LAS VEGAS — After high-octane campaigns in the first four states with primaries and caucuses this year, the Republican contest this week in Nevada has been a snoozer. That’s not likely to be the case come November.
Nevada is one of nine states that switched from Republican to Democrat in 2008, making it a prime battleground in the coming election. After a series of close presidential elections here, President Obama won the state with surprising ease, by a margin of 12 percentage points.
The victory highlighted factors that were seen elsewhere: Obama’s appeal in the West, the significance of the Latino vote and the extraordinary organizing efforts put forth by the president’s campaign team. All those elements will come into play again, with Latinos poised to play a decisive role in November.
The 2012 campaign will play out against a backdrop that is dramatically different from 2008. Nevada now has the nation’s highest unemployment rate — 12.6 percent in December — and holds another dubious honor of leading the nation in housing foreclosures. According to estimates, about 200,000 homes in the Las Vegas area are in foreclosure or could be soon. From a peak in 2006, housing prices in this area have dropped almost 60 percent. A sizable majority of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages.
As in other parts of the country, there are some signs of recovery, but the damage done here could take years to unravel. The casinos along the Las Vegas Strip were alive with Super Bowl revelers this weekend, but behind the glitter is widespread economic distress.
A Democratic strategist who recently conducted a focus group here recalled the story of one of the participants. The man was in the housing construction business. In a normal year, before the housing boom collapsed, his firm had income of about $5 million. He told the group that in 2009, the firm had no jobs; in 2010, their work totaled $30,000.
The economic pain has taken a toll on the president’s standing in the state. According to the Gallup organization, Obama’s approval rating at the end of last year was 41 percent, six points lower than a year earlier. That is among the 10 worst drop-offs for the president among the 50 states. His approval rating was lower in Nevada than in Virginia and North Carolina — two other states that flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2008 and that Republicans are eyeing to win back next fall.
At the time of the 2008 election, Democrats enjoyed a registration advantage over Republicans of about 100,000 people, thanks to organizing that took place by Obama’s and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaigns before the Democratic caucuses early that year and then by a continued — and concerted — effort by Obama’s team in the summer and fall. Today, however, that registration advantage has been cut in half.
If Republicans can make the election mostly a referendum on the president’s record, Nevada will be tough sledding for Obama. Friday’s national economic report highlighted the double-edged sword for the president as he campaigns for reelection. The number of jobs created and the drop in the unemployment rate could boost public confidence — especially if the trend continues.
Obama’s approval rating has shown some improvement nationally but isn’t in a zone that would make him feel comfortable about his reelection. If the pace of the recovery slows, or if unemployment ticks back up, then frustrations over his policies probably will intensify.
In 2010, Democrats showed that they could win here against the odds. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid was deeply unpopular and the economy was in terrible shape. He won in spite of the conditions, in large part because Republicans nominated tea party favorite Sharron Angle, who proved not ready for prime time.
But the path to victory for Republicans looks no clearer. If former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney becomes the GOP nominee, he will have some assets here but potentially bigger liabilities.
The biggest asset will be the state of the economy. Romney’s Mormon faith also will be an obvious strength in Nevada, where members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up a sizable minority of the population. His business background might or might not be an asset. His difficulty connecting with people along with his verbal miscues are obvious liabilities — unless he suddenly becomes a better candidate on the stump and in unscripted settings.
The Latino vote proved decisive here in 2010. If that’s the case again, Romney has considerable work to do. His hard-line stance on immigration, which he enunciated to take down Texas Gov. Rick Perry in debates in the fall, remains a potentially big obstacle in his effort to attract Hispanic votes. His comments about letting the housing market hit bottom, which he made here in the fall, creates another potential problem with the Latino community.
The Latino population grew by almost 90 percent from 2000 to 2010 and now accounts for more than a fifth of the adult population in Nevada. Four years ago, Latinos made up 15 percent of the electorate. That could be higher in November.
The 2008 Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, won just 22 percent of the Latino vote here. In 2010, Nevadans elected a Latino Republican, Brian Sandoval, as their governor. GOP officials think Sandoval will help their presidential nominee appeal to Hispanic voters in November.
But Sandoval won only about a third of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls. More striking is the fact that he did only marginally better among Hispanic voters than Angle did against Reid in the Senate race.
Sig Rogich, a longtime GOP strategist in Nevada who served as a White House adviser to President George W. Bush and a campaign media adviser to President Ronald Reagan in 1984, fears that the party’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration will be costly in the fall. “The Republican Party has got to come into the 21st century and address this like grown-ups,” he said in an interview.
Rogich said he thinks Romney has been hurt badly by the positions he has taken in the nomination battle. He said the former governor should take some significant steps soon to reach out to the Hispanic community.
Romney courted the Cuban American vote in Florida in the days ahead of his primary victory there Tuesday. In Nevada, he did little to appeal to Latinos. Because Hispanics here tilt heavily toward the Democrats, they played a minimal role in Saturday’s caucuses. But Romney may have squandered an early opportunity to deal with a potential general election weakness by not talking to them more directly.
Obama’s advisers acknowledge that they still have work to do in the Hispanic community to reach the levels of support from 2008. The Republicans have even more to do to get to levels that would threaten Obama in a state like this. That will make Nevada a prime test in November.