Battleground Primer

Could our state be the linchpin for either presidential candidate? (And other burning questions. )

Illustration: Colleen Wang

There’s little argument that this year’s presidential race is the most hotly contested and all-encompassing political battle our country has seen in decades. And while mudslinging is certainly part of the process, it can be argued that this year’s has a particularly noxious odor.

But the stakes have never been higher—an economic crisis that may yet rival the Great Depression, a war that rivals Vietnam in its polarizing effects and a president who rivals Nixon in credibility. Suddenly an American populace concerned only with its immediate comfort is beginning to look at the long-term picture, shifting hard to one side or the other in the process. The shock waves of that slide are being felt perhaps nowhere more than Nevada, a battleground state for both parties.

John McCain warms up the crowd of disabled veterans Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008,
at Bally's. The veterans also heard from Sen. Barack Obama, by videotape.

John McCain warms up the crowd of disabled veterans Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008, at Bally's. The veterans also heard from Sen. Barack Obama, by videotape.

How many Obama and McCain commercials do you see every day? How many phone calls have you received from your party of choice, reminding you to vote? (Three or four in one evening is not unheard of.) How many appearances have you seen by the candidates? And even though the goal is to snag the undecideds—of which there are many this year—sometimes the effect is the opposite: Undecideds often become uncommitteds, choosing not to vote at all. And despite the national spotlight on a regular basis, we’ve still heard many say in recent weeks that they dispute Nevada’s importance in this year’s election.

Because this is, as they say, the Most Important Election of Our Lives, the Weekly got the answers to a few burning political questions as the campaign swings into the home stretch.

Where exactly does Nevada fit into all this craziness?

There are two numbers that all voters need to keep in mind: 270 and five, 270 being the number of electoral votes Barack Obama or John McCain needs to win, and five being the number of electoral votes Nevada represents. And based on polling numbers, as of press time, the candidates are strong in, or expected to win, the following states:

States “likely” to vote for Barack Obama: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Washington, D.C. (235 votes)

States “leaning” toward Obama: Maine, Minnesota, Mexico, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Virginia (47 votes)

States “likely” to vote for John McCain: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming (131 votes)

States “leaning” toward McCain: Georgia, Mississippi and Montana (24 votes)

That leaves the “toss-up” states, those that are considered undecided and thus receiving the most attention from both parties: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota and Ohio—101 votes in all.

Assuming the numbers hold solid for both candidates in the blue and red states, Obama wins the election with 282 votes, even if he loses all of the toss-up states, including Nevada. However, as previous election years have shown, anyone who relies on polling data is sure to be nursing a splitting headache the morning after the polls close. Just as one example, say Obama actually loses Virginia and West Virginia. His total would then drop to 264, and suddenly Nevada’s five votes would become critical.

Given that one scenario, things could play out in several different ways:

1.) McCain wins the remaining toss-up states, but loses Nevada. That means Obama and McCain end up with 269 votes each, a tie that would be decided by the House of Representatives (which is predominantly Democrat).

2.) Obama wins any of the other remaining toss-up states, all of which have more electoral votes than Nevada’s five, and wins the presidency.

3.) McCain wins all of the remaining states, including Nevada, and wins the presidency.

There are several other scenarios, any of which you can check for yourself on electoral-vote.com or any of several other websites devoted to this. But in almost all situations, Nevada’s five votes could be the ones everyone’s watching as election results come in from east to west.

“Nevada had top-tier status from Day 1, because the makeup is constantly evolving,” says Nevada McCain campaign spokesman Rick Gorka. “You wouldn’t consider it a red state like Alaska or a blue state like New York. It’s much more competitive, and the [five electoral] votes here are very, very important in an election that could come down to being that close.”

The Republicans desperately want to hold onto Nevada, which has been a red state since the start of the Bush administration. Nevada’s importance in the national picture has already been demonstrated once. “If Al Gore had won Nevada [in 2000], he would have won the presidency,” reminds Kirsten Searer, communications director for the Obama campaign in Nevada.

UNLV political science professor Ted Jelen has a different take on Nevada. While he does see Nevada as a battleground state, he feels it depends on the party. “I think it’s a battleground state for McCain, not necessarily for Obama,” Jelen says. He refers to the remaining toss-up states as “terrible news for McCain. He’s got to win almost all of them, and almost all the states in play are ones that Bush carried in 2004. I don’t see a combination of 270 for McCain that doesn’t include Nevada, but I see several combinations for Obama where he doesn’t need Nevada.”

Jelen adds that the enormous number of television ads will no doubt increase dramatically because of the comparatively low costs of waging campaigns in Nevada. “The Las Vegas media market is fairly large enough to matter and fairly self-contained. It’s also much cheaper than, say, Chicago, which is a terrifyingly expensive market, so Nevada’s a good bang for the buck.”

Translated, that means if you listen to the radio or watch TV, you can look forward to an Obama or McCain commercial every waking hour.

And whether any future poll favors Obama or McCain, Jelen feels McCain “may be in trouble here,” noting his students “are consistently underrepresented in polls. Obama is doing phenomenally well with people under 30.”

Political columnist Jon Ralston says Nevada fits neatly into most election scenarios, “especially true if Obama were to lose Florida and Ohio. We also figure in a lot of 269-269 scenarios.”

