Why Bush Scored in Nevada

Why Bush Scored in Nevada

The GOP message machine triumphs.


Nevada went for Bush, but it shouldn’t have.

No, I don’t mean that its voting machines were rigged, or that Republicans engaged in widespread voter intimidation. What I mean is that on most big-ticket issues–on the sorts of issues that, historically, elections turn on–most Nevadans disagreed more with the national Republican Party than they did with the Democrats. On what is arguably the single biggest issue facing the state, the opening of a vast nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, a statewide survey conducted by the Office of the Governor’s Agency for Nuclear Projects in the run-up to the election showed that 77 percent were opposed to the project, which is supported by Bush but opposed by Kerry. Knocking on doors, canvassers also found strong unease about the direction of the war in Iraq, the state of the economy and job security–the critical “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” litmus test posited by no less a conservative icon than Ronald Reagan. They also expressed concern about Bush’s water distribution policies in the arid West, about recent judicial rulings encroaching on Native American tribal sovereignty–a big issue in Nevada–about Bush’s proposals on Social Security, the lack of affordable healthcare, the price of gasoline and so on.

Yet on election day, George W. Bush won Nevada by 21,567 votes–mirroring the nation, the split was 51 percent to 48 percent. This was just slightly slimmer than the 21,597 edge Bush enjoyed four years earlier.

“The worst part is not comprehending the other side,” says Sheila Leslie, a liberal State Assemblywoman from the northern city of Reno. “I’ve talked to many, many people who voted for that man, and I still don’t understand it. They agree he’s wrong on Iraq, tax cuts, the environment, and they still voted for him. The tipping point, they can’t seem to articulate. They didn’t line up the policies of the President with their own personal views, because if they’d done so they would have voted for John Kerry. It was a gut vote, not an intellectual one. It makes no sense. It wasn’t a rational vote.”

Indeed, many Nevadans who voted for Bush turned around and supported Democrats in other races. Sheila Leslie’s share of the vote went from 53 percent in 2002 to 63 percent this time around. In the Washoe County area, of which Reno makes up the major part, Democrats picked up two State Assembly seats, helping to insure that the State Assembly stayed in Democratic hands and balancing a Republican State Senate and a moderate Republican governor (who used to be a Democrat), Kenny Guinn. Democrat Harry Reid–soon to become Nevada’s first Senate minority leader–was comfortably re-elected (though Reid made sure to ally himself with the gun lobby and the mining interests, and appealed to culturally conservative Bush voters with his anti-choice stand). And a state minimum-wage initiative passed overwhelmingly. Moreover, legislators who had supported Governor Guinn’s move to raise $900 million in taxes in 2003 as an emergency measure to keep the state’s schools open were mostly re-elected–despite harsh campaigns against them by right-wing Republicans and conservative media outlets.

Strategists on both sides point to cultural issues as a crucial factor in Kerry’s defeat. “The economy, taxes, healthcare, that was lower down the list,” says Earlene Forsythe, chair of the Nevada GOP and a longtime Washoe County resident. “The number-one issue was morals.” Number two, according to Forsythe, was terrorism. AP exit poll data actually suggested a slightly more complex scenario: Fully one-quarter of voters said terrorism was their number-one concern, and 88 percent of these voters supported Bush. Number two was Iraq–and the voters who cited that as their top issue broke solidly for Kerry. But number three, beating out the economy and taxes, was morals, and three-quarters of those voters chose Bush. Forsythe says the Republicans identified and targeted two key new-voter blocs in Nevada: the “moral moms” and the “security moms.” “They felt safer with Homeland Security with Bush at the head,” Forsythe explains. “He promised to bring it to the terrorists and keep it away from our homeland. So they trusted him.”

Analysts on the Democratic side agree that many voters were primarily motivated by these concerns, although they are less certain about why. “Whenever a group of people will vote for a President, put a man in power and do that against their own self-interest, their economic self-interest…” begins Richard “Skip” Daly, business manager of the Laborers, Hod Carriers, Cement Workers and Miners Local Union 169, before stopping and rewording his thought. He tries again: “They voted for a Republican who’s got the biggest deficit spending ever; they voted against all of their self-interest. And the issue that came out in exit polling was ‘we voted on the moral values.’ What that says to me is, these people believe it’s more important than their family’s well-being that we don’t have abortion. And, to me, that is an intolerance that we have not experienced in this country since we put into insignificance the Ku Klux Klan.”

With five Electoral College votes, Nevada was one of the key swing states of the desert West. Much of the pro-Kerry effort was focused on the state’s second city, Reno, nestled in a high desert bowl, surrounded by mountains that, by the time of the election, were thickly blanketed in snow.

