Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008 | 2:01 a.m.
With 75,000 more Democrats than Republicans, with the GOP brand the wrong kind of red (etched in scarlet letters) this year and with the state Democratic Party-Barack Obama organization as potent as any this state has seen, a question lingers: Why is Nevada still polling as — and considered by the pundits as — a tossup state in the presidential race?
The answers are both endemic to Nevada — history, Democrats who vote like Republicans, rural turnout — and illustrative of the national problem Obama still confronts: concerns about his race, his experience, his readiness. And yet, beyond all the bloviating, speculating and temporizing by the chattering class (and chatter we must), politics remains, like most sports, a numbers game.
A simple look at the Nevada tallies leads to the conclusion that, despite the polls, the state should go blue in 41 days. Some of the math seems inexorable.
President Bush defeated John Kerry by 21,000 votes in 2004 when the Republicans had a 5,000-voter edge. Bush lost to Kerry by 26,000 votes in Clark County but won the rest of the state in a landslide, including 40,000 votes in rural Nevada.
But the 2008 version of Nevada is a metamorphosis from the 2004 iteration. Washoe County, where Bush won by 7,000 votes and which had a 17,500-voter edge for the GOP, could have a Democratic plurality come Election Day. That’s unprecedented and ominous for the GOP. And Clark County now has 100,000 more Democrats than Republicans, more than twice the margin of 2004. Obama is significantly ahead with independents in Nevada, but even if he only breaks even, the Democrats would seem to have to struggle mightily to lose.
But they could. Here are factors to consider:
• The historical precedent: Republicans would be working on 44 years of unbroken victories in the quadrennial test if not for Ross Perot’s giving the state to Bill Clinton by narrow margins in 1992 and 1996. Libertarian Bob Barr won’t have Perot’s drawing power, but he might alter the equation.
• The Republican Democrats: A Democrat in Las Vegas is not a Democrat in Boston — a hoary stereotype, but mostly true. Does anyone think Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, a conservative LDS Democrat, will vote for Obama? Doubtful. And there are plenty like him. Enough to win it for McCain? Maybe. “We have a huge number of Democrats who are part of our ‘Democrats for McCain,’ so the numbers this time around as far as registration do not mean as much to us,” state GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden boasted this week to Bloomberg News. If her braggadocio is borne out, Obama will lose Nevada.
• The sleeping giant: Hispanics represent about 11 percent of the Nevada electorate — a 55 percent increase from four years ago. Eighty percent live in Clark County and a recent survey indicated 60 percent are registered Democrats and only 19 percent are registered Republicans. But will they turn out and will they vote in large numbers for Obama?
• The changing North: The Reno Gazette-Journal recently reported that Washoe County has become an almost dead-even county — Republicans lead by 3,000 voters but 5,000 forms are yet to be counted. Washoe Republicans aren’t known for being John Ensign Republicans, or even John McCain Republicans — many are Lowell Weicker Republicans.
GOP presidential nominees almost never hold the registration edge in Washoe, but this could be the first year a Republican standard-bearer loses the North. That could be fatal. As Washoe County Registrar Dan Burk asserted to the Gazette-Journal: “Washoe County could perhaps decide the presidency of the United States.”
If you don’t believe Burk, The New York Times came to town and reporter Jennifer Steinhauer wrote: “In the emergent swing state of Nevada, Washoe County — home to Reno and Sparks — is the most pendular county of all.” The pit is pendular? (Sorry, Northern friends, it was irresistible.)
• The rural conundrum: Obama has this love affair with Elko, visiting again last week and sitting for his “60 Minutes” interview there. But is he on a fool’s errand or can he actually make inroads? Elko is 2-to-1 for the GOP in registration, and Bush beat Kerry 4-to-1. So if Obama can make it there — that is, cut his losses to 2-to-1 — he can make it anywhere.
Some of the same national intangibles could weigh down Obama here — blacks don’t win statewide races in Nevada, for instance. But the tangible numbers, from Reno to Las Vegas, favor the Democratic nominee.
So say Nevada is a tossup. But despite the history and some of the intangibles, I think it is starting to lean to Obama, if ever so slightly.