018, and Pew projects that for the first time in 2020, Hispanics, at just over 13% of the electorate, will exceed blacks as potential voters.
"I believe that people are underestimating the spike in turnout that would happen in the Hispanic community if I were the nominee and what that would mean to win these Sun Belt states, and not only what it would mean for 2020 but it would change things for good, or at least for the next generation," Castro said.
The conventional wisdom is that the surest Democratic path to regaining the White House hinges on reclaiming Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, states Trump barely won in 2016, and not on expanding the Democratic map. But Castro believes he can do both, and that "reassembling the Obama coalition, and supercharging that, is a better path to success than playing it safe, or what people believe is playing it safe."
But it is an unprovable assertion and for now, Castro is hovering at somewhere between zero and 2% in national polls in the early voting states.
Castro pointed to a recent analysis by Sludge, which produces investigative journalism on lobbying and money in politics, and Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, that found that more than a quarter of Castro's itemized contributions came from Hispanic donors, five times the rate of the next closest competitor, Beto O'Rourke.
"Which says a lot, I think, because a lot of the Hispanic community has not traditionally been givers to these campaigns, but we've been able to motivate people to open up their pocketbooks and that's a great precursor, that is evidence that we have been able to engage them in a way that nobody else is," Castro said.
"It makes sense," Castro said. "I've had a tremendous number of people tell me that it matters for their son or daughter to finally think that they can look up and say, `Look, I can do that, too.'"
The Houston debate
Castro was coming off the best week of his campaign. Tuesday was a week since he learned that he had become the 10th candidate to qualify for the next debate, in Houston, having garnered 2% support in at least four polls certified by the Democratic National Committee (his campaign had already met the requirement of at least 130,000 unique donors). Then, while in Las Vegas, it became clear that he was also the last candidate to make the stage for what will now be a single three-hour event at Texas Southern University in Houston on Sept. 12, his post position far stage left, next to his fellow Texan, Beto O'Rourke.
Making the final 10 is an achievement, no doubt, but University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus noted that both Texans "are just barely meeting the standard, which is just enough to limp along until the next cut point."
But, at the Olive Garden, Castro, noted a recent poll — an outlier — in which former Vice President Joe Biden had slipped from his front-runner's perch. "What is clear is that the race has no front-runner right now," Castro said. "I believe this race is more wide open that most races."
"It's a new phase of the campaign, and a new opportunity for me to make my case," Castro said. "And I believe that we can continue to get stronger and stronger."
Of past nomination contests, he said, "it's not uncommon in the last six to eight weeks for one or two candidates to catch real fire, and to do a lot better than expected. And I believe that I can do that. It'll take a combination of hard work on our part and organizing in Iowa and these other early states. And also, you know, the unexpected things that always happen in a campaign, in just about any of the cycles. You always get something that creates opportunity. And we're putting ourselves in a position to take advantage of opportunities this fall."
The Iowa caucuses are Feb. 3, followed by the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29.
While the process can be volatile, a Castro — or O'Rourke — victory would be one for the books.
In August 2007, Obama, who went on to win, was trailing Hillary Clinton 45% to 25% in a CBS News national poll. Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards was in third with 14%.
Josh Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said that it is not enough that Castro is young and would be making history.
"I think boiling down Barack Obama's political success to a series of ascriptive characteristics really undersells the former president’s own political skills in creating the coalitions that Castro is now trying to recreate," Blank said.
"I do think a Hispanic at the top of a presidential ticket, Castro or otherwise, increases the likelihood of higher Hispanic turnout that ultimately could translate into a 2 to 5% increase in the Hispanic share of the electorate in states with large Hispanic populations. That very well may be enough to put some states in play for the Democrats, or put them out of reach for the Republicans. But it also may not."
But, Blank said, "Were Castro to have the political skills that Barack Obama displayed pretty much from the moment he entered the national scene in 2004, through his two successful presidential runs, he wouldn’t be struggling to make 2% in the polls."
"Let’s not forget that Julián Castro had a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention, just like Barack Obama," Blank said.
Connecting with Latinos
Javier Amaya, who was attending his first political event ever at the Castro meet-and-greet at the San Salvador Restaurant Tuesday, said he first became aware of Castro watching that keynote.
