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March 24, 2019

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A formidable firewall: How Nevada came into its own as a presidential swing state

Nevada Democrat Party

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Ajay Narayan cheers as the race is called by a television network during the Nevada State Democrats’ election night party Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, at Mandalay Bay.

Updated Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 | 10:13 p.m.

Democrats Election Night Party in Las Vegas

Larry Edwards cheers as early returns come in favorable to President Obama during the Nevada Democrats' election night party Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 at Mandalay Bay. Launch slideshow »

GOP Election Night Party in Las Vegas

Dorothy Abate of Las Vegas puts her head in the hands after hearing the election called for Barack Obama during a GOP election night watch party at the Venetian in Las Vegas on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Obama wins re-election; Romney concedes

President Barack Obama is shown at his Election Night party Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. Obama defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Launch slideshow »

Election Day Last Campaigning Efforts 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., greet campaign workers at a call center in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Launch slideshow »

Election Day Voting in Las Vegas 2012

Stanley Hollman, a bartender at the Mandalay Bay, votes on election day at the Fremont Middle School gym Tuesday, November 6, 2012. Without a ride but determined to vote, Hollman set off to the polls on his skateboard. A co-worker in a car spotted him on the way and gave him a ride for part of the journey, he said. STEVE MARCUS Launch slideshow »

The Nevada Democrats’ vaunted turnout machine drove President Barack Obama to an easy victory in a state battered more than any other by the economic recession, as voters declared their intent to give Obama’s approach to recovery enough time to fully take root.

"Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come," Obama said in his victory speech.

Just as important as the economic message, however, the Obama campaign’s efforts to drive wedge issues — such as immigration and women’s health — helped him piece together a winning coalition dominated by a record Latino turnout and substantial gender gap.

Republican rival Mitt Romney, who was forced to contend with a hastily constructed turnout machine and a state party in turmoil from a tenacious Ron Paul insurgency, never seemed to gain a foothold in the Silver State despite a concerted up-to-the-last-minute effort.

Nevada’s status in the presidential race this year perhaps could be more aptly described as a “firewall” than a “battleground.”

And in the end, although Nevada remained closely fought to the final days, Obama’s quick sweep of the eastern battleground states rendered the Silver State’s election night swing status essentially null.

Obama was declared the winner by a number of news organizations well before the counts began rolling in from Nevada. But election night drama aside, Nevada played a key role in each candidate’s strategy for amassing the 270 votes needed to win the presidency — and the Nevada firewall Obama sought to build to offset Romney’s potential strengths elsewhere held strongly.

Early in the campaign, Nevadans received no shortage of attention from Obama and Romney. After three election cycles, the Silver State has come into its own as a presidential swing state.

That fact was evident in the way both Obama and Romney fit Nevada into their overall electoral vote strategy — a game plan that shifted as the heated campaign wore on and seemingly left Nevada behind in the final days to wallow in the dust of Ohio, Virginia and even New Hampshire.

But even as the campaign shifted to the eastern battlegrounds, Nevada remained key to each candidate’s hopes of gaining the White House.

The Obama campaign did its heavy lifting early in the cycle, opening up a staggering voter registration advantage over Republicans and then turning those supporters out en masse during Nevada’s two-week early voting cycle.

Obama needed Nevada mostly to block Romney’s march to 270 electoral votes in other states. Nevada, in effect, acted as an insurance policy against potential Romney wins in battleground states where he holds an advantage, such as Florida and Virginia.

Early voting was clearly Obama’s focus.

In a last-ditch get-out-the-early-vote effort, Obama touched down in Las Vegas for an afternoon rally on the eve of the final day of early ballot casting. The visit pushed a record-last day turnout in early voting on Friday.

And then, Obama departed.

While Democratic volunteers continued to flood Nevada to assist in Election Day turnout efforts, Obama and all of his top-level campaign surrogates — Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama — turned eastward. Even the campaign’s lower-tier surrogates — congressional delegates, cabinet members, celebrities — seemed absent from the final Election Day push.

The Obama campaign had built its Nevada firewall.

Romney’s campaign did its best to tear it down in the final days.

“What the pundits are saying is correct,” Romney’s Nevada campaign chairman Brian Krolicki told Republicans gathered at running mate Paul Ryan’s final Nevada rally on Monday. “Nevada is a very important part of the map that we need you to deliver on.

