Native push for Bernie Sanders fails to translate into more votes

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye greets Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on March 17, 2016, as Jane Sanders looks on. Photo from Office of the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation

A high-profile campaign stop on the Navajo Nation did not help Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders overcome strong support for front-runner Hillary Clinton in Arizona this week.

Sanders attracted a lot of attention for hosting a town hall at the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort in Flagstaff on March 17. The visit certainly paid off in Coconino County, where the Senator from Vermont won 54.7 percent of the vote, according to the unofficial results. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows Native Americans represent 27.3 percent of the county population.

But Coconino was the only county that Sanders won and the victory wasn't enough to overcome Clinton's margins in other parts of the state. In fact, counties with even greater Native populations turned out to support former Secretary of State and the former Senator from New York.

Clinton won Apache County, for example, with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Native Americans make up 73.5 percent of the population there, the largest proportion in the state.


Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses supporters on the Navajo Nation on March 17, 2016. Courtesy photo

A similar picture emerged in neighboring Navajo County, where Native Americans are 44.9 percent of the population. Clinton won 62 percent of the vote there.

Clinton also managed wins in the three remaining counties where Native representation is in the double digits -- La Paz, Gila and Graham. The returns from Gila County and Graham County are particularly notable because they encompass the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

Jane Sanders, the wife of the candidate, met with the Apache Stronghold, the San Carlos Apache-led group that is fighting to protect Oak Flat from a copper mine, on March 13. It was another attention-grabbing visit for her husband's campaign.

Yet Clinton still won Gila with 62.7 percent of the vote and Graham with 51.7 percent of the vote. Gila also encompasses parts of the Fort Apache Reservation, home to the White Mountain Apache Tribe.


Jane Sanders, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, speaks with Wendsler Nosie Sr., a council member for the San Carlos Apache Tribe, at Oak Flat in Arizona on March 14, 2016. "What an honor to be invited to Oak Flat yesterday, the sacred land of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Thank you!" she wrote on Twitter. Photo from Jane O'Meara Sanders

Despite the losses for Sanders, his visit attracted mainstream media coverage to issues facing Indian Country. The town hall was widely covered by outlets in the state and by national outlets like Cronkite News and the Associated Press.

“We need a candidate that will work with us on a nation-to-nation basis because we are sovereign nations. We need a candidate that will honor the treaties and uphold the treaty obligations that the federal government has to Indian nations,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said before Sanders spoke at the town hall.

Begaye has not endorsed a candidate but Vice President Jonathan Nez, on the other hand, is officially supporting Clinton. He said he was one of the first Indian leaders to join the Hillary for America Arizona Leadership Council.

“I was one that endorsed her early on,” Nez said.


Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton met with tribal leaders in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 21, 2016. Photo from Native Americans for Hillary / Facebook

Clinton did meet with tribal leaders prior to Arizona's presidential preference vote. But her campaign did not publicize the March 21 gathering, which took place in Phoenix and not in Indian Country.

Clinton finally made her first foray to Indian Country on Tuesday with a visit to the Puyallup Reservation in Washington. Leaders of the tribe and from others in state attended the event, during which she was given a name that means “strong woman” in the Lushootseed language.

Throughout their campaigns, both Sanders and Clinton have been reaching out to Native voters. But Sanders was the first to visit Indian Country -- he spoke to the Meskwaki Tribe last November -- and he has met with tribal and Indian leaders in more states than Clinton, based on a review of media reports and on social media postings by those in attendance.

Sanders and Clinton also have developed Indian platforms and have hired Native staff and Native advisors. Many of their ideas are similar in that they promise to continue the gains made during the Obama administration. For example, both pledge to continue the White House Tribal Nations Conference and to strengthen tribal consultation.


Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton visited the Puyallup Reservation in Washington on March 22, 2016. Photo from Hillary for Washington / Facebook

Sanders, though, has typically offered more specifics than his rival. He's promising to ensure that all federal agencies maintain a high-level Indian affairs position, open all federal grant programs to tribes and establish a tribal position at the White House Office of Management and Budget, ideas that are likely to gain resonance as the 2016 campaign continues.

The next Democratic contests take place on Saturday in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. Native Americans represent only 1.9 percent of the population in Washington, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but tribes and their citizens are active in engaging the Native vote.

In Alaska, Native Americans are 14.8 percent of the vote, according to the Census, and their support for a particular candidate can make or break an election.

Hawaii counts a large Native Hawaiian population.

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