McCain recently withdrew his campaign from Michigan, and with the more than 93,000 additional Democrats registered in Nevada this election cycle, it would appear the Democrats are prepared to dominate this year’s election. Are there any plans by the Republican Party to divert resources from Nevada?

Regardless of any poll you read up until November 4, don’t expect the intensity of campaigning to subside on either side.

Gorka insists the race in Nevada “is close, and our intensity level increases every day.”

The campaign recently opened three more offices—two in Clark County, one in Douglas County—and continues to add volunteers. “When you add offices in October, that’s a pretty strong indicator of how important a state is.”

While he did not disclose financial figures, Gorka says the campaign is hitting the airwaves “pretty much equally” with Obama in Nevada.

Figures from politico.com suggest otherwise. According to that website, Democrats spent $616,000 the week of September 29-October 4, while the Republicans spent $329,000.

Ralston says Obama is outspending McCain 3-to-1 in most battleground states, and nearly that in Nevada. “Obama has many more staffers here and is spending much more money here—$750,000 in TV a week, or 2.5 times the amount McCain is.”

Gorka says the McCain campaign has added “thousands” of volunteers in the last few weeks, and things will “only get more intense” in the next few weeks.

Searer says the Obama campaign will add more areas to launch canvasses or TV operations, but that current levels of funding and staffing likely stay the way they are. However, “current levels” are unprecedented, she says. “John Kerry had two offices here in 2004. We’ve got 15 statewide. We’ve got 4,500 trained volunteers statewide. Obama has visited Nevada 18 times. We’ve got more than 100 staff members statewide, and our voter-registration drive has led to an 80,000 Democratic advantage where the GOP has traditionally dominated.”

Still, Searer agrees with Gorka that voters shouldn’t assume Nevada is a done deal just because of the latest poll. “This is a very close race. We’re going to treat it as a down-to-the-wire race until Election Day. Our real goal now is that people who are registered to vote actually show up.”

What has Nevada gained from being a battleground state? What long-term effects might we see as a result of that?

“Lot of national attention,” Ralston says. “Lots of visits by candidates and their surrogates. [It’s been like this] since the January 19 caucus. And if we retain our early position, we may even be thought of once they start governing, too.”

Searer says that regardless of the outcome of this year’s election, the Democratic presence in Nevada will continue.

“Obama is not just doing this to win an election, but to build a Democratic organization for years to come.

“We’re lucky to have a candidate who has invigorated the voting population of Nevada. We’ve brought in new people who have never been involved in politics before. This is a political revolution.”

The last time Nevada was a blue state was during the Clinton years, but that’s considered an anomaly because of the Republican support diverted to third party candidate Ross Perot, giving Clinton the victory here.

“A lot of people discount [the Clinton victory here],” Searer says. “We’re proving this year that a Democratic presidential candidate can win outright in Nevada.”

This year’s election is expected to garner a higher amount of scrutiny than any other. What can voters expect to see and experience when they come to the polls?

Clark County registrar of voters Larry Lomax has heard the intimidation tactics going around—reports of people being told that they can’t wear campaign paraphernalia to the polls, that they’ll need to show ID, that poll-watcher totals will dramatically increase and that those poll-watchers will be ready to make the day as difficult as possible for election workers—and he wants to dispel a few rumors:

• No one will be turned away, regardless of what they’re wearing. “The law says if they’re wearing hats, buttons, anything that can be removed, they’ll be asked to remove them. But if it’s a shirt, they can enter the polling place and vote, but once they’ve voted, they have to leave immediately.”

• Almost no one is asked for ID at polling places, and that won’t change this year. Lomax says ID is only required when “discrepancies” arise when registrations don’t jive with records—for example, your signature may look slightly different, or the name “McArthur” is entered as “Mc Arthur”—and all voters will be sent letters notifying them of such discrepancies. If they don’t respond to the letters, they’ll be asked for ID—it’s that simple. Lomax is quick to add that many voters want to show their IDs anyway. “They actually can get quite angry when we tell them it’s not needed.”

• Anyone is welcome to come and observe poll activity, but cannot under any circumstances talk to or approach voters. Lomax says this rule is frequently—sometimes flagrantly—violated. “In 2004, our biggest problem was when a voter was in the wrong polling place, if an observer saw someone leaving without voting, they’d encourage them to stay and vote a provisional ballot,” Lomax says. “The problem there is provisional ballots are federal level only, so the voter misses out on voting on the full ballot.”

So the rule is simple: If you’re approached or talked to in any way, ask to talk to the “team leader” of the polling place. Many voters have been intimidated or coerced in the past, so Lomax encourages you to speak up. It’s your right, after all.

A few more things of note:

• Because of the roughly 100,000 additional registered voters in this cycle, Lomax has expanded early voting operations from 16 locations to 22. When your sample ballot arrives in the mail, you’ll be notified of areas where you can go to vote prior to November 4, such as grocery stores. Lomax encourages doing so, as polls could be jam-packed come election day. You can also find early voting locations by going online to accessclarkcounty.com/elections.

• It’s said every year, but filling your sample ballot out in advance will greatly help out your fellow voter, who may be waiting in long lines this year. Lomax says the number of voting machines has been increased from 3,000 in 2004 to more than 4,000 to accommodate demand.

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Ken Miller is the editor of Las Vegas Magazine, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant ...

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