Almost every week, from early September onward, hundreds of volunteers–mobilized by trade unions, by grassroots organizations such as America Coming Together and MoveOn.org, and by the Democratic Party itself–turned out to canvass the town. They reminded people at the door that 86,000 Nevadans had lost their health insurance since Bush came into office, that workers were losing overtime pay because of new laws rammed through by Bush’s Congressional allies; they talked to Latino immigrants about deportations, detention without trial and other rollbacks of the rights of migrants; talked to Native Americans at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony about tribal sovereignty. The week before the election, it seemed that half of Northern California’s activists had decamped across the rugged Sierra Nevada, driving I-80 over the winter-wonderland landscape of the Lake Tahoe area, 7,000 feet above sea level, down into the old casino-lined streets of downtown Reno and out into the desert suburbs, to put on one last great push for John Kerry.

Reno was bombarded with an unprecedented number of TV and radio political ads. Kerry came to speak before a crowd of 12,000 people, Edwards visited, Teresa Heinz Kerry visited, Elizabeth Edwards came to the county three times, Bush came twice (the first President to campaign in Reno since Reagan, in 1984, says Forsythe) and Laura Bush and Dick Cheney each dropped in three times.

The Kerry campaign’s Nevada strategy was to shore up the Democratic majority in Clark County, home to Las Vegas and to about two-thirds of the state’s population, and to tamp down the Republican majority in Washoe County, home to roughly 20 percent of the state’s population. It didn’t work. When the votes were tallied, the Democrats had managed to narrow Bush’s margin in Washoe County to 4 percent, down from 9 percent in 2000; but that achievement was diluted by the fact that 67 percent of Washoe County’s registered voters came out to vote, a lower percentage than in any other county in the state–thus numerically diminishing the signficance of Kerry’s percentage gains there. And the strategy failed entirely in Las Vegas. In Clark County Kerry did win, but only by 26,000 votes, out of a total of over half a million cast, nowhere near enough to cancel out the conservative bent of the rest of the state.

This was particularly disappointing given that the county had nearly 44,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Indeed, according to an article by John Judis, posted on the online version of The New Republic in August, in the first eight months of 2004 Democrats picked up a net gain over the Republicans of more than 15,000 new registered voters in Clark County, much of it due to the registration of Latino migrants. One Latino group alone, Voices for Working Families, claimed to have registered 23,324 new voters by late September.

But after all was said and done, on election day Latino voters, in particular, appeared to respond to the Republican Party’s conservative “morals” message–as large numbers of Latinos also did in Reno, according to both Democratic and GOP strategists there. Before the election, newspapers reported that Republican strategists thought they would need 40 percent of the Latino vote to win. AP exit poll data suggest they hit that target.

After the election, local Republicans were gleeful that their focus on “values” had paid off. “The Republicans embraced family values and morals, which is what this race was all about,” Washoe County Republican Central Committee spokesman Bob Larkin argues. “The liberal portion of the Democratic Party was ostracizing Latinos because of their family values, and the Republican Party was embracing them.” The GOP’s Forsythe also believes this issue won it for Bush in Nevada. “We were able to get the Christian vote out,” she says proudly. “The people from the churches. We went fishing where the fishes are. We targeted precincts. ‘Moral moms’ wanted to get back to family values. They’re not antigay, but they’re anti-gay marriage. That was very important to them–and abortion.”

Catholic churches like Little Flower, in southwest Reno, had targeted Latino voters with pamphlets and sermons on abortion and gay marriage. Canvassers in Latino neighborhoods found that especially among men, these were bedrock issues–far more so than was the case in white communities in Reno, where more people were concerned about terrorism and Iraq, and where the Republicans concentrated more on pushing the fear buttons. “We would knock on a door where the woman is the citizen,” says Tahis Castro, a 61-year-old, originally from Costa Rica, and a longtime organizer with the Culinary Workers Union. “And the husband, who is not a citizen, comes up and asks, ‘Is he supporting gay marriage between man and man, and woman and woman?” The Republicans saturated the two Spanish-language TV stations, Univision and Azteca America, with ads on terrorism and taxes–but even more so on “values” and religion.

By contrast, on the English-language stations, the infamous wolves ad ran more frequently than ads about “values.” Anti-Kerry spots also ran–on the Karl Rove principle of shoring up your own weak spots by attacking your opponent’s strong suits–accusing Kerry of flip-flopping on Yucca Mountain, leaving unsaid the fact that Bush was strongly in favor of the dump.

