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May 23, 2015

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Jon Ralston:

Every number tells a story, don’t it?

Politics is about many things — policies, character, atmospherics. But it also is, inexorably, about numbers.

A number is worth a thousand spins in this world, so it was not surprising that some state Republicans were all but erecting a “Mission Accomplished” banner at their headless headquarters (chairman wanted!) after Monday’s release of newly winnowed voter rolls. The registration figures show the Democrats have about half the registration edge — 50,000 voters — that they did at the dawn of the last presidential cycle, a sure sign that the brand is bleeding. Right? Maybe.

Context beckons. Although the Democrats have much to fret about — the president’s approval rating, a GOP Senate candidate other than Sharron Angle, a wave goodbye more likely than an Obama wave — the Republicans might want to keep the Champagne corked.

To illuminate these most recent numbers, I present … more numbers:

The raw numbers can’t be ignored: It’s much less daunting to have to overcome a 50,000-voter advantage than a 100,000-voter advantage.

Those numbers mattered in ’08 as the Democrats, riding Obama’s 12 percentage-point win, won a seat in Congress (Dina Titus over Jon Porter) and took two critical state Senate seats that changed the capital dynamic. Now, those same two state Senate seats are in jeopardy and Rep. Joe Heck feels safer than Porter did in that congressional district.

But let’s also not forget how that 100,000-voter edge for the Democrats came to pass in ’08. At the end of December 2007 — the apples-to-apples comparison to the numbers released Monday — the Democrats had 397,247 voters and the Republicans had 392,362, a difference of only 4,885 voters. So, technically, the Democrats are in much better shape, by the numbers, than they were four years ago.

The difference, though, is there is no energizing caucus to help register voters — the Democrats registered 30,000 that day and more than tripled it with a remarkably sustained registration effort during the year. There is no reason to believe, despite their superior machine, that they can duplicate that effort without an excited base.

Just imagine, though, where those numbers might be if the GOP weren’t so paranoid and had, as the Democrats smartly did, allowed same-day registration for its caucus and if it had kept the event, as it was originally scheduled, for this Saturday.

There are some other not-so-noticeable numbers that are worth looking at as we set the baseline for Campaign ’12. For instance, the Republicans have only 3,483 more voters than they did four years ago while the Democrats have 49,252. Despite the legion of promises and pronouncements, the Republicans have yet to invest what the Democrats have — a GOP official told the Sun’s David McGrath Schwartz they have spent a paltry $70,000 on one program this cycle — nor do they have the ruthless, canny operatives on board who know how to do this and who can count on a D.C. sugar daddy named Harry Reid to fully fund it. (Imagine if John Ensign ...)

Granted, the Republicans don’t have the ready bases the Democrats do — labor, minorities — to build their numbers. But they have showed little muscle or creativity, and there is no reason to believe this year will be different.

There may, however, be another number that could have an even bigger impact on the November balloting than the partisan differences. In December 2007, there were 141,195 voters registered as independents; in December 2011, there were 181,976, and they make up 16 percent of the electorate.

This is hardly insignificant, and what should really worry Democrats in Nevada is that without the kind of lead they had in 2008, the independent vote could be even more important. And, as polling here and elsewhere has shown, the nonpartisans are restless and have turned against the president. They could swing elections up and down the ticket, determining the outcome of a close U.S. Senate race and tossup legislative contests and, perhaps, transforming presumably safe Democratic seats in Carson City into Republican-held districts.

It is unquestionably true that the Democrats are hurt more by these voter depletions because, quite simply, they have more voters. And even though fewer voters were declared inactive than just two years ago, the peripatetic nature of Las Vegas hurts the Democrats disproportionately, especially in a down economy when many of their voters disappear.

(One factor often forgotten: Inactive voters can vote, although many will not. But last cycle, nearly 12 percent did — so it’s not insignificant.)

In the end, that is on Nov. 6, many numbers, including turnout, will come into play. But to crow about these latest registration figures — or to slough them off — means very little because, to invoke two campaign clichés, 10 months is an eternity and the only number that matters is the one on Election Day.

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