Know Your Battleground States 2/9: Nevada

Some American states are little known and less understood outside the country (think Nebraska). Some are iconic. Nevada is sort of iconic. The state’s reputation is largely driven by that bizarre shrine to gambling, money and decadence in the desert, Las Vegas.

So are its elections. Just over two thirds of votes cast in the last presidential election were cast in Clark County, which covers Las Vegas and its satellite towns, such as gritty North Las Vegas, famously if unfairly immortalised by Hunter S Thompson as a “mean/scag ghetto”, and Henderson, a sprawl of generally more upmarket homes and the unlikely location of a rocket fuel factory.

The Reno Arch over Virginia Street.

Most of the rest of the state’s voters (19% in 2008) live in Washoe County, dominated by Reno up in the north west, with another 7% in the rest of the north west, around Carson City and Lake Tahoe.

The east and centre of Nevada contain a lot of empty desert. Most of the state outside Las Vegas sits in the Great Basin, a region not drained by any major river and shielded from oceanic climate influences by high mountains on all sides. Most of Nevada gets only around 7 inches of rain per year.

The desert near Las Vegas

This desert climate has driven the most rapid population growth in the United States over the past five decades. In 1960, Nevada’s population was around 285,000. By 2010, it was 2.7 million. Even during the 2000s, when the state struggled economically, population growth was well over 50%. Many ‘snowbirders’ from the East Coast or industrial Midwest retire here, seeking a dry and sunny climate instead of months of snow. But California has been the biggest source immigrants to the state, whether retirees, or working-class working-age people fleeing the high property prices of Greater LA and the Bay Area, leading to accusations the state is being Californicated.

How many of them find the happiness they seek in the desert is another matter. A 2008 study that found Las Vegas residents are 40% less likely to commit suicide if they leave the city and visitors are more than twice as likely to commit suicide there as elsewhere.

The Las Vegas Strip

Along with well-off retirees come the people who look after them in care homes, tend their immaculately manicured lawns or man the checkouts at WalMart when they shop. In Nevada, most of these people are either immigrants from Latin America or their descendents. Hispanics now make up 27% of Nevada’s population (although a lower share of its electorate) and in common with most of the far west, the state also has a high population of Asian Americans. The non-Hispanic white proportion of the population has shrunk from 88% in 1970 to just 54% today. Las Vegas and Reno are both majority-minority cities in terms of population, although not yet in terms of electorate.

Elections in Nevada are, at least in terms of spacial analysis, relatively simple affairs. As with a number of other American states, Democrats try and run up as large a margin as possible in the main metropolitan area and hope it is large enough to overcome the Republican advantage in the provinces. In 2008, Obama polled well enough across the state that he did not need to sweat. He ran up a margin of 122,000 in Clark County, and almost ran McCain even in the rest of the state, losing by only 3,000 votes upstate, carrying populous Washoe County comfortably, and even sneaking a win in Carson City.

The open road in rural Nevada.

2004 was an example of how Republicans win in Nevada, with Kerry carrying Clark by only 26,000 votes, losing every other country in the state and being steamrollered by Bush by a margin of 115,000 upstate.

This year, expect Obama to win Clark comfortably again, but the question will be by how much he wins it. Turnout, particularly in the large and expanding African American communities of North Vegas and areas like The Meadows in the city itself will be key. Washoe County, in other words Reno, is the one true swing county in the Silver State and the focus of much of both campaigns’ efforts, with turnout among a burgeoning African American community again being critical. In the rest of the state, Romney will run up the numbers, and can expect truly epic results in the thinly populated north east, dominated as it is by the two Ms of mining and Mormonism.

Nevada’s economy has been brutal since the economic downturn really hit. The Silver State, which doesn’t exactly have the most extensive social safety net, has the highest unemployment rate in the Union. Much of BBC Panorma’s 2012 documentary, Poor America, was filmed in the state. Nevada is hurting.

Open cast copper mine near Ely.

Yet Obama is holding on here better than in many other swing states, with a solid 2.4% lead in the RealClearPolitics.com polling average, and the last poll showing Romney with a lead in the state was taken in April. Senator Harry Reid’s union-driven get-out-the-vote machine, which showed its worth in the 2010 Senate race when Reid defied the polls to see off Tea Party challenger Sharron Angle, will also be deployed in Obama’s favour. Nevada’s entertainment industry remains heavily unionised, and unionised workers on the Las Vegas Strip were key to delivering Hillary Clinton’s caucus win here in the 2008 campaign.

