In recent decades, Democrats have tended to win mainly when Republicans screwed up, or when they got lucky.

Nowhere has that been truer than in Nevada. No Democrat running for president since the 1960s has commanded a majority in Nevada—until Barack Obama.

Obama carried the state easily in 2008, but it’s his 2012 reelection that is getting more attention. The remarkable win came in the face of such economic obstacles that activists and strategists have been studying the Nevada results. Fortunately, there’s a plethora of research to turn to, as it has piled up over the months since the election. It has delivered a sobering message to Republicans.

In numerous major demographics, the Democratic vote for president was higher in Nevada than in the nation generally.

For instance, according to Edison Research exit polls done for the New York Times, among women, Obama received 57 percent of the vote in Nevada, only 55 nationally.

Voters aged 18 to 29 went for Obama by 60 percent nationally, and by 68 percent in Nevada.

Among voters 30 to 44, Obama won 52 percent nationally—2 percent lower than in Nevada.

Among voters nationally who make less than $30,000 a year, Obama received 63 percent of the vote. Those Nevadans gave him 68 percent of their votes.

Among voters who earn $30,000 to $49,000, Obama won 57 percent nationally, but in Nevada he finished a whopping 10 percent higher—67 percent.

Nevada Democrats gave Obama 95 percent of their votes compared to 92 percent across the country.

This pattern does not hold everywhere, but even in categories where Mitt Romney won, he usually received poorer showings than in his national numbers.

Among whites, Romney won by 59 percent nationally—but in Nevada by 57 percent.

Among voters 45 to 64, Romney won 51 percent nationally, 49 in Nevada.

Perhaps most astounding is that Romney failed to win Nevada men. Male voters nationally gave Romney 52 percent of their ballots. Nevada men gave 49 percent.

And Obama was more popular with Nevadans overall than with voters across the nation. He won Nevada by 52.3 percent while carrying the United States by 51.06 percent.

Photo By dennis Myers Organization and narrow-mindedness make Republican woes, says political consultant Pete Ernaut.

There are some glimmers of hope for Republicans. One category where this pattern breaks sharply is among Asian-American voters, an increasingly important demographic in Clark County. Among them, Obama received 73 percent of the vote nationally, but only 50 percent in Nevada.

Other than Asians, another category that should be heartening to Republicans is Romney’s showing among independent voters. In Nevada it was the same as it was nationally—a narrow 50 percent victory.

Among Latinos, Obama’s Nevada percentage is the same as nationally—but Romney’s total is lower in Nevada than nationally, suggesting that even if Latinos decide not to vote Democratic, they don’t necessarily turn to the GOP as an alternative.

And there were a couple of categories where Romney actually received a higher Nevada percentage than nationally—among the top earners—but these voters are not numerous. Nevadans earning more than $50,000 a year gave him 55 percent of their votes, compared to 53 nationally. Those making $100,000 a year and above in Nevada gave him 61 percent of their votes compared to 54 percent nationally.

For much of the 20th century, Nevada was a state ruled by coalitions of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Overall, the numbers suggest that in the 21st, something fundamental is changing.

Mechanics vs. issues

Until Obama came along, Democrats running for president in Nevada needed special circumstances to win the state. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won Nevada in a lopsided, essentially noncompetitive race—but even then trailed his national showing. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton won the state in fluke elections because he faced two conservatives who split their vote—the elder George Bush and Ross Perot in 1992, Robert Dole and Perot in 1996. On neither occasion did Clinton receive a majority either in Nevada or the nation, winning by plurality both times.

Other than those exceptions, Republicans won the state’s presidential race for five decades. Then Obama came on the scene. He has now carried the state by majorities twice. And his stronger Nevada standing over his national showing suggests a transition may be underway in the Silver State. His first victory could be written off to the Bush recession and the Wall Street meltdown and bailouts before he was elected.

But the 2012 results show the Democrats on remarkably firm footing in a state that former Nevada Republican leader Paul Laxalt flatly described as “a Republican state” in 1986. Democrats not only prevailed in Nevada but did it in spite of substantial advantages for the Republicans—a dreadful economy, a GOP governor handing out contributions from his personal political treasury, a religious base for their candidate. How was it possible for Obama to win against those Romney strengths? Political analyst Fred Lokken believes it’s because Nevada is realigning politically.

“It is,” he said. “I’ve been saying that since we had the 2010 census results. That alone puts us demographically in a blue column. … I think that in 2016 we will stop being a battleground state. I think it’ll be one of the states that the Democrats can kind of count on in their column all the time.”

Lokken also pointed to mechanical problems the state GOP faced, like the collapse of its organization. Traditional Republicans had to set up a separate party-in-exile to aid Romney and other candidates after Ron Paul supporters took over the regular party organization. But Lokken said even if that had not happened, the party would have faced an uphill battle in Nevada because “their selection of candidates and agendas are marginalizing them in the American political system” and “the momentum has clearly been moving demographically to the Democratic column.” Some states are so Republican that they can overlook a gradual erosion of their demographics, he said, but that’s not the case in Nevada.

