Tom Steyer, the hedge-fund billionaire turned self-funded presidential candidate who’s poured nearly $200 million into campaign advertising, adopted a more hands-on approach for the start of early voting in the Nevada caucus on Saturday. Outside of the Culinary Union headquarters in Las Vegas, an early voting site, mariachis in white and gold costumes played while a food truck called Las Delicias de Mexico handed out tacos and the Cookie Bar, a bright pink truck, served cookies and hot chocolate. All of the food was free, paid for by the Steyer campaign.
Nevada is the third state to vote in the 2020 Democratic primary, the “first in the West” caucus, and in a state with significantly more demographic diversity than Iowa or New Hampshire. As a part of the rule changes mandated by the national Democratic party to increase primary access, for the first time Nevada’s caucus includes early voting. Early voting sites in Las Vegas include not just high schools and libraries but a location of the Latino grocery store Cardenas Market and Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant, as well as union halls, like Culinary Union Local 226’s.
The 60,000-member strong Culinary Union is one of the most powerful forces in Nevada politics, known to make or break elections in the state. It’s a majority Latino organization but represents immigrant workers from more than 170 countries. Two members, Raul Mora and Daniel Paymo, who had decided to support Steyer just before casting their votes, emerged from the caucus site surprised and delighted to see him. They got tacos and a picture with the candidate. Asked whether free food felt manipulative, Mora shrugged and said, “A taco’s a taco.”
While election-day giveaways have proliferated over the past few years, it’s been illegal since 1948 to give out food in exchange for votes whenever a federal candidate is on the ballot. No signs indicated the trucks were affiliated with the Steyer campaign or that they were giving away free food, but soon after the trucks opened, the billionaire arrived and greeted voters, snapping photos with supporters and ordering a few tacos. Steyer, who is running on a platform that emphasizes fighting climate change and calling for structural political reforms, said he brought in the food trucks to make early voting “more fun,” and praised food’s ability to bring people together. “There’s a big question here about how are we going to return a sense of compassion and civility to America, and food’s definitely going to part of it,” he said.
Felipe Reyes, the owner of Las Delicias de Mexico, isn’t sure how the campaign found his truck. He says he serves tacos in the style of his home town, Mexico City, and that his specialty is a shrimp taco. He declined to share how much the campaign had paid for him to give out food, but he noted that he wasn’t required to say the food came from Steyer.
Caleb Marks, one of the Cookie Bar truck owners, said the Steyer campaign had hired several of their trucks to park at multiple early voting sites that day, including at Cheyenne High School and the East Vegas Library. He said they were hired to give out free cookies and water to “whoever wanted it” for two hours; he also declined to say how much the campaign paid. The trucks had also served food at Obama events, which Marks speculated was maybe how Steyer campaign found them.
Asked about compliance with federal guidelines on free food for voters, the Steyer campaign supplied a statement: “Providing refreshments at caucus locations is a data-driven method that increases turnout across the board and adds enjoyment to all Nevadans who decide to participate. The Nevada Democratic Party issued detailed guidance to all presidential campaigns on early voting locations and we are in compliance with their guidance. The food provided by our campaign was free to all, regardless of political affiliation or intention to caucus.”
For the past few decades, presidential candidates have communicated through food primarily by stuffing their faces for the cameras, ideally at local and beloved restaurants. The 2020 primary’s two billionaire candidates are using their deep pockets to feed voters directly.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.
Isaac Brekken is a photographer based in Las Vegas.