No sale

Harry Reid’s national rural strategy isn’t working in his own home state

Democrat Dina Titus cultivated the small counties in her 2006 race for governor. She now believes it was a mistake.

Democrat Dina Titus cultivated the small counties in her 2006 race for governor. She now believes it was a mistake.


The 2004 election was over, and Democrats were demoralized, upset that voters had not embraced John Kerry’s candidacy and turned George Bush out of office.

Post mortems on toast were the meal of the day as analysts searched for reasons for Kerry’s loss. The instant analysis, which turned out to be unsupported by subsequent research ("Election was not about morals,” RN&R, Dec. 2, 2004) but nevertheless took on a life of its own, was that the Democrats had failed to speak to those for whom “moral values” were important. As a result, Democrats this year emphasized moral issues in their presidential campaigns.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada had his own theory which, because he soon became the Democratic floor leader of the Senate, got a lot of attention.

Reid on PBS’s News Hour: “If you look at what happened in the last elections, we lost three Senate seats, and we lost the presidency by a very close vote. And I give the reason for that is that we did so poorly in rural America. We did very poorly in rural America. That’s too bad. Nevada is an example. Ninety-one percent of the registered voters are in Reno and Las Vegas. Kerry carried that list—two counties, add them together, he did well enough to win the state. But 9 percent, rural Nevada, went heavily against John Kerry. And that’s the way it was all over the country.”

Reid to Salon: “I said that we lost the election because we did not campaign in rural America. Las Vegas—70 percent of the people live here in Las Vegas. Twenty percent live in Reno. Ten percent live in the 15 rural counties. So you would think that if John Kerry did well in the two counties, he’d win the election. He did, but he lost. Why? Because of the rural counties. You go to Douglas County, 94 percent turnout, he lost that two and a half to one. Lowest turnout in any of the 15 counties, 84 percent. He lost them all about the same as in Douglas County. So he lost the election in Nevada by 2 percent. They talk about the turnout not being [good], the long lines in Cleveland or wherever it was. There was simply nothing in rural Ohio. It was the same in Ohio as everywhere.”

Reid to USA Today: “Rural Nevada beat John Kerry. I believe where the Kerry presidential bid failed was in not selling itself to rural America.”

In practice
In 2006, a couple of Nevada candidates took Reid’s theory out for a ride. In 2008, a presidential candidate did the same, in Reid’s own state. The results have not been promising.

In the governor’s race two years ago, Democratic nominee Dina Titus spent a lot of time in the small counties. She addressed rural issues. She allocated resources and staffers. The result?

“If I had it to do over again, I would attend the obligatory events in rural Nevada, like the parades and the cowboy poetry event, and spend the rest of my time in the urban areas,” Titus said in a RN&R interview during the 2007 legislature.

From 16.78 percent in Eureka County to 37.54 percent in Nye County, Titus failed to attract substantial support. Even in Carson City, classified by the federal government as an urban area but on the cusp of rural Nevada, she reached only 38.46 percent, her high point in the small counties. And some of her higher showings in the small counties are probably attributable to their growing urban population. Nye County, for instance, has the bedroom community of Pahrump where voters live while working in Clark County. Lyon County, where she got 28.59 percent, has the bedroom community of Fernley


Photo by David Robert

This year, Barack Obama put special effort into the small counties, actually establishing campaign offices in Elko, Pahrump, and Winnemucca (plus Incline Village, a less urban area of Washoe County). He released a “Plan for Rural Nevada” in November and spent face time there.

This is not strictly analogous to Reid’s thesis, since he was talking about general elections and not primary caucuses, but many of the same dynamics were in play, such as rural-versus-urban issues. Obama issued a position paper on the Mining Law of 1872 that made it sound like he was on the side of the small counties without actually saying so.

Obama did well, carrying most of the small counties (in the urban areas he won Washoe while Clinton won Clark). He actually got majorities in four counties (Elko, Esmeralda, Humboldt, and Storey), winning with pluralities in five others (Churchill, Douglas, Eureka, Pershing and White Pine).

