How Obama Defies Gravity

The battleground fight in Nevada is a window into how the president can win—despite a battered economy.

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

Photograph by Marc Serota/Getty Images.

LAS VEGAS—Nevada should be a state Barack Obama has no chance of winning. In an election about the state of the economy, no state has been harder hit. The unemployment rate is 11.6 percent, the highest in the nation. Sixty-one percent of the homes are worth less than the mortgage on them, also the highest in the nation. Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert, but everyone there is underwater. 

Still, Barack Obama has a shot in Nevada. He won Nevada by 12 points in 2008 and an average of polls right now shows the president ahead by 5 points (and perhaps more if you believe pollsters underestimate the Hispanic vote). Analysts in both parties say the state is the president’s to lose. Nevada is the most acute example of the key political dynamic in this election: The weight of a bad economy should sink the incumbent, but a combination of fortunate demographics and superior organization in the battleground states might rescue him in the end.

The economy in Nevada isn’t just bad, it’s broken. “Growth was heroin to a junkie in this state,” says Billy Vassiliadis, the Democratic wise man and advertising and marketing executive whose firm has helped sell Las Vegas to the world. At the height of the boom in 2006, construction represented 12 percent of the workforce. “The joke is that in the boom years we were the only state that had construction workers building homes for construction workers,” says GOP Rep. Joe Heck. Since the housing bubble burst, 90,000 construction jobs have been lost. Construction workers now represent only 4 percent of the workforce. No one expects the industry to return to earlier heights. Anyone who might want to swing a hammer in another state can’t leave, because they’d lose money on their house. In the first quarter of 2012, Nevada had the No. 1 foreclosure rate in the nation. The rate of debt to house value in Nevada is 114 percent. People aren’t just hurting, they’re imprisoned. 

This is not a new story. Nevada has had the highest unemployment rate in the country for the last two years and has led in foreclosure filings and the share of homes underwater. But the president’s strategists think they know the key to running in such tough times: make your opponent objectionable and organize like hell.

Democrats have run that playbook before. In 2010, Harry Reid was supposed to lose. The economy was in even worse shape than it is today. As Senate majority leader, he was a perfect receptacle for people’s anger. In Reid’s Democratic primary, 10 percent of the members of his own party voted for “none of the above.” But Reid was lucky in his opponent. Sharron Angle, the unpredictable Tea Party candidate, was a bad campaigner and offered a range of zany proposals that Reid’s campaign could exploit. 

Obama’s strategists are relentless in framing the election as a choice. They have seized on Romney’s claim that the housing market needs to “hit bottom” before it can get healthyEven some of Romney’ supporters found that comment insensitive to the local pain. The president, by contrast, in each of his visits to the state has come bearing federal help for the housing mess. The federal rescue has been tepid, but the president will argue that at least he’s fighting for people, instead of leaving them to the mercy of the market. (Obama has to make amends for some of his own past statements: “You don’t blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you’re trying to save for college,” he said in 2010, to the irritation of Sen. Reid and other officials in the city that relies so heavily on tourism.)

Mitt Romney isn’t Sharron Angle. He is a far more disciplined and earthbound candidate, so it will be harder to demonize him. Sure, he may have gaffed now and again, but Angle’s gaffes were damaging because voters felt they exposed a fundamental extremism. It will be harder to caricature Romney that deeply.

Harry Reid needed more than just a bad opponent, and Obama will too. The growing Hispanic population helps Obama in Nevada perhaps more than any other state. In 2008, 15 percent of the electorate was Hispanic. Nearly 2 million Latinos have turned 18 since then. In national polls, Obama leads Romney by as much as 40 percent among Hispanics.

But turning Hispanic residents into Hispanic voters requires organization. Democrats in Nevada have been perfecting their machine for the last 10 years under Reid’s deliberate guidance. The Democrats in every battleground state boast about their team, but the Nevada operation is considered among the best of the best.

The key for any party is building a strong list of supporters and possible supporters so you can target your efforts to the most persuadable and motivated voters. Reid convinced the Democratic Party to move the state’s caucus in 2008 to early in the process. That flushed out scores of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to support Obama and Clinton who then went on the list.

If the list is maintained, it gets better with each election as the party adds more information to each person’s record: what issues they care about, what made them vote in previous cycles—a knock on the door, an email, or a phone call—and how much attention they needed to go to the polls. 

Sixty percent of Nevada’s voters vote in the two-week window before Election Day. The parties get a daily update of who has voted, so they know who on their list has cast a ballot and who needs more persuasion. In 2010, some Democratic voters got as many as 40 “touches,” the term used to describe any type of campaign-to-voter communication. Nevada Republicans are working hard to build their list too, but they haven’t been as organized over the last few elections as the Democrats have.

Reid has another incentive to turn out Democrats. The junior senator from Nevada, Republican Dean Heller, is up for re-election. If Reid can help Democrat Shelley Berkley flip that seat into the Democratic column, that would make it harder for Republicans to take control of the Senate. (They need four Democratic seats to steal Reid’s majority leader title.)

Next week both Obama and Romney will be in Reno for the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. Though the topic will be military issues, the economy will surely dominate the political conversation. Like the rest of the country, there are a few encouraging signs even amid the bleakness. Tourism has been up recently and “the spend”—the money tourists drop while visiting—has been improving. Still, the economy isn’t set to recover fully until 2017. That would be a year after Obama’s second term. Mitt Romney is hoping Nevadans won’t want to wait that long to give someone else a chance.