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Dinner party for four: Is Nevada a political game-changer or a primary wannabe?

As Democratic presidential hopefuls prepare for a group dinner in Nevada, a state whose early primary elections and growing Latino population could make it an important early battleground.

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    Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., center, accompanied by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015.
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All three Democratic presidential hopefuls are set to join Senate minority leader Harry Reid at a party dinner in Nevada on Jan. 6, six weeks before the state’s presidential caucus.

The West Caucus Countdown Dinner will be the second time former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are featured together at an event in Nevada, following the Democratic debate on Oct. 13.  

All three Democratic candidates, and several Republican candidates, have already focused on the western state individually and this dinner suggests Nevada’s growing importance in the 2016 presidential election. 

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“You’re part of the big four in February. It’s hugely important,” GOP candidate Jeb Bush told reporters in Reno Wednesday after a campaign rally. 

So why are presidential candidates from both parties courting Nevada’s favor? Political pundits need to look no further than its new early-voting status and growing Hispanic population.

“Nevada is a more complicated state than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, with an expanding active Latino population, as well as a growing melting pot of other cultures,” argues Elaine Hurd, the author of the "Let’s Talk Nevada" blog.

According to the 2014 US Census, 27.8 percent of Nevada’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, well above the 17.4 percent national average.

And while the Hispanic population of nearly 8000,000 is far less than the state's non-Hispanic population of 2 million, it's no secret that this demographic could be a massive opportunity for either party. Between 2000 and 2012, the Hispanic population grew by almost 49 percent, and the Pew Hispanic Center projects another 40 percent growth in the Hispanic electorate before 2030.

And as of 2008, Nevada is the third state after Iowa and New Hampshire to vote in a presidential primary. The past two election cycles have been somewhat of an experiment, with candidates describing the process as "confusing" and "complicated."

But even with a building focus, presidential candidates have yet to put Nevada on the same playing field as Iowa, New Hampshire, or even South Carolina.

“Candidates insist Nevada is important, though the numbers suggest otherwise,” argued McClatchy DC’s David Lightman in October.

Sen. Sanders, for example, has 60 paid staffers in Iowa, 40 in New Hampshire and only seven in Nevada. And according to the National Journal’s Travel Tracker, GOP candidates Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump have visited South Carolina a combined total of 48 times since May, compared to 18 total trips to Nevada during the same time period.

Jeb Bush symbolized the simultaneous political apathy for Nevada during his speech in Reno Wednesday, when he pronounced "Nevada" incorrectly and was quickly corrected by a shouting audience.  

But even though Nevada asserts its own importance in many ways, some experts say political candidates should be more focused on the Silver State. 

Nevada has carried the overall winning candidate in every presidential election since 1980, electing Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama to their two terms as president. David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says Nevada hasn’t become a swing state – “it’s the original swing state.”

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