On election day Spanish radio ads warned those who hadn’t yet cast ballots about the moral carnage that would result from a Kerry victory. And GOP precinct organizers worked their lists, feeding off an unprecedented statewide effort that involved more than 2 million mail drops and more than 200,000 volunteer phone calls, and using PalmPilots to e-mail back to local HQ the names of likely Republican voters who hadn’t yet voted, who needed to be prodded to turn out as the day wore on.

Castro says that union canvassers tried to hammer home the message that the election was about “jobs, overtime, healthcare, education for Latinos and respect on the job.” Yet it appears that a substantial minority of union members didn’t respond. In 2000 fully 49 percent of union members who voted in Nevada favored Bush. The data for 2004 is not yet fully available, although exit polls suggested 43 percent union support for Bush in Nevada, consistent with the nationwide figure for this year’s election.

At the same time, outside Nevada’s urban centers, in the sparsely populated, non-unionized rural counties, Bush consolidated his support, apparently defeating Kerry on “morals,” especially among the Mormon communities of eastern Nevada, and also on wedge issues of more concern to Western Goldwater/McCain Republicans. Hunters and sportsmen, fired up by a strongly pro-Second Amendment speech delivered by Cheney in the conservative community of Elko and buoyed by the Republican Party’s leafleting of Nevada’s gun shops, came out against the Democrats’ gun-control policies–policies that some Western progressives say must now change. The Democrats, says Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (who took time off from his non-partisan job to campaign for the Democrats) should say something “about the sanctity of the right to keep and bear arms. In the West, it’s part of what we’re about. It kills us with labor unions here. I’ll bet a hundred dollars that the labor voters who voted for Bush did so on guns. They’re hunters and love their guns.”

The mining industry–and, the county results suggest, many mine workers–reacted against Kerry’s calls for stricter environmental standards and antipollution measures. And ranchers came out against “big government”–which the Democrats are seen here to be creatures of. “The Bureau of Land Management in rural Nevada is like Satan,” explains 74-year-old Nevada historian Jim Hulse, professor emeritus at the University of Nevada in Reno and author of books such as The Silver State, over a coffee in his house west of downtown. “BLM people are not at all welcome in their efforts to manage the range lands or restrict off-road usage. They’re anathema to rural Nevada.” In counties defined by mining and ranching, Bush got two to three times as many votes as Kerry.

These disparate groups, when added to the much larger urban vote totals from Las Vegas and Reno, proved numerically strong enough to keep Nevada red.

Three days after the election I headed to Reno and parked myself in the gaudy Circus Circus casino-hotel–one of only two fully unionized casinos in the city–for four days, in a twelfth-floor room looking out across the gridlike streets to the snowy slopes beyond. The casinos were in full swing, and the video arcades at Circus Circus–with games-of-the-times like Target Terror–were jammed, as were the bars, strip clubs and instant-wedding chapels around town. As I listened to conversations, hardly anybody seemed to be talking politics. Reno must be a particularly galling town for obsessive political types to live in; it is, after all, where people come to deliberately block out the “real world,” the world of politics and wars (the Falluja offensive was just getting under way) and economic uncertainties, behind a great canopy of blinking, twitching neon pizazz.

There was an irony in talking with residents about the electoral victory of moral fundamentalism while garrisoned in a junior version of Sin City, surrounded by casinos and bars and topless cabarets, by porno booths and, in the desert counties outside town, legalized brothels. Quite clearly, these sin palaces were not about to go out of business anytime soon. In fact, the economic elite of northern Nevada that profits from the “sin” business loved the Republican victory–loved the lower taxes it heralded, the deregulation of the workplace, the tilting of the playing field ever more steeply against organized labor.

The election outcome has certainly emboldened powerful fundamentalist figures in already conservative parts of the country–Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, etc.–and strengthened their position in Washington. But in places like Nevada and, even more, California and New York, Bush’s victory–largely cobbled together, in Nevada at least, on the issues of gun control, abortion, gay marriage and fear of terrorism–may be felt most immediately in other areas: for instance, in changes to the economic and regulatory role of federal government, the compact between government and citizen on Social Security, taxes, workplace protection, environmental safeguards and the provision of healthcare. Republican Bob Larkin–the local spokesman who’d previously told me the election was all about “values”–talks about how Bush was “hired” by Republicans to bring about economic deregulation and expansion.

