Watching Washoe

Photo By DENNIS MYERS “ Personalized” Romney buttons—buttons with dozens of first names on them—were sold at the Nevada Republican Convention in Sparks last month, but in the convention hall, delegates were buying Ron Paul.

With fewer than a hundred days remaining before election, the chance that Nevada will decide the presidential race is growing more remote. As Barack Obama has opened up a firmer lead in Nevada, national political reporters and commentators have begun edging the state off the list of swing states.

A swing state is generally regarded as one with a five-point gap between the candidates, though some entities say it should be greater or smaller. With 13 weeks remaining before the election, independent opinion surveys of Nevada consistently show Obama leading by about 6 percent, which tracks closely with his national lead. He is particularly strong with Latinos, who are a key Nevada factor, accounting for about a fifth of the vote in the state.

In a Newsweek discussion of states that will determine the election, former Clinton aide Paul Begala excluded Nevada:

“But of course not everyone in those closely divided states will make an electoral difference. We can almost guarantee that 48 percent of each state’s voters will go for Obama, and another 48 percent will decide for Romney. And so the whole shootin’ match comes down to around 4 percent of the voters in six states. I did the math so you won’t have to. Four percent of the presidential vote in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado is 916,643 people. That’s it.”

Obama benefited when jobless figures showed Nevada with the biggest drop in unemployment. In addition, the state has dropped out of national first place in foreclosures for the first time since 2007. The Washington Post still lists Nevada as a swing state but also reports, “In the four swing states where the rate is above the national average—Florida, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina—the trend line is headed downward. Nevada’s June unemployment rate was an eye-popping 11.6 percent, but that was down from 13.8 percent in June 2011.”

For the same reason, Time magazine puts Nevada on the cusp of swing states: “But there are a few signs that Nevada now lies at the outer margin of toss-up states, leaning in Obama’s direction.” That piece ran under the headline, “Obama, Romney Stop Over in Nevada: Is It Still a True Toss-Up?”

Both inside and outside the state, reporters and politicians are paying particular attention to Washoe County as the only area of the state still up for grabs. It is widely assumed that Obama cannot lose in Clark County, where most voters live, and that Mitt Romney has a lock on the rural, small-population counties as a bloc.

“That leaves Washoe, where Republicans have a slight registration edge and once had a near lock on elections,” the Los Angeles Times reported on July 15, in an article by former Reno reporter Mitch Landsberg.

But there are nuances to Washoe County voting.

Shades of gray

The “once” Landsberg was describing was a period when Washoe voters were electing moderate Republicans like Sue Wagner and William Raggio while Clark County was electing conservative Democrats like Ray Shafer, Nick Horn and Jan Stewart.

Washoe is still voting that way, but as GOP candidates began moving further and further to the right, county Republicans began voting for more Democrats. It’s not a hard right county.

Romney faces organizational problems in Washoe. The Washoe Republican Party has just declared its independence from the state GOP by filing papers with the Federal Elections Commission to operate separately. Obama does not have the level of enthusiasm he had in 2008, but Romney has the same problem. Political analyst Fred Lokken said two weeks ago, “Washoe could go Democratic. … Romney has an enthusiasm problem in Nevada.” This week he said things have changed little: “Obama has an on-the-ground effort underway in Washoe County, which could compensate for the natural letdown for Democrats from the 2008 race. And Romney continues to have a number of negatives—perceived—that advantage Obama. I still think the Democrats have a good chance.”

In addition, Romney’s own organization—which helped him win the February caucuses—appears not to have been kept together well, which led to the setback he suffered at the state Republican convention, when the party was taken over by Ron Paul backers.

Romney also now faces navigating a more complicated argument on the poor economy. Challengers are normally aided by a bad economy, but with conditions improving in Nevada, Romney must not only make a case for his own economic program but now also give voters a reason to interrupt positive trends under Obama.

Religion could also play a role. About 12 percent of Washoe residents are Romney’s fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they will probably vote overwhelmingly for him, which gives him quite a leg up. But almost as many Washoe residents are evangelicals, who are uneasy with Mormonism, and most of the county’s voters are Catholic, who are a big question mark—at best, tepid about Mormonism, though they are less likely than evangelicals to determine their votes on that factor. While there is no likelihood of evangelicals voting for Obama, they could stay home. That would seriously hinder Romney, because those voters normally have a high rate of political passion and turnout.

Normally Republican candidates running statewide can count on a majority in Washoe County and devote themselves to cutting into the Democratic vote in Clark. If Romney has not yet secured Washoe County, it would be a serious problem this late in the campaign.

It is possible to win Nevada without wins in Washoe and some of the small counties. Both Harry Reid and Bill Clinton have done it. But it would be a political earthquake for a Republican to win the state without Washoe.

Obama won Washoe with 55 percent of the vote to John McCain’s 43 percent in 2008. No one expects that kind of margin this year, if Obama carries the county at all. In 2008, Nevada was economically crippled as a result of the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. Wall Street was melting down. The Bush bailouts of large financial institutions were being enacted. In that climate, Obama was able to run up big margins in places Democrats had not won in years. Democrats had frequently won in Washoe, but rarely in the presidential race. Before Obama did it, 44 years had passed without a Democratic victory in Washoe—and that was the noncompetitive year of 1964 when Lyndon Johnson overwhelmed Barry Goldwater.

Voter registration figures are not a good indice of voter preference, but the Republican Party is holding its own in these figures in Washoe at a time when Democrats are gaining statewide.

At the same time, while Obama has firmed up with a 6 percent lead, both the national party conventions and the presidential campaign debates, events that can transform the political landscape, still lie ahead. And presidential races normally tighten up toward the end of the campaign.

Romney is scheduled to be back in Washoe this week for a private fundraiser at the home of Patty Wade.

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Dennis Myers
About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.