RENO — President Obama returns to northern Nevada Thursday to a very different political landscape nearly four years after more than 10,000 people jammed the University of Nevada, Reno quad to cheer his history-making pursuit of the White House.
“There was a great deal of excitement and enthusiasm,” said Chris Wicker, former chairman of the Washoe County Democratic Party who was at the rally Sept. 30, 2008. “It was like going to a UNR game and beating a ranked opponent and everybody felt good about it.”
Four years of a sluggish economy have dampened the energy that brought party regulars, political newcomers and disaffected old-timers together to give Obama a convincing victory over John McCain. The first black man to occupy the Oval Office was also the first Democrat to carry GOP-leaning Washoe County since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Nevada remains a key battleground state but it will be a harder sell for Obama in 2012.
Although there are signs of improvement, Nevada has been among the slowest to recover from the recession, suffering some of the worst unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates in the nation. Voters say they don’t want promises, they want results — they want jobs.
“There are a lot of people out there who are disheartened,” said Douglas Wood, a land surveyor who backed Obama at Nevada’s Democratic caucuses in January despite the fact he’s been unemployed much of the last two years.
Republicans have regained their voter edge in the state’s second most populous region around Reno, an area that helped carry Obama to victory four year ago by offsetting losses in the state’s more conservative rural counties.
Democrats acknowledge some of the passion for Obama’s first campaign is not easily recaptured,
“The excitement we got the first time electing a Barack Obama, that will never happen again,” said Bob Fulkerson, a longtime Democrat and executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a coalition of labor, environment, minority and civil rights groups.
“The youth vote, Latino vote, the African American voters, those large percentages we saw turnout in 2008 will be hard to replicate. That was unprecedented.”
Nevada was one of the swing states where Obama’s job approval rating took the biggest hit in 2011, according to a Gallup survey released in January. Only 41.3 percent of Nevada voters surveyed approved of his performance at the end of 2011, down 5.7 percent from 2010, the poll said. His lowest approval rating was in neighboring Utah, 28.6 percent.
Richard Bryan, former Democratic governor and U.S. senator, said Obama’s bouts with unpopularity over the past year stemmed from the fact most Americans didn’t anticipate the recession would last as long or be as deep as it has.
“The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is frustrated with him or disappointed because he hasn’t accomplished all of the things in his agenda. The tea party — which has commandeered the Republican Party in Nevada — assails him as being a socialist.”
“To some extent I think their extremism helps Democrats,” he said. “Most Americans tend to be in the political center.”
Democrats hope Obama’s second visit to Reno in a little over a year will help energize the party faithful.
Pam duPre, executive director of the Washoe County Democratic Party, said there’s reason for optimism.
“The economy is on the rebound. Things are turning around,” duPre said. “The Obama campaign’s ground game has been going for several months.”
Democrats say Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican candidate, doesn’t play well in the Silver State, though he easily captured the Republican presidential caucuses this year as he did four years ago.
They say they tea party-related divisions have split the Nevada GOP.
Republicans historically have enjoyed success in statewide races by minimizing losses in the Las Vegas area where Democrats rarely lose while carrying every other county in the state, including Washoe County where George Bush beat Al Gore in 2000 and defeated John Kerry in 2004.
Bill Clinton won Nevada the two elections before that, but never took Washoe County.
At the close of the 2004 election, registered voters in Washoe County totaled 101,212 Republicans and 83,669 Democrats. But by 2008, Washoe County had 92,188 Democrats and 90,910 Republicans. Democrats outnumbered Republicans statewide 531,317 to 430,594.
The result was Obama winning not only 55 percent of the vote statewide, but matching that figure in stunning fashion in Washoe County.