Obama, Romney Stop Over in Nevada: Is It Still a True Toss-Up?

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SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images

US President Barack Obama speaks during the 113th National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the Reno Sparks Convention Center in Reno, Nevada, on July 23, 2012

President Obama took a day trip to Nevada on Monday, a quick detour from his West Coast swing, to address the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno. The speech was national fare directed at vets–Iraq, Osama bin Laden, VA benefits, defense spending–not the local cuisine he usually serves up to hometown crowds in America’s swing states. Obama didn’t linger in Washoe County, where Reno is situated and where Mitt Romney takes his turn in front of the VFW on Tuesday, before jetting back to California.

Nevada is rightfully known as a swing state–the polling there is closer than in New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania or Indiana, for example, and it’s one of a handful of states now bearing the load of early advertising dollars in the presidential race. Obama has spent $7.2 million in the state since May. And Washoe isn’t just any swing county either–it’s one of 272 nationwide that voted twice for George W. Bush before flipping to Obama in 2008. But there are a few signs that Nevada now lies at the outer margin of toss-up states, leaning in Obama’s direction.

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Obama won Nevada by 12 and a half percentage points in 2008, a larger margin of victory than in Minnesota, home of Paul Wellstone and Walter Mondale. It was high-water year for Democrats to be sure, but the margin suggested a larger shift. In 1996, Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole with ease, running up 10-point victories in states like Pennsylvania, just as Obama did against John McCain. But Clinton only won Nevada by 1 point. What changed? According to the Census Bureau, Nevada’s population grew 35% between 2000 and 2010; Latinos, who now comprise more than a quarter of the state’s population and break Democratic, accounted for nearly half that growth.

Romney is often said to have his own demographic advantage in Nevada because of its sizable Mormon population. But Mormons only comprise about 6.5% of the population and are already a high-turnout, conservative-leaning bloc. In 2008, people from religions other than Protestantism and Catholicism accounted for 7% in Nevada’s exit polls, and Mormons said they preferred McCain to Obama by more than 3-1 in pre-election polling. Romney can probably do even better, but that’s unlikely to swing Nevada for him on its own.

Neither is the issue of housing, which has hit Nevada hard: Up until this year, the state spent 62 consecutive months with the most foreclosures in the nation. Obama’s record on this issue is pretty miserable, and critics have panned his Administration’s Home Affordable Modification Program. But Romney is not in a strong position to offer more–he told the Las Vegas Review Journal in 2011 that the foreclosure process needs to “run its course and hit the bottom.” Let the market work. He may have gotten his wish: the U.S. housing market is beginning to look up, and national trend lines have historically had a much larger effect on presidential races than local factors.

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Another perennial campaign issue in Nevada is the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal area. It generally offers Democrats a leg up with the locals, who oppose the site and the advances of its Republican supporters. It’s an advantage Obama exploited to bloody effect in 2008:

But Romney’s less vulnerable than McCain was. Despite some mixed messages from supporter Nikki Haley, Romney’s on the record for giving Nevada final say over Yucca Mountain, a break from his party.

Nonetheless, Nevada isn’t quite on the knife’s edge. Among the polling averages of the 11 states considered toss-ups under the most generous definition in 2012–Nevada, Iowa, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Missouri–Nevada has the second largest gap, at +5.2 percentage points for Obama. That’s reflected in campaign resource allocation as well. Despite consistent spending in the Silver State, the President’s campaign has directed more to states like Iowa, North Carolina and Virginia. American Crossroads, the Republican third-party group spending on Romney’s behalf while he awaits his party’s nomination, has spent more in almost every swing state than in Nevada.

None of which is to say Nevada’s six electoral college votes don’t matter, the state won’t be very closely contested or that Obama and Romney won’t be back in Washoe county before November. They probably will. Just don’t expect them to dawdle too long.

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