What the Numbers in Nevada’s House Race Don’t Prove

Kate Marshall lost to Mark Amodei by 20 percentage points in the race in Congressional District 2. What does it mean?

If you listen to some analysts, it means a lot more to Barack Obama’s future than anybody else’s. Nevada is a bellwether state—only once since 1912 have its electoral votes gone to the losing presidential candidate. Washoe County is a key county, and Marshall did poorly there. Therefore, it’s a sign that Obama is in trouble.

Now, that isn’t to say that Obama is not in trouble.  But if any congressional special election was a sign of that, it was the race for Anthony Weiner’s old seat in Brooklyn and Queens that a Republican won—and even that may serve more as a wakeup call than anything else.  Furthermore, it wasn’t that long ago that the Democratic victory in another New York House race for a traditionally Republican seat was a sign that Obama was invincible.

To quote Vin Scully, the genius who has broadcast for the Dodgers for 62 years, too many use statistics the way a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination. That covers the response to Amodei’s trouncing of Marshall.  And those who cite that trouncing to explain national politics are making a big mistake.

Amodei won by more than 28,000 votes out of nearly 130,000 cast. That’s less than half the number of votes in the regularly scheduled 2010 election, when the number of voters was down about 60,000 from the hotly contested 2008 presidential election. That year, Obama finished just barely behind Republican John McCain in the balloting in that district. George W. Bush won the district by 20 percent in 2000 and 16 percent in 2004. Interestingly—or not—turnout always is higher in that district in a presidential election year.

That isn’t unusual. Nor is a Republican winning easily. This was the 16th congressional election in a seat encompassing Washoe County and rural Nevada (and, in recent years, part of Clark County). Out of those 16 elections, Republicans have won … only 16 times. And Amodei’s 20-point victory still leaves him behind majorities racked up by Barbara Vucanovich, who won seven terms, and Jim Gibbons, who won five terms.

Not that there haven’t been close races.  ucanovich won her next-to-last term in 1992 over former Reno Mayor Pete Sferrazza by only 4 percent—the same year Ross Perot affected the presidential campaign, and the first time an Independent- American ran and, with the Libertarian, drew off more than 7 percent of a vote that normally would have gone to Vucanovich. Dean Heller won two terms over Jill Derby, by 5 and 7 percent.

If you want to understand what happened to Marshall, the Heller races tell us a bit. The national GOP took a greater interest in that race than in previous ones because Heller actually was in some trouble. This year, the national party wanted to hold this seat and make a point. In Amodei, it had a candidate whom rural Nevada’s major industry, mining, adored (he ran the Mining Association); who came from Carson City, which eliminated a major town where Democrats normally had a chance; and who appealed to the seven moderate Republicans living in rural Nevada with his record.

Indeed,unlike in 2010, when Sharron Angle was the candidate, moderate Republicans up there didn’t rush to help the Democrat. Nor, it turned out, did Democrats, at least to the degree they could have. Why?

Reno has a strong Democratic party that actually tends to be a bit more liberal than its Southern Nevada counterparts. Marshall is from Reno, but not of Reno, and that distinction matters more than you might think: She lives there, but hasn’t lived there for long. Reno is an older community than Las Vegas, and often cares about that sort of thing.

Further, Marshall attacked Amodei over taxes and his ties to mining. Might she have whacked him harder on that, especially ethical issues? Perhaps. But at the same time that she tried to make Amodei unpalatable to the GOP base, she made herself less palatable to the Democratic base by criticizing Obama. That may look like good politics right now. But rural Nevada Democrats long have suffered as a minority. Are they going to strain every nerve for someone who tries to appeal more to Republicans?

Not that this is a good argument, but if you want to claim the vote is a rebuke to Obama, you could just as easily claim that it’s a defense of Obama. Silly? Yes. But there are, to quote a real conservative, the British politician Benjamin Disraeli, three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.  Use them at your peril.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.