"I was immediately, `Who is this guy? His name is Spanish. My name is Spanish.' And he cares about American values," said Amaya, 36, who is from Puerto Rico, and noticed that Castro was the only candidate to talk about Puerto Rico at both Democratic debates.
"It's inspiring to see someone that looks like you and cares about the issues that affect you personally," Amaya said.
In his remarks, Castro told the story of being called on the phone by Obama in 2014 to offer him the housing secretary job as he exited the drive-through at a Panda Express.
"The best thing Obama did was that phone call," Amaya said. "When you are in that position, it's important you pass the microphone to other the people that need to be heard."
Daniel Corona, the mayor of the small city of West Wendover, near the Utah line, also first became aware of Castro watching the 2012 convention.
"His speech really resonated with me," said Corona, who at the time had taken a leave as a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to work to make enough money to complete his studies, but had fallen into a funk, thinking, “maybe people like me don’t go to college, maybe people like me aren't really destined to do anything."
"Seeing Julián up there on that stage, inspired me," Corona said.
Four years later, in 2016, at the age of 25, Corona was elected mayor of his hometown, and when Castro came to West Wendover in July, Corona endorsed him for president.
Selena Torres, a 24-year-old member of the Nevada Assembly from Las Vegas, who teaches English literature to seventh graders, was by Castro's side at a couple of small round table discussions on education during his visit. She first met him when Castro, then secretary of housing and urban development, came to a Cesar Chavez Day event she helped organize in Las Vegas.
"I remember telling my mom, `Mom, he could be the first Latino president,'" Torres said. "He's opening these doors for us, and putting us at the table, allowing our voices to be heard, allowing us to be a part of this American narrative in a way that has never been done before. And I really respect him for that."
But Torres is not ready to endorse yet.
"I have come to know quite a few of the candidates," she said. She helped moderate a town hall for California Sen. Kamala Harris. "I've had discussions with (New Jersey) Senator (Cory) Booker.
"I'm just trying to listen to as many candidates as possible, to get to know them," Torres said. " I also want to show them my community."
But Assemblyman Edgar Flores, chairman of the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus, is all in with Castro's campaign.
Policy is more important than ethnicity for Flores, but "we're fortunate with Julián Castro because he has the resumé, he understands the policy, he does the research, and then I think it's important, particularly because of the political climate, running against a president who has devoted so much energy and time to demonizing people of color, that the country would then turn around and put as his opponent an individual who comes from that community, who looks like the community that president has scapegoated."
David Damore, professor of political science at UNLV, said it makes sense for Castro to make a stand in Nevada, which has a larger Hispanic electorate than the other early states.
But caucuses put a premium on organizing and Castro spokesman Sawyer Hackett said, "we have a good handful of paid staff in each of the early states — most in Iowa and Nevada. We are smaller in size than most of the leading campaigns but you ask folks in any state and our presence is just as big — both in attendance at events, endorsers, outreach to community organizations and local parties."
Turning Texas blue?
"He may have missed his moment of opportunity after the Democratic National Convention speech," said Louis DeSipio, a professor of Chicano-Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine.
While Castro was one of 10 people vetted by Hillary Clinton's campaign as a potential running mate in 2016, it never seemed likely.
In his 2018 book, "An Unlikely Journey," Castro wrote that when Obama called him to offer him the housing secretary job, the president said, "`As much as we'd both like to see you as governor of your state, it's probably not ready yet.' I concurred. the state was still heavily Republican and had been for two decades."
Both he and his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonnio, have passed on running statewide in Texas, including this year's Senate race against Republican John Cornyn.
But Julián Castro believes that Trump has accelerated that timetable for Texas to turn purple or blue.
"Under Donald Trump, Texas is in danger for the Republicans," Castro said. "Trump has turned off so many Republicans in the suburbs of the big cities. And also, if I'm the nominee, I'm confident that Hispanic turnout will go through the roof, much higher than we've ever seen in the country's history. So much higher that it would help us win Texas, Arizona and Florida, and set a new trajectory for Democratic Party success in the years to come."
"We've never seen anything like what we would see in November of 2020 if I’m the nominee," Castro said.