Indeed, this is a difficult state to poll full stop, with many people working unsocial hours and rarely at home. In recent years Democrats seem to consistently outperform the polls in Nevada. For example, at this stage in 2008, RealClearPolitics.com showed Obama with a 3.5% lead in the polls, when he finished with a blowout 12.5% win. Obama has also outspent Romney heavily in TV advertising and, especially in recent months as the Silver State moved ever deeper into the Blue territory, the Republican Super PACs have stoppthe gaps.

Nevada is famous for gambling. It would take a brave punter to bet against Obama here this year.

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  • Greenflag

    ‘Nevada is famous for gambling. ‘

    Which is why Las Vegas should be renamed ‘Lost Wages’
    Nobody ever headlines the billions that are ‘lost’ by the visitor /suckers and the one armed slot addicts .
    I’ve been to Vegas at a convention a decade or more ago . The glitz and neon is spectacular and worth seeing but I preferred the surrounding countryside especially Red Rock Canyon and the rock formations .

    Truly there is no more depressing sight of the human condition than to see an obviously poor gobshite put in coin after coin into these slots and pull the arm in the vain hope of beating the odds which are so stacked in favour of the gambling moguls that it’s not even funny .

    For every ‘lucky ‘ visitor there are 999,000 unlucky ones .

    What will be interesting in Nevada in the election will be the turnout which should be a lot lower than last time . The property bubble bust was the worst in the USA and the number of people in ‘underwater ‘ mortgages as a percentage of the electorate must be the highest .Will these people even be bothered to see a difference between Rmoney and Obama ?

    Given the demographics it should be safe 6 electoral votes for Obama but with Romney doing better than McCain last time out . I’d guess a 6 point win for the Dems .

  • Ulidian

    Gambling moguls? Like dear old Sheldon? What a lovely thought – you basically get to bankroll Bibi!

  • pauluk

    The Las Vegas Review-Journal, has endorsed Romney for president.

    But that’s only half the story. They also lampooned Obama, saying he was a “narcissistic amateur,” “an embarrassment,” “incompetent”.

    Here’s the ‘Benghazi’ part of their editorial:

    The official explanation for why Obama administration officials watched the attack unfold for seven hours, refusing repeated requests to send the air support and relief forces that sat less than two hours away in Italy? Silence.

    An open discussion of these issues, of course, would lead to difficult questions about the wisdom of underwriting and celebrating the so-called Arab Spring revolts in the first place. While the removal of tyrants can be laudable, the results show a disturbing pattern of merely installing new tyrannies – theocracies of medieval mullahs who immediately start savaging the rights of women (including the basic right to education) and who are openly hostile to American interests.

    When Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney promptly criticized the security failures in Benghazi, the White House and its lapdog media jumped all over him for another “gaffe,” for speaking out too promptly and too strongly. Prompt and strong action from the White House on Sept. 11 might have saved American lives, as well as America’s reputation as a nation not to be messed with. Weakness and dithering and flying to Las Vegas the next day for celebrity fund-raising parties are somehow better?

    When a major Las Vegas newspaper rips someone for coming to Vegas rather than doing their job, that’s pretty serious stuff. Their conclusion?

    These behaviors go far beyond “spin.” They amount to a pack of lies. To return to office a narcissistic amateur who seeks to ride this nation’s economy and international esteem to oblivion, like Slim Pickens riding the nuclear bomb to its target at the end of the movie “Dr. Strangelove,” would be disastrous.

    With Nevada in play, this attack on Obama by one of the state’s most important newspapers is very bad news for Obama, especially this close to Election Day.

  • The Democratic early vote advantage in Clark County has topped out at just over 70k. It was 80k last time. Romney has closed the gap, but not by nearly enough. Colour Nevada blue – the fact that neither Obama nor Romney is going there this week shows the campaigns are thinking the same way.

  • Comrade Stalin

    That would be the LVRJ which has an extremely bad rap in the area at the moment owing to its involvement in the RightHaven scandal.