Strategic voting

Some Democrats who support Dina Titus, right, for governor are talking about voting for her opponent Jim Gibson, left, in order to defeat Republican Jim Gibbons in November.

Some Democrats who support Dina Titus, right, for governor are talking about voting for her opponent Jim Gibson, left, in order to defeat Republican Jim Gibbons in November.

Photo By Susan Mantle

The silver-haired man was sitting in a booth last month at the Silver Peak restaurant. He’s a Reno attorney who is a product of the antiwar 1960s and would normally be considered a likely vote for Dina Titus in the Democratic primary for governor.

“I’ll tell you,” he said, “I’m thinking of voting for Gibson. He’s more conservative. I like her, but I’m not sure she can beat Gibbons.”

And beating Republican James Gibbons, he said, is everything.

A lot of people have been saying similar things. “When I vote on Aug. 15,” wrote Las Vegas columnist Erin Neff last week, “I’m pushing the button for Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson for a purely political reason [that] I want a Democrat to run the state. … I have covered and known state Sen. Dina Titus for years and admire her political will, her straight answers and her leadership in Carson City. She is at once sassy and classy but, in my estimation, cannot win the general election. She is Nevada’s Hillary Clinton—and no, she cannot play well enough in the rurals and in Washoe to beat the Republican nominee.”

Whether that’s true or not (Harry Reid was first elected to the U.S. Senate after losing Washoe and the small counties), it’s a sentiment that’s in play. It has been fed in part by opinion surveys. The closest Titus has been able to get to Gibbons in trial heats is five points behind him, and the gap has often been much wider than that—in April, a Mason Dixon poll showed her running 17 points behind Gibbons.

The view that Gibson would be better positioned to compete with Gibbons stems from his relatively conservative image, which positions him to cut into the GOP vote. Gibson might attract tacit if not public support from Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn, who admires Gibson and dislikes Gibbons and has supported Democrats for governor in the past. As a mayor, Gibson hasn’t had to take on the kind of polarizing issues that Titus dealt with in the Nevada Senate, so he does not have the kind of political baggage she does.

If Titus has been hurt by survey results, those surveys have not done a lot to confirm the theory that Gibson could cut into GOP votes while holding onto Democrats. In the same survey that showed Titus 17 points behind Gibson, a Gibbons/Gibson matchup showed no gain for Gibson. In fact, he lost three points compared to Titus. Gibbons lost a substantial amount—6 percentage points. However, it moved not to Gibson but into the undecided column, suggesting that some voters are open to Gibson but that he has not closed the deal.

Titus got a boost last week when a Peter Hart survey showed that she had jumped out to a 13 point lead over Gibson after he had been running some sharp attack ads against her, and she responded in kind. (The survey did not show trial heats between the Democratic and Republican candidates.) There was a similar finding in a Zogby survey. At the same time, Gibbons’ supposed invincibility took a beating as his lead over his own primary opponent, Bob Beers, dropped to eight points. With Gibbons suddenly looking weaker and Titus looking stronger, she was better positioned to fend off the tactic of voting for Gibson to stop Gibbons.

Two weeks after he said he was thinking of voting for Gibson, the Reno lawyer (who did not want his name used) may be taking another look at Titus. “Since I told you that, I wonder if she has something up her sleeve for Gibbons.” He said she has shown a deftness in political battle that he had not expected: “She’s run a very smart campaign, appealed to the Democratic base, and she’s strong with women.”