“In an area like Reno,” says Rich Houts of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Northern Nevada, a huge man with an unkempt, bushy beard, “it’d be very easy for employers to find loopholes to exempt employees from overtime. In the service industries, the casinos, they rely on overtime to survive. If they lose overtime, working two jobs they still won’t survive. I’m worried about more attacks on our union–like they did to the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] folks; saying, ‘You can’t belong to unions.’ Or coming up with legislation that ties our hands so bad we can’t function. Privatizing Social Security is a major concern for us. [Bush’s] attack on overtime pay–it’s just going to keep getting worse. The workplace is going to become a much more dangerous place to be.”

“The intellect and the ability of freethinking is not in the hearts and minds of the people who voted,” asserts Skip Daly. He was sitting in an office on the wall of which hung a poster with Pastor Niemöller’s famous quote about the Nazis, “First they came for the Jews….”

“I believe the Republican Party is saying, ‘We’re no longer going to protect the minority.’ I’m dumbfounded at where, when I follow these things to their conclusion, this country is headed. Please tell me I got it wrong. I just don’t think people are thinking. I don’t. It’s dumbfounding to me. We’ve turned a corner.”

Vicki LoSasso, a 56-year-old women’s rights organizer, who helped coordinate drivers to take people to the polls and who recalled proudly that more than 1,000 volunteers descended on the town’s Democratic headquarters the weekend before the election, was feeling particularly galled by the outcome. “We put so much into this, and it really felt like it was going to make a difference,” LoSasso says. “And we still lost.” She worried about a new round of cuts to federal grants for programs tailored to abused women and children–the government recently cut $325,000 in Violence Against Women Act grants to Nevada. She was also concerned about a moral tyranny–not necessarily one that would be imposed on Nevada overnight but a creeping cultural transformation that would emanate outward from the fundamentalist core of the country. “I honestly have some deep fears about the whole country becoming a theocracy if the trends we see continue.” Deep down, LoSasso felt it was possible the Republicans had rigged the electronic voting machines to insure a victory. But, at the same time, she also realized it was likely they had simply outvoted the rest of us. “What’s more frightening is that they might not have stolen it.” She laughs nervously, a middle-aged blond woman in Southwestern jewelry and casual-but-expensive winter clothing. “If they didn’t steal it, there are more of them than there are of us.”

“I’m trying to figure out where I fit in a post-11/2 world,” LoSasso bluntly stated. Tahis Castro told me that the only other time she’d felt so bereft, so personally affected, was when her mother had died. A third woman suggested America was “rushing forward into the 1950s.”

Reno is a historically small “c” conservative town, with weaker trade unions than in Las Vegas. Yet it still has a healthy underside of radicalism. Some of the people who make up this radical underside told me they now feared “payback.” Their fear was likely exaggerated in the misery of the moment; but some of it was based on real evidence of a vindictive conservatism, which targets dissenters as if they were enemies rather than simply political opponents.

A few days earlier the tax-exempt status of the NAACP had come under scrutiny after its president had made supposedly anti-Bush speeches; in Reno, the head of the state ACLU phoned me and asked me not to quote his staff making anti-Bush comments because the organization didn’t want to suffer the same fate as the NAACP.

NAACP staffers and other African-American community activists, meanwhile, talked of an “under the wire,” but all-too-real, attack on civil rights and affirmative-action programs in a state with more than its fair share of white supremacist groups and disaffected young skinheads. “I wonder if these far-right groups see it as an opportunity to be more visible,” mused Janet Serial of the NAACP, after she’d mentioned that Reno was known to some as the little Mississippi of the West. “They’re there, and they played a big part in this election.”

Union organizers, such as Skip Daly and Rich Houts, anticipate a Republican push for national right-to-work laws specifically to damage union power as payback for their support of Kerry. “We’re going to have to educate our members,” Houts argues. “Most rank-and-file members have the attitude, ‘We’ve got a union contract, so we’re protected forever’–not realizing one sweep of the pan, or one bill, could take away that contract. It may not affect union members immediately, but there will be a long-term effect once they start negotiating contracts in a year or two.”

Republicans and Democrats in Reno have very little common ground politically these days. But both groups agree that the Republicans’ conservative “morals” message, along with the GOP’s ability to tap into the populace’s fear of terrorism, contributed handily to Bush’s narrow election victory in Nevada. If I were a betting man, however, I’d have found a bookie in some neon-lit corner of town and wagered a fair sum that Houts was right: Despite the voters’ concerns about morals and terrorism, the election’s impact on Reno’s residents would be primarily economic. The casino workers stand to lose overtime pay; more and more working families will probably lose access to health insurance; trade-union members will sooner or later run up against newly emboldened employers during contract negotiations; and more poor people are going to find their access to government programs in jeopardy, while their wealthier neighbors in the vast estates dotting the foothills around town will see their tax bills lowered, and lowered again, as the second Bush term gets under way.

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