Reading so many articles every day, I am fascinated how often Democrats or mainstream media talk about Nevada as if it is a lock for Obama barring some huge upset. No credible polling supports that thesis (PPP polls always over-represent Democrats) and plenty of polls reveal Romney is even leading. But no matter the evidence, media still write headlines like “Nevada isn’t a sure bet for Obama?” “Sure bet?” Is there a credible person out there arguing it IS a sure bet? Regardless, the LA Times wrote that headline in an in-depth look at the Silver State:
For decades, casinos were the golden key to prosperity, luring in tourists, cranking out jobs around the clock and flooding the state treasury with a perpetual stream of cash. Those days are over…The local economy is in shambles, done in by the double whammy of the national recession and the rise of Indian casinos in California. Unemployment is rampant. That presents a serious challenge to President Obama as he tries to repeat his 2008 victory in Nevada, a key swing state then and now.
Washoe County, which includes Reno and neighboring Sparks, is the swing region of Nevada, and as such will play an outsized role in the presidential campaign between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. To the south, Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County is a Democratic and labor union stronghold. The rural counties that make up most of the rest of the state are overwhelmingly Republican. That leaves Washoe, where Republicans have a slight registration edge and once had a near lock on elections. That is no longer the case, as Obama proved in 2008 by winning the county with 55% of the vote, matching his percentage statewide. Washoe County “kind of holds the balance of power now,” said Dave Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Basically, if a Republican loses Washoe County, they lose the state.” That isn’t as true of a Democrat, as Bill Clinton demonstrated when he lost Washoe twice while winning the state by thumping opponents in the southern part. But a Republican blowout in Washoe would spell doom for any Democrat in a statewide race.
There have been no independent polls to show how the region is trending, but it seems fair to say that the economy has created a tough environment for any incumbent. By multiple measures, Nevada has been the hardest-hit state in the nation, with an unemployment rate that peaked at 13.7% in 2010 and remained the nation’s highest at 11.6% in May. Nevada’s home foreclosure rate fell to No. 2 in the nation (behind Arizona) in March after 62 months in the top spot.
Permanent change in Reno
The Las Vegas area suffered the most, but Reno was not far behind. And economists and local officials say much of the damage to Reno-area tourism is probably permanent. Unlike Las Vegas, with its international reputation, Reno has always been more of a regional attraction, drawing tourists from Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. With the advent of large, full-service Indian casinos in Northern California, many of those tourists have no reason to visit anymore. Bill Eadington, an economics professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, said his studies showed that gambling revenues from tourists in Reno declined by two-thirds between 1990 and 2010.
Romney campaign staffers say they are confident that they can take advantage of voter malaise over the economy. They say Obama’s policies have stifled job creation in the region, especially in small business and mining. The Obama campaign insists that it is optimistic, despite the obvious challenges. One reason is Nevada’s demographics: The Latino population, which strongly favors Obama, has continued to grow since 2008, hitting 26.6% of the state’s residents in the 2010 census. And Nevada, especially in the Reno area, has a tradition of independent-minded Republican voters, many of whom are relatively liberal on social and environmental issues. “I call them Sierra Club Republicans,” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at UNR. “They’re driving a Volvo that says, ‘Keep Tahoe blue.'” Still, Herzik said, Romney is a pretty good fit for Nevada Republicans, emphasizing economic issues and soft-pedaling social conservatism. And Nevada has a large Latter-day Saints population and relatively few evangelical voters who will be suspicious of Romney’s Mormon faith.
Reading the tea leaves: Even Democrats sour on Obama
At Obama’s bustling campaign headquarters, volunteers are already staffing phone banks, trying to match what, by all accounts, was an awesome campaign organization in 2008, one that drew thousands of volunteers from California as well as Nevada. Still, they acknowledge that this year will be tougher. “This time, the Republican push-back is very strong,” said Melinda Fisher, 58, who said she got active in politics “after the Supreme Court let the corporations become people.” She says that even Democrats complain that the president hasn’t done enough to fix the economy. Another volunteer, Maria Velez, 68, said she has gotten an earful from economically strapped voters. “They’re losing their houses because of Obama; they’re losing their healthcare because of Obama,” she said, ticking off the complaints she hears. She tries to convince people that Obama isn’t at fault, but she worries about how it will play out in November. “We try our best,” she said, “but I think it’s going to be difficult. There’s going to be apathy.”
Matthew Saylor might be considered a double victim of the recession. He lost his job and started a small business — a pet ambulance service — that failed, but doesn’t blame anyone in particular. Saylor, 36, voted for Obama in 2008 and will vote for him again this year. As a gay man with an immigrant boyfriend, he is especially happy with Obama’s recent moves on gay rights and immigration. He also believes the president is stronger on the environment and healthcare. Still, he said, he admires Romney’s business acumen and could live with a Romney presidency. Based on what he hears from people he talks to in Reno, he’s beginning to think that could happen.