Sunday, June 1, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain all but tripped over each other last week as they crisscrossed Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada trading barbs and laying claim to a region that is changing from red to blue.
For McCain, the objective is clear: Keep Nevada, a state that narrowly went for President Bush in 2000 and 2004, in the Republican column.
Obama, however, enters the Nevada campaign with some considerable advantages. The state’s presidential caucus brought him thousands of passionate and engaged volunteers and tipped the state Democratic by more than 50,000 voters.
But each candidate would do well to reexamine his performance in January’s caucus.
McCain placed third on the Republican side, behind even Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Obama, despite winning more delegates, was bested by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the popular vote.
Exit polling for the Democratic and Republican contests reveals that each candidate had problems with his traditional party base. For Republicans, that means wealthy and religious voters. For Democrats, it means women and minorities.
Most important: Both candidates failed to win over Hispanics, who constitute 24 percent of Nevada’s population.
Hispanics made up 8 percent of voters in the Republican caucus and McCain lost them to the winner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 41 percent to 24 percent. The numbers are striking given that McCain had been a champion of immigration reform in the Senate and Romney had taken a hard line against that reform.
To be sure, McCain all but ignored Nevada and Romney benefited from the considerable participation of his fellow Mormons, but McCain lost Protestants and Catholics to Romney, too.
McCain could still benefit from his identification with legislation that would have allowed some illegal immigrants to attain citizenship, although he has long distanced himself from it.
On the Democratic side, Hispanics made up 15 percent of the party’s caucusgoers, and they chose Clinton over Obama by more than 2-to-1. The exit polls showing Clinton’s support among Hispanics in Nevada don’t include the special Strip caucus sites, which went overwhelmingly for Clinton despite the endorsement of Obama by Culinary Workers Local 226. Nearly half the union’s members are Hispanic.
Obama advisers say the candidate suffered from being an unknown figure, longtime loyalty among Hispanics to the Clinton name and the too-late endorsement of the Culinary Union. All those factors, they say, are now being corrected. The campaign intends to use prominent Hispanic figures, such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, in Nevada while the Culinary retools its political program and educates members.
Exit polling also shows each candidate had problems with his base.
Among whites, who made up 88 percent of Republican caucusgoers, McCain won just 13 percent of the vote. He polled a distant third to Romney and Paul among all age groups except those 60 or older.
Among income groups, those making $100,000 or more constituted the single largest segment of Republican caucusgoers. McCain won just 13 percent of their vote.
Seventy-five percent of Republican caucusgoers considered themselves conservative, a group McCain also lost handily.
Perhaps the most telling sign: Forty-five percent said the most important personal quality in a candidate was someone who shares their values — and just 7 percent of that crowd chose McCain.
Throughout the primary season, McCain has worked hard to win over these voters though, talking, for instance, more about border security than immigration reform. Republicans will come home in November, said Robert Uithoven, a political consultant and informal adviser.
Bonus: McCain’s campaign announced plans last week to anchor its Pacific regional headquarters in Las Vegas.
Obama has his own work to do, primarily with whites — white women in particular. Still, the campaign is heartened by its big win in rural Nevada. Obama won 11 of the state’s 17 counties, nearly all of which were rural.
And, advisers hope that older white women — Clinton’s base — will cross over in the event of Clinton’s exit.
Billy Vassiliadis, the Las Vegas advertising guru and an adviser to Obama’s Nevada campaign, credited the cooperation between the Clinton and Obama camps for a smooth state convention last month — and cited that spirit as an indication that Clinton supporters will support Obama.