Can Kerry beat the odds?

A Vegas casino table can feel like a focus group. When I sat down to play $5 blackjack at the Monte Carlo on the Las Vegas Strip, I found myself surrounded by a well-dressed guy from Massachusetts, a drug counselor from somewhere in the Midwest, a schoolteacher from Phoenix, and an extremely drunk dude from Denver. Wow, I thought, I’d love to know how these people will be voting. (I also thought: Should I double down here with the dealer showing a nine? And will Slate let me expense my extensive gambling losses?)

Sadly, it’s taboo to talk politics at the tables. The one person willing to go there was the dealer. When she ID’d a guy who turned out to be old enough to play, she said that he’d passed “the global test.” Then, after not getting a sufficient response, she mumbled that she wished “someone like Goldwater” were running this year.

As this painstaking research might suggest, Nevada leans conservative. It’s gone Republican in every presidential vote since 1968, except for two Clinton wins eked out with a huge hand from Ross Perot. There’s an obvious libertarian streak here and a surprising number of religious conservatives. (Mormons abound.) For Kerry to take the state, he’ll have to steal it from Bush’s grasp.

Still, polls this year have run tight. To suss out which factors might swing the state, I spoke with several locals—including a former governor, a professional poker player, and the guy who created the “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” ad campaign. Some possible election-deciding phenomena:

The Two Nevadas
There are essentially two Nevadas. The first is Clark County—Las Vegas and its environs. Voters here skew Democratic, with a large minority population and a heavily urban populace. The second Nevada includes everything but Vegas—Reno (the only other population center), empty ranchland, and even emptier government land (with nuclear test sites, windswept military bases, and the infamous “Area 51“). These voters are solidly conservative.

Given this divide, the recipe for a Bush victory is clear: Come out of the hayseed counties ahead by 60,000 to 70,000 votes and hope Kerry can’t make up the difference in and around Vegas. But if one variable might throw this GOP game plan off track it is …

Yucca Mountain
Most issues in Nevada are the same as anywhere else: Iraq, the economy, and so forth. Then there’s Yucca Mountain—the Nevada-specific issue.

Yucca has long been slated to serve as a repository for the nation’s nuclear waste. As Slate’s Chris Suellentrop has pointed out, Nevada is where we hide all our unmentionables: gambling, prostitution … toxic sludge. In this case, the waste would be buried inside the mountain. Since the mountain is only 90 miles from Las Vegas, most Nevadans are less than thrilled with this idea.

George W. Bush made noises, in his 2000 campaign, about never letting Yucca turn into a waste dump. Yet it seems to have become a near fait accompli on his watch. Kerry, meanwhile, in a case of laser-focused, state-specific pandering, has sworn he will not let Yucca go toxic.

It’s not so clear that Kerry, as president, could or would carry out this promise. (It would mean sticking other states with the waste instead and would require some serious cooperation from Congress.) It’s also not clear that Nevadans care all that much. There’s significant Yucca Mountain Fatigue across the state, with candidates having hammered at this issue in every election cycle, and many residents are resigned by now to a bad outcome. Still, there are thousands of newcomers to the state who are not yet fatigued by the issue, and in a close race it might swing just enough votes to make a difference.

The New New Nevada
When I say there are thousands of newcomers, I’m not kidding. Nevada has been the country’s fastest growing state for 17 years running. This trend makes life easy for real-estate agents but miserable for campaign workers. According to Billy Vasiliadis, the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” ad guy (and a Democratic bigwig), you have to “re-win” the state every time. “It’s not like, for example, the Cubans in Florida,” he says. “There are no organized minority groups here, or seniors’ groups, because the population is so transient. That makes it very hard to find and recruit voters.”

Of Nevada’s rapid growth last year, 79 percent came in Clark County. At first glance, this number would seem to aid Kerry’s chances. Many of these arrivals were Latinos (coming for low-wage casino jobs) who can be expected to trend Democratic. (The massive Culinary Workers Union, which represents most casino workers, has fought hard to organize its members for Kerry.) But registering Latino voters has been tough. Casino employees work odd hours, so it’s hard to find them at home, and Latinos whose households include illegal aliens tend to fear registration.

Meanwhile, the other big influx here has been that of retirees, who in Nevada trend conservative. They’ve retired here for lower taxes, and with no school-age children, they’re loath to cough up money for government services that they could be spending at the slots.

Sneaky Ballot Initiatives
Democrats here have pushed a ballot initiative that raises Nevada’s minimum wage. It’s getting big support, particularly from casino workers. This should help Kerry. Why? Because the true goal of this initiative isn’t to raise the minimum wage, but rather to motivate left-leaning voters to turn out on Election Day.

Hotshot Dems
Nevada’s senior senator, Democrat Harry Reid, nearly lost his job in his 1998 re-election bid. So, Reid geared up for the fight of his life this November, bringing in a slew of hired-gun strategists. When the big fight never really materialized—Reid’s expected opponent dropped out, and the GOP replacement faltered—all this imported talent stuck around and turned its sights on the presidential race, boosting party registration, and devising get-out-the-vote tactics.

Economic Outlier
For all these potential Kerry assets, there’s one big Bush advantage: Kerry can’t play the economy card here. While other swing states have been crushed by job losses, Nevada has done just fine, thank you. The tourist industry has recovered from 9/11, and work is plentiful. As a result, one of Bush’s main vulnerabilities is a strength here.

So, who’ll win? Were I a betting man, I’d bet on Bush. Default goes to the GOP here, and Kerry will need massive Clark County turnout to score an upset. But real hope still exists for Kerry.

In a nod to Nevada tradition, I’d hoped to offer some odds for this election. But while there are online odds posted for Florida (Bush is favored as I write this), and Ohio (Kerry at the moment), I can find no propositions regarding Nevada. Even the handicappers, it seems, deem this race too close to call.