A growing Latino population. The rise of the modern Culinary Workers Union. The state’s growing polar urbanization. Californians turned Nevadans.
This combination of factors has colored Nevada’s political hue a deeper blue, says UNLV political historian Michael Green, and within a few years the swing state will put down stronger blue roots, he predicts.
Nevadans picked Democrat Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the general election, marking the fourth consecutive election cycle the Silver State has gone for the Democratic candidate. Even though mail ballot votes are still being counted in Clark County, the Associated Press on Saturday called the race in Nevada for Biden, whose lead over Trump as of Monday’s results dump sat around 36,000 votes.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton received about 27,000 more votes than Trump statewide, meaning the Democrats appear to have expanded their stronghold in Nevada.
“I think we have never been entirely of any color. I think that’s part of the issue,” Green said “I like to think of Nevada as something of a national laboratory on these matters. If you trace what happened in national politics, we often tend to be part of that trend.”
Republicans weren’t ready to give up on the state. The Trump campaign last year indicated Nevada was one of the narrowly contested states from 2016 they had hoped to flip in 2020, especially considering Trump performed better in Nevada than Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. The other pickup opportunities Trump targeted were Minnesota and New Mexico, where Trump also lost to Biden.
Trump and his family members made repeated trips to the Silver State in the final stretch of the campaign, defying COVID-19 capacity limitations to deliver his message to loyal supporters waving American flags and sporting “Make America Great Again” red hats.
“In 51 days, we are going to win Nevada and win four more years in the White House,” Trump said in mid-September at a Henderson rally. “After we win four more years maybe we will ask for four more or so. ... Our movement is pro-job, pro-worker, pro-police and 100% pro-America.”
But Nevadans saw through the rhetoric, especially in the way he handled the pandemic. The state is facing historic unemployment with the jobless rate in October about 12.6%, down from a pandemic high of 30% in March, Clark County was one of the areas worst hit by the virus, and our state’s heavy Latino population feared deportation with Trump’s immigration policies.
“I have confidence that we can pull this off because everybody is suffering from the same crisis and they see in Donald Trump a colossal failure on the coronavirus front, a failure on the economy, a failure to address police reform issues,” said Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman who visited Nevada twice in October to urge voter turnout.
And the Democrats turned out for more than Biden.
They also returned Democrats Dina Titus, Susie Lee and Steven Horsford to the U.S. House of Representatives. Except for Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei in Northern Nevada, the state’s six elected officials in Washington are Democrats.
“It has been four long years since Southern Nevadans have had a true partner in the White House,” Titus said.
Statewide voter registration statistics bear out a steady march to the left, with Democrats holding the plurality since 2006. That year, midway through George W. Bush’s second term, Democrats overtook Republicans in Nevada with about 476,000 of 1.2 million registered voters to the GOP’s 467,000.
The gap has widened to the current 110,000-voter-strong advantage, with about 759,000, or 37%, of Nevada’s now-2.03 million voters being Democrats to 647,000 Republicans.
It hasn’t always been this way. Mid-century, Nevada was part of the progressive New Deal Coalition. In the 1980s, it was Reagan Country; in the 1990s it was friendly to Bill Clinton, then in the early 2000s to George W. Bush.
This is to say that, at least historically, Nevada is a bellwether, Green said.
He takes it back to 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats overtook Republicans and created a New Deal coalition that ran through at least the late 1960s, if not through the 1980s and into the Reagan era, counting on moderates from the South and the West.
Nevada, a relocation magnet, has also taken in disaffected citizens since the 1930s, when Hoover Dam builders brought their labor and resentment of Republicans over the Great Depression. More recently, Californians who are conservative by California standards but more liberal by traditionally small-government Nevada standards have pushed the state to the left, more noticeably in Washoe County.
Former Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt, a Republican and a close friend of Ronald Reagan, was instrumental in Reagan’s successful campaigns here in the 1980s. That’s about the time the state became more red, Green said.
But even then, governors have been mixed, he pointed out. Democrats led the state from 1982 through 1998, then Republicans from 1998 until 2018, and those Republicans were not always hard right, such as Brian Sandoval. Democrats reclaimed the governorship in 2018 with Steve Sisolak, the first non-incumbent Democrat to win since Richard Bryan in 1982.
“We’ve always had that sort of wobble, if you want to call it that,” Green said.
Green said Nevada’s 2016 presidential pick was an outlier but still reflective of the national momentum.
Hillary Clinton won the state’s electoral votes, the first time since the 1976 Ford-Carter race and only the second time since 1912, that Nevada went with the losing candidate — at least, losing according to the Electoral College.
“The fact is, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote — not by a lot, but she did,” Green said.
“That suggests, considering Democrats have won the popular majority or plurality in all but one (presidential) election since 1992,” he said, a reference to the 2004 Bush-Gore race, “the country at large is voting more Democratic than Republican, but not overwhelmingly. And that’s Nevada.”
If in 2024, the country swings away from the incoming administration, Nevada will shift that way too, Green said.
Assemblyman William McCurdy II, chair of the state Democratic Party and Clark County commissioner-elect for the seat about to be vacated by the termed-out Lawrence Weekly, said shifting demographics, year-round outreach and appealing candidates have fueled Democratic growth in recent years.
“I inherited a party that all it needed was a little bit more oil and energy and it was poised to win in 2016,” he said. “It was poised to win in 2018, which we did.”
He credits former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with laying the foundation with “unwavering” support for the middle class.
“We are trending more blue, but at any given moment that can change. That will change when people who are elected to represent us stop prioritizing working-family issues,” McCurdy said. “At the end of the day, there are more people who are middle- to lower-class than there are of those who are in power. Our focus always has to be on making sure that we level the playing field, and we open the opportunity pool.”
Annette Magnus, executive director of the left-leaning Battle Born Progress, said candidates shouldn’t take Western states like Nevada for granted, nor will Nevada’s progressives rest on their laurels.
“We are not a blue state, we are a purple state,” she said. “We will continue to be a purple state, and there has to be investment long-term in the infrastructure here to be successful.”
Magnus also credited Reid’s groundwork, plus progressives’ consistent efforts to educate, register and nudge voters to the polls, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The apparatus is here. It is strong, it is vibrant, and it will continue to be vibrant into the future — and that apparatus is what continues to make that sure Nevada is going in a more progressive direction,” she said.
Magnus said Nevada saw the “warning” of President Donald Trump early on, with a rightward swing six years ago in state politics. It was a wake-up call.
“In 2014 the red wave was a real thing that happened in Nevada, and that is a real thing that is still in the back of every single progressive’s mind in this state,” she said.
On Tuesday night, rather than celebrating victories, her crew stayed late at polling stations ensuring every voter in line was able to cast their ballots.
“We cannot let up. If the last four years have taught us anything, Nevadans grind,” she said. “We will grind until the very end, and we will get this right no matter what.”
“We’re already starting to think about 2022,” Magnus added. “It never ends, and that mentality, I think, is very Nevadan.”