Democrats in Nevada try to figure out how to make hard times work for them

Nevada was never a good state for Kerry, but things may be different for Obama

On Monday, a voter cast an early vote during the lunch hour at the Washoe County Library while poll workers Diane Lewandowski, right, and Gloria Walker chatted. National political strategists are trying to get a handle on Nevada’s voters.

On Monday, a voter cast an early vote during the lunch hour at the Washoe County Library while poll workers Diane Lewandowski, right, and Gloria Walker chatted. National political strategists are trying to get a handle on Nevada’s voters.

Photo By Dennis Myers

To explore Nevada’s voter groups, go to

Shirley was at a Save Mart on Oddie Boulevard, scraping in the bottom of her purse. The bag of groceries cost $47, which was a little more than she had calculated. She finally found the change she needed and handed it over.That left her afoot. She had planned to jump on the bus at the Greenbrae stop behind Save Mart, but now was hoofing it. “Last year at this time, we were doing well,” she said.

In the intervening months, she and her husband and children lost their home to a foreclosure.

It’s a maxim of politics that hard times help the outs. People are now having money problems, and the Democrats have been out of the presidency for eight years and only regained the Congress last year. But while a direct line of cause and effect from peoples’ pain to Democratic gain this year may happen, that’s not the same thing as people like Shirley having faith that a change in political parties will do much for them.

“Interchangeable parts,” she called them.

The Washington Post this week released a survey showing voters expressing doubt that either Barack Obama or John McCain can achieve change in the economy.

In spite of a lot of swing state talk in 2004 by people bewitched by Clark County, Nevada was never up for grabs during the Bush/Kerry race. Bush led consistently statewide and never lost his lead. Kerry won a 4.85 percent victory in Clark County, where 71 percent of the state lived, but could not overcome Bush’s lead in the rest of the state. Washoe voted for Bush by 8.61 percent, but that would not have been enough to swing the state to him—Kerry would still have won by 50,000 votes. It was in the small counties, which cast 125,111 votes, that Kerry got killed—Bush won rural Nevada by a whopping 32.95 percent.

Bush’s margin of victory in the small counties was larger than Kerry’s entire vote there—32.43 percent.

In addition, key groups of voters who tend to vote Democratic did not turn out in large numbers, helping to account for why Kerry’s margin was not larger in Clark County.

But since 2004, it is believed that the state’s urban population has increased and that Latinos have increased their numbers. Moreover, areas of strength for Republicans are among those hurting the most. The University of Maryland’s Patchwork Nation project shows that one key group in the Republican coalition has paid a high price for its support of the GOP. Jurisdictions defined as “evangelical epicenters"—and 14 of Nevada’s counties qualify—have been hit especially hard by the economic downturn. The Project’s Dante Chinni writes, “The pocketbook issues of rising food and fuel prices on top of a bad mortgage market are poised to affect voting decisions. … Counties in the key battleground states of Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico are experiencing some of the steepest declines of the downturn, according to the July index—hurt by gasoline prices and foreclosures.”

Turnout among Democratic constituencies—notably African- Americans—may well rise sharply. Kerry won more than 90 percent of the black vote, but he did not inspire the kind of excitement that generates high turnout in those precincts.

A Patchwork Nation map of the nation shows nearly everything in the West as black or blood red—colors indicating financial downturn.

Nate Silver, a baseball statistician whose site has been attracting attention in places like Newsweek for his analyses of this year’s politics, says, “Obama’s popular vote share increases only fractionally [over Kerry] as a result of new Latino votes. However, these votes tend to be concentrated in electorally significant states. In particular, an increase in Latino turnout could all but assure an Obama victory in New Mexico, while also improving his chances in Colorado and Nevada.” Silver says his forecasting model tends to give Nevada to McCain, but he tends to give it to Obama.

Unquestionably, the most visible evidence of hard times in Nevada is foreclosure. The state kept its first-in-the-nation pace of foreclosures in the second quarter of 2008. RealtyTrac reported that one in every 43 Nevada household experienced a foreclosure filing between April and June.

How much help this will be to the Democrats is a matter of a lot of speculation in political circles. Some believe the foreclosure victims are unlikely to turn out at the polls. Others believe those victims are leaving the state in large numbers.

Nevada’s recent national prominence has not really given political experts a good feel for the state, and Obama and McCain managers have not settled on strategies or tactics tailored to Nevada. Silver wrote in the New Republic, “And Nevada presents a whole different set of circumstances, full of unionized workers and libertarians and Mormons and professional gamblers; and a whole host of local issues ranging from Yucca Mountain to one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates. Point being, it’s a difficult state to figure out to begin with, and especially so given its paucity of polling.”

One piece of good news for Republicans is that Nevada is one of the states—fifth in the nation—where gas prices have fallen most sharply, 11.5 cents in Nevada’s case. But the GOP is also handicapped by the fact that when hard times came, and people turned to government for help, government wasn’t there. Massive cuts in state government and the foibles of Gov. Jim Gibbons have saddled Republicans with a difficult public image. Political analyst Fred Lokken recently observed that the Nevada public probably expected Gibbons to “park his ideology at the door” in order to make sure the public was served. He said Nevadans for decades have become accustomed to governors willing to work with the other side, and they see ideological governing as obstruction.

“We’ve had very non-ideological governors, both Democratic and Republican, until Gov. Gibbons. …” Lokken said. “[W]e’ve seen in the interviews that the governor has given, and in his state of the state, where he’s kind of giving us almost kind of Reaganomics-kinds of speeches. And that was kind of the gist of that, that in the midst of this type of challenge, which has been described by [historian] Guy Rocha as the worst since the Great Depression for the state of Nevada, we need dialogue across the aisle, we need evidence of both parties working together, we need to find solutions that will in essence address the needs of the citizenry. And what we’ve had since the special session … is kind of the legislature at arms’ lengths, people not even seeing the 21-point proposal [Gov. Gibbons’ program] in preparation for the special session. I mean, there’s been a real communication disconnect there with the legislature.”

Where the GOP is strongest is also where evangelicals are being hurt the most by a bad economy—the small counties. But whether Democrats are in any position to exploit that unhappiness is far from certain. The issues that motivate voting in the small counties are ones common to small states in the Intermountain West like Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, and the Democrats’ positions on those issues have not helped the party in the small counties in the past. Nor are those stances easily changed.