“But I disagree that the 50,000-vote firewall they built is insurmountable. Tomorrow morning, with all the work you’ve done, that firewall is going to be set on fire. And tomorrow night, it is going to be burned to the ground.”

Indeed, while Romney took off to the eastern battlegrounds — his last visit to Nevada was Oct. 24 — neither his top surrogates, nor his running mate abandoned the far western battleground outpost.

Ryan held an election eve rally in Reno. Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice did the same on Sunday. Romney’s sons blanketed the state and Texas Gov. Rick Perry rallied voters in rural Nevada and Las Vegas.

Romney’s campaign began building their own last-ditch firewall in Nevada as Obama edged closer to an advantage in places like Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire.

In short, there was no way Romney was going to cede to Obama’s advantage in Nevada at the last minute.

The final burst of activity, however, wasn’t enough to overcome Obama’s early advantage.

The mood at the Republican celebration at the Palazzo in Las Vegas remained muted from the beginning of the evening, as battleground after battleground was called for Obama.

But within about 10 minutes, there was a line for the open bar.

Some attendees were openly frustrated, taking out their frustration by yelling and attempting to throw out anyone in sight whom they thought might not be loyally Republican enough to be in the room.

Most carefully expressed the consternation that was evident on their faces by about 7 p.m.

“We’re scared,” said Sharon Hilfer, 69, a Las Vegan originally from Illinois. “We know the south side of Chicago and we remember the Daley Machine. We feel like that’s where Obama’s coming from.”

Democrats, gathered at Mandalay Bay, remained upbeat, cheering key U.S. Senate wins and Democratic gains in battleground states.

With the doors of the Democratic election night party opening after 7 p.m., the crowd barely had time to grab a drink or one of the red, white and blue frosted cupcakes on display before the good news started rolling in for Obama.

Maurice Friedman, 61, strutted around the convention hall with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, cane and long, whispy black mustache tipped in grey that pointed to two buttons on his chest, one for the AFL-CIO and one for the Sierra Club.

“I haven’t felt this good since we impeached Nixon,” said Friedman, who called himself a tree-hugging environmentalist who objected to Romney’s position on global climate change .

“I was enormously surprised that the race was called so early,” Friedman said. “I was nervous coming into today because I got my hopes up in 2000 and then again in 2004, and they stole it from us,” Friedman said.

Not all voters were impressed with Nevada’s battleground status — finding the rallies and the talking points to be more of a stage production than an honest attempt to woo voters.

“Going city to city and doing rallies and talking to the media is not campaigning. That’s talking to reporters,” said Tom Wilson, a 47-year-old Republican from Reno who voted for Obama. “The issues were not addressed.”

Still, many Nevada voters reveled in the campaign rallies. Republicans relished the thought of ousting Obama from office, while Democrats swarmed to protect the groundwork they believe he has laid for the economic recovery.

“We need change tremendously,” said Doris Nay, a Las Vegas Republican who voted for Romney, noting the economy and unemployment. “I think federal spending is too much and not creating jobs for those who lost jobs.”

“(I voted) for Obama and I don’t care if the whole world knows it,” said Frieda Ahigian, 75 and a Henderson Democrat. “You've got to give him a chance. He can’t fix the nation in four years with the mess that (President George W. Bush) left him.”

Although the election revolved around the economy — both Obama and Romney focused much of their stump speeches on turning around Nevada’s battered industries — voters named a range of issues that governed their choice.

“The economy,” said Daphne Engebritson, a Reno Republican who voted for Romney. “My husband is in construction, and he hasn’t worked steadily for three years. I do think the Republicans would be better on the economy. I’m just hoping we can get the economy turned around and get people back to work.”

But many Democrats named more tangential issues.

Margarita Swickard, a Reno Democrat, labeled her reason for voting for Obama with two words, as if they should be self-evident: “I’m Latino.”

“The DREAMers is a big deal,” she said of the move Obama made to allow certain young immigrants brought to the country illegally to stay temporarily. “I have relatives who are DREAMers. My big fear is Romney would become president and take that away from them.”

Rashelle Roberts, a 41-year-old Las Vegas Democrat, also associated her vote with her identity.

“I’m a woman,” she said. “I don’t want my rights messed with, and I’m a single mother. Obama feels to me as a decent human being. Romney doesn’t feel to me like he’s very compassionate.”

Reporters Karoun Demirjian and Tovin Lapan contributed to this story.

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