Economics and demographics collide in the presidential contest in Nevada, a swing state that has chosen the winner in the last eight elections beginning in 1980.
The fastest-growing U.S. state over the past decade, Nevada now leads the nation in unemployment and underwater mortgages. That may help Republican Mitt Romney, whose campaign has focused on the slow economic recovery under President Barack Obama. Nevada has six electoral votes and a population of 2.7 million.
It has had the largest demographic shift in a swing state since 2008, led by Latinos. That may work in Obama’s favor. In the last election, Hispanics cast 15 percent of the state’s votes, three-quarters of them for Obama, according to exit-poll data. Now, there are even more Latino voters, according to William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
“Our state is where two of the big narratives of the campaign come into tension,” said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The economic context provides an opportunity for the Republicans, but they are working against demographic trends.”
Frey said the portion of eligible voters who are minorities has gone up 9 percentage points in Nevada since 2008. Still, Obama will have to motivate Latinos and other minorities to vote at the same rate or higher than in the last presidential election if they are to counter what is expected to be a surge in enthusiasm among white Republicans, he said. For those voters, economic concerns are paramount, particularly in Nevada.
Skeletal remains of halted construction projects litter the Las Vegas Strip, and unemployment -- 12 percent in July -- far exceeds the current national rate of 8.3 percent. Obama must convince a recession-weary populace that things are on the right track, says Robert Uithoven, a Reno-based Republican strategist.
“If people believe that, they’ll vote for the president and give him a second term,” said Uithoven, whose lobbying clients include Romney backer Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands Corp. “If Romney can make the case that he is a job creator and the status quo isn’t working, he’ll win.”
In visits to the state, Obama has touted his efforts to keep student-loan costs down and make refinancing easier for underwater homeowners. He also jabbed Romney for telling the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year that he would let the housing crisis “run its course and hit the bottom.”
“The successful candidate here will give people in Nevada some hope that things are going to get better,” said Dan Hart, a Democratic consultant in Las Vegas.
Obama carried Nevada in 2008 with 55 percent, making the state one of nine that switched from the Republican column in 2004. In 2010, the state re-elected Democratic Leader Harry Reid to the U.S. Senate while choosing the Republican Brian Sandoval as governor over Reid’s son, Rory.
Democrats have a registration advantage in Nevada. Republicans turn out to vote more reliably, including a small, cohesive segment of Mormon voters expected to support fellow church member Romney, said Damore, the UNLV professor.
The Republican National Committee has begun establishing its own “Team Nevada” offices to unify Republican efforts. In May, supporters of Texas Representative Ron Paul’s presidential campaign took control of the state Republican Party and the organization in Clark County, around Las Vegas.
Among Team Nevada’s challenges is courting Hispanics. While Latinos aren’t as enthusiastic about Obama as they were four year ago, they are turned off by Romney’s stance on immigration, Damore says.
“His message has been on the economy and that the economic problems have hit the Latino community hard,” Damore said.