Pete Ernaut agrees with some of that, but not all. He considers mechanics much more important. The problem is not an evolving Nevada electorate, he believes, but rather is woes specific to 2012 and other recent elections.

“No, I think the biggest change in the Nevada electorate is how far ahead the Democrats are from a pure registration standpoint and how much better their turnout machine is. … I think that Republican messaging was particularly bad [in 2012]. I think on the major issues of Medicaid, job growth and the housing crisis, the Democrats—particularly the president—just had a better plan than we did.”

Ernaut is one of the state’s savviest political consultants, a Republican who has run successful campaigns for conservatives like John Ensign and moderates like Kenny Guinn. Toward the end of the Romney campaign, Ernaut took some heat for comments he made that Romney was unlikely to win Nevada. He was saying what everyone except the true believers already knew, but the comments still did not sit well with some in the GOP, and that reaction was an indication of the party’s unwillingness to accept unwelcome news. But Ernaut, unlike his newcomer critics, is a fixture in the party. And in contrast with some of those in the Sharron Angle wing of the party, he uses the term we when he talks about the GOP.

“I think that Republicans, we Republicans have to face reality, that it’s not an issue necessarily of ideology as much as it’s an issue of mathematics. There’s a hundred thousand more Democrats than Republicans in this state for the first time … and that makes winning statewide elections extremely difficult for Republicans.”

Republicans in name only

Photo By pete souza At a Nevada resort in Henderson where he prepared for his first debate with Mitt Romney, Barack Obama talked with aide Ron Klain while Sen. John Kerry—who played the role of Romney—listened. Obama showed unexpected strength in Nevada last year.

Movements have a habit of attaching themselves to existing parties, as the Democrats discovered with the antiwar movement in the 1960s. Sometimes this is beneficial. But not always.

The Republicans now enjoy the support of evangelicals, social conservatives and tea partiers, though the evangelicals have been drifting away from politics.

In 2009, the Sacramento political consulting firm Russo, Marsh and Associates used its political action committee—the Country Deserves Better PAC—to co-opt the tea party movement and graft it onto the Republican Party. It was a largely successful strategy, but it has not always been a comfortable fit. Many tea partiers advocate an economic populist approach of a type that once characterized the Democratic Party. Others have an all-or-nothing, scorched earth approach to politics that imitated the evangelicals’ approach but also exacerbated an already existing public perception that the GOP was becoming exclusive and intolerant of moderates. In Nevada, the nomination of sometime Republican Sharron Angle as the GOP U.S. senate candidate in 2010 enhanced that image.

Moreover, the orientation of these groups is not to party politics. Though they used the term on others, Reno Mayor and former state Republican chair Bob Cashell called them Republicans In Name Only (RINOs).

Ernaut was asked how to cope with them.

“Well, how the party deals with it really underscores the biggest failing of the Republican Party over the last six to seven years. And that is, they’ve gotten away from the ideal put forth by Ronald Reagan of a big tent, where you could be a conservative, you could be a moderate on social or economic issues, or both, and be able to coexist. What Republicans have to do to get back to that point is to decide to stop trying to convert the other. It’s OK to disagree on issues. But if they want to win elections, they’ve got to live under one roof. Ronald Reagan once said a person who votes with me 80 percent of the time is my friend, not my enemy.”

Lokken agrees, saying the Republicans are leaving some voters with no choice but the Democrats.

“But the Democrats are the only remaining umbrella party in the United States,” he said. “We used to have two, but now we seem to only have one. The Republicans seem to be willing to write off the center at this point in time, and you can’t win by writing off the center.”

Ernaut says the Ron Paulists and tea partiers need to learn to work with those with whom they disagree.

“I, for one, believe that the tea party movement and the Ron Paul movement have a very important place in the Republican Party, but it just can’t dominate the party,” he said. “And at some point, both those movements, I think, have to address the issue of inclusion and tolerance for differing viewpoints or this party will never be repaired.”

Until then, how do party leaders stop those movements from alienating voters in the middle?

“You know, it’s hard,” Ernaut said. “I think one of the problems with the Republican Party at this point is not that it’s become extreme or overly conservative in a social setting. It’s that it feels like it’s lost empathy and compassion for people, and that they don’t understand, often, the ramifications of their decisions. … It ends up looking like a spreadsheet rather than realizing that those hard core positions you take affect people’s lives.”

There’s one very basic difficulty with Ernaut’s prescription. It’s a tenet both of tea partiers and of social conservatives generally that a willingness to work with moderates and to compromise is what’s wrong with the political system. What he considers a solution, they consider the problem.

The other party

The Republicans’ troubles are so serious that it’s easy to overlook the problems Democrats face. Principal among these is an inability to tell their story to voters. Once skilled in appealing to the voters, the Democrats haven’t been good with spin and sales pitches for years, largely because they now have so many corporate sacred cows to protect.

When the party in the 1980s and ’90s became a corporate-funded party, it became compromised. At one time Democrats criticized efforts to repeal the estate tax as “a tax cut for Bill Gates.” That kind of verbiage has ended as the party has become cozier with the rich and powerful.

