Unemployment has grown to 13.4 percent, well above the national average, in recent months. The state has the highest foreclosure rate and record bankruptcies. And shuttered casinos collect dust along the glittering Las Vegas Strip that’s usually a robust artery of jobs.
“Obama’s hope hasn’t done anything,” grouses Larry James, a security guard who moved here from Philadelphia for work a decade ago, back when the state was booming.
It’s so bad here that even the president’s fans worry about the country firing him — and Nevadans helping.
“I’m afraid for Obama,” frets Linda Overby.
The state is filled with people like Overby and her husband, who lost their union painting jobs and began paying their mortgage with unemployment checks in April. They’d like to look for work elsewhere but they are “underwater” — they owe more for their mortgage than what their home is worth. The value has dropped from $330,000 to $88,000 in six years. And her household income has declined from $2,000 to $650 a week.
Such statistics, comments and stories shed light on why Nevada is one of the Republican Party’s targets to pick up come November 2012 — and why Democrats are worried.
It also explains why Nevada is abuzz in national political activity this week.
Leaders of both major political parties are descending on the state to plot strategy and rally activists as they gird for the tough presidential election year ahead in a state that helped elect Bill Clinton twice, George W. Bush twice and then went for Obama by a comfortable 12 percentage point margin in 2008.
Democratic luminaries and lawmakers spent much of the weekend organizing their Project New West summit that opened Sunday, a conference dedicated to winning 2012.
Republican presidential candidates were in town for a Tuesday night GOP primary debate. Many of them were bookending the debate with retail appearances and speeches at the Western Republican Leadership Conference in the state that’s slated to hold its nominating caucuses Jan. 14.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul was using the week as a backdrop to roll out parts of his policy agenda, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney planned a campaign party Monday and former pizza executive Herman Cain had plans to visit several local GOP groups throughout the week.
No matter who the party nominates, the GOP is certain to dump piles of money and tons of manpower into the state to try to thwart another Obama victory here. If Romney is the nominee, he’d benefit from a population of fellow Mormons in the state. Conversely, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — Romney’s chief rival — could conceivably have the support of Tea Partyers and some segment of Hispanics.
Even without a nominee, Republicans are courting Mormons — a small constituency that votes at a high rate and promotes civic activity — as well as veterans, military members and retirees, constituencies that typically lean toward the GOP.
Democrats are girding for a tough fight regardless of who Obama faces.
They point to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s victory as proof that a Democrat can be re-elected in Nevada despite the economic turmoil. They note the growth among Democrats, who now boast a 101,633 voter advantage statewide. And they hold out hope that the robust Hispanic population here — they make up 15 percent of the electorate — will tilt toward Democrats en mass.
But Reid faced a deeply flawed tea party candidate in Sharron Angle. And the state now has a Hispanic governor in Brian Sandoval, a Republican, who could make inroads with this pivotal constituency.
Even so, the Democratic Party machine that helped Reid beat nearly all odds and win another term last fall hopes to do the same for Obama next fall.
To win, both sides must turn out their respective party loyalists as well as woo Nevada’s many independent voters in Reno, government-centric Carson City — and especially Henderson.
It was the setting of Nevada’s closest state races last year, both decided by fewer than 408 votes.
The congressional district that encompasses Henderson has predicted which party will win the House for the past two election cycles. Voters here gave a Republican the boot in 2008, only to kick out the winner in 2010, replacing Democratic Rep. Dina Titus with Republican Rep. Joe Heck. His 1 percent victory margin was not exactly a clear message from voters.
He points to migration patterns to explain why voters here are anything but homogenous.
“People are coming from all across the country with values and views that they developed in New Jersey, Alaska, Texas, and we have become that melting pot of ideas,” Heck said.
Nowhere is the divide between Democrats and Republicans thinner than in southeastern Henderson, Nevada’s second largest city. Republicans outnumber Democrats here by 2,500 votes. Nearly 80 percent of the residents are white, and many are middle-aged.
Listen to the voices of people here and it’s clear nobody is happy. Less clear is who they will blame for their woes next fall.
“We need someone different from the kind of politicians we have,” says Rachel Kauffman. The 34-year-old mother usually votes Republican, like most of her family, but is registered as an independent voter — ripe for Democrats and Republicans alike to court.
She doesn’t know who she will vote for next fall.
But she knows this much: “We can’t take four more years of this.”
Democrat Ed Long faults everyone.
“I would like more leadership out of Obama, but I would say the same of the Republicans,” said Long, who moved from Phoenix to Henderson five years ago to work as an electrician. “I don’t see a single jobs bill come out of Congress that helps the people. It’s disillusioning.”