But while he was piling up victories in the distant small counties, he was losing the overlapping bedroom counties with their urban tinge and larger populations. Hillary Clinton took all of those counties—Nye, Lyon, and Lincoln—away from him. Nye, which he lost, had 10 times as many delegates as Esmeralda, which he won. This suggests that by aligning himself with interests like the mining industry, he was alienating urban voters with strong environmental feelings. News coverage of his rural stances did not stop at the edge of counties, as in the case of the Reno Gazette-Journal’s November story: “Obama: New mining bill too tough on companies.”

The trade-off
Can a candidate successfully make a rural/urban trade-off on issues? Reid talks about the need for Democrats to “campaign in rural America,” but a mere physical presence isn’t enough. There are issues to be addressed. Is it possible to cultivate rural voters without disaffecting urban voters?

“It’s difficult, I think,” says James Richardson, a former Washoe County Democratic chair and public opinion pollster. “Because, you know, [in] the urban areas you’re going to find a lot more people that call themselves environmentalists or have those kind of sympathies. They accept, whether it’s true or not, that the miners will just rape the state, and they don’t want to pay any clean up, and they’re taking resources out of the state without paying adequate taxes and all that sort of thing.”

Richardson says it’s “too small a world” now for a candidate to be able to say something in the small counties and not expect it to get back to the cities.

Obama was able to cultivate the rural areas in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses with little danger to his urban appeal because Iowa doesn’t have many urban areas. Nevada, by contrast, is the nation’s fifth most urban state—nearly everyone lives in Clark and Washoe counties.

Richardson says he has heard that the rural effort on the part of the Obama campaign was a deliberate attempt to work the delegate selection aspect of the caucuses that may give unearned extra weight to the small counties in the selection of national convention delegates. If so, it was a miscalculation based on a myth, because the caucuses are not binding on national delegate selection.

The principal courtroom exhibit the Democrats have for cultivating the small counties is not particularly helpful. Democratic northern U.S. House candidate Jill Talbot Derby ran in 2006. The district in which she ran includes Washoe, all the small counties, and a portion of Clark. She seemed made to order for Reid’s thesis. She is a resident of Douglas County, she made much of her family’s roots in the state (Derby Dam is named for her husband’s family) and she ran as a conservative Democrat.

But Derby’s 5.41 percent loss was surprisingly broad based—she lost 15 of 17 counties. Her only win in the small counties was in Mineral County, 935 to 930. She lost even in Clark County.

The Democrats—including Obama’s campaign—would probably find Washoe County a more profitable lode to mine than the small counties. Washoe has a long history of electing moderate to liberal Republicans like Sue Wagner, and there is more overlap on issues between Washoe and Clark than between Washoe and the small counties. It is significant that Derby carried only two counties and one of them was Washoe—59,255 to 54,756. Getting more out of Washoe would win Nevada for the Democrats. (Washoe County accounts for 54.3 percent of the U.S. House district in which Derby ran in 2006 and where she is making another run this year. Together with Clark County’s 7.5 percent, the urban areas make up 61.8 percent of the district, leaving 38. 2 in the rural areas.)

Reid says Democrats can still crack the rural areas by going after issues that transcend regions.

“I think what people in rural America, rural Nevada are interested in is health care—what can be done to make sure that there’s a health care delivery system in rural Nevada? Right now, it’s very splintered.”

He said rural areas also suffer from a “digital divide.”

“For example, in Searchlight—oh, I get so frustrated. It takes me so much longer for my computer to work than it does my home computer in Washington.”

Reid’s own election history is not a terrific argument for his small-counties thesis. He has a long history of winning the state from the urban counties. Even in his last reelection in 2004, when his Republican opponent was a religious fringe figure without much GOP organization support, Reid lost most of the rural counties, winning just five.