Photo By dennis myers Demographic changes make Republican woes, says political analyst FredLokken.

Because the election laws are rigged in favor of the two-party system, the Democrats are benefiting as the principal credible alternative. But that’s not the same thing as the public embracing the Democratic program and values. In addition, it imposes a burden on the party to actually perform. Obama’s campaign rhetoric of economic populism—tearing into the wealthy for not paying a fair share and promising protection for the middle class—continued into the post-election Congress and the fight over the fiscal cliff.

But all across the nation there have been news stories about the dismay of workers whose first post-cliff paychecks dropped sharply. Those stories were accompanied by commentaries about the wealthy being largely insulated from the effect of the cliff deal because the deal is mostly paycheck-based and the richest 1 percent depend on paychecks for only a fourth of their incomes. Democrats say they overlooked the impact of an expiring Social Security tax cut, but pleading incompetence is not a strong defense. If a party offers red meat in an election and then fails to follow through in governing, it’s one more disconnect in the public’s mind between voting and policy. Lokken faults both parties for their romances with money and power.

“It’s nothing new in American politics, but the money has never been greater, the corruption has never been greater, the disconnection has never been greater,” he said. “There’s no self-correction going on.”

Lokken and Ernaut both mention the Harry Reid organization as a factor in the GOP decline, though Lokken sees it as merely supplementary to the Democratic surge. Obama’s 2012 organization in Nevada wasn’t all that impressive, but Reid’s organization made up for it. And notwithstanding the unhappiness of former Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman and a few others with the president, Obama was an asset to the Democrats.

“Harry Reid and the organization that he has built in this state—he has formed kind of the traditional coalition,” Lokken said. “It works well. The ground game of Obama has helped in these few election cycles. All of these things—I mean, they’ve done everything right.”

But Reid has also been a mixed blessing at times, misjudging various situations. His advice that Democrats should put more resources into the small counties has been less than useful (“No sale,” RN&R, Aug. 28, 2008). He anointed Shelley Berkley in last year’s U.S. Senate race and forced another candidate with less baggage out of the race to clear her way, even though Berkley’s conservative record alienated Democrats—fierce opposition to the estate tax, support for various wars, voting to repeal Glass Steagall, toeing the casino industry line, and calling Jesse Jackson a traitor. Small wonder she couldn’t energize the party base.

And the Democrats’ Washington, D.C., House and Senate campaign committees are frequently out of tune with Nevada sensibilities.

Lokken said when the Democrats fail—as with recent races for governor—it has less to do with the strength of the GOP than with poor Democratic candidates. A decade ago, Republicans held all six of the state offices elected statewide. Now the Democrats hold all but governor and lieutenant governor.

“If the Democrats ever straighten up and start putting a winning candidate in the governor’s race, I think they’d get that in their column, as well,” he said.

Perhaps. But the Democratic candidates in the last two elections both had high name recognition in the state’s largest county and both had extensive experience. Two Republican governors, Kenny Guinn and Brian Sandoval—at least in his first run for governor—both cut heavily into the Democratic vote.

Key demographic

Latinos in Nevada should be up for grabs. They don’t have the emotional bond with the Democratic Party that African-Americans have, and their religious orientation taps into many GOP values. But the allure of the immigration issue to the GOP and its tea party adjunct has driven Latinos into Democratic arms. Moreover, Republicans kept saying the immigration issue wasn’t really important to most Latino voters, another instance of party leaders being unwilling to accept unwelcome news. And there were other ways the party failed to respect Latinos.

When Sharron Angle ran against Harry Reid, she used a television spot showing threatening men in a dark alley and others wielding guns with a narrative about “waves of illegal aliens streaming across our border, joining violent gangs, forcing families to live in fear.” Latinos turned out in big numbers to vote for Reid. Once they were lured into the voting booth, it’s unlikely other GOP candidates benefited from that high turnout.

What was remarkable was that Angle’s campaign thought the spot would help, and didn’t realize it would motivate Latinos adversely. That lack of political instinct often characterizes tea party activism.

No other group has become more vital to political success in Nevada than Latinos. The growth of the state’s Latino population was a big part of why the state’s politics started changing in the first place. They have become about a fifth of the state electorate. But the GOP’s problems with that demographic are pretty deep. Even Sandoval, himself a Latino, mustered only 15 percent of their votes.

Though Democrats might not agree, neither they nor the state benefit from an unbalanced situation. Two strong parties are important because it’s unhealthy for a dominant party not to be vigorously contested. It leads both to arrogance and uncooked policy.

Ernaut said he thinks the GOP’s problem with its rightist groups will pass.

“You know, I’ve been through three of these waves,” he said. “In the late ’80s, it was Pat Robertson. In the late ’90s, it was Aaron Russo [a wealthy Hollywood producer who came to Nevada to run, unsuccessfully, for office]. And now it’s the sort of Paul-slash-tea party movement. And generally what makes those movements become less radical and more part of a bigger party is when everybody gets tired of losing.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...