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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.