Everything Old Is New Again

Here’s the latest news:  Nevada is a bellwether state.

Want proof?  Try watching television for half an hour without seeing Barack Obama or Mitt Romney approving this message.

Lots of stories in the national media have focused on the Senate race between Rep. Shelley Berkley, D- Nev., and Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. Set aside that it may be a tight race and both of them can be attacked (Berkley over the ethics investigation, which she is fighting well in ads, and Heller over voting twice to destroy Medicare, which doesn’t seem to bother him). Control of the Senate could be at stake, since it’s 53-47 now, and Nevada happens to have the majority leader, so Harry Reid has a bit of an interest in all this.

National Journal popped up to report that the Congressional District 3 race between Rep. Joe Heck, a Republican, and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, a Democrat, is a—you guessed it—“bellwether” battle.  The article did a pretty good job of summarizing the candidates and the issues.

What makes this a bit odd is that the presidential and senate races, analysts tell you, will turn on what happens in Washoe County. The general theory is that rural Nevada is insanely Republican and Clark County is Democratic, but Washoe County is more closely divided.

All true, as far as it goes. But the following is worth bearing in mind:

• Nevada used to be more strongly libertarian-minded, but now is less so. That makes it a little harder to run statewide as a rugged individualist. Will Romney and Heller temper that message, or try different messages for different parts of the state—which, in these Internet-y times, doesn’t work the way it used to?

• Since April, for every Republican who has registered to vote in Nevada, two Democrats have registered. This has enabled Democrats to open up a 47,500-voter lead. They are justifiably celebrating.

But nonpartisan and Independent American voters combine to account for about half as many voters as are registered Democratic. They tend to lean right or, as in the Independent Americans’ case, fall over. So Democrats still have to shake loose the nonpartisans and the seven moderate Republicans who regularly meet beneath a portrait of Nelson Rockefeller.

• In 1976, Nevadans cast their presidential ballots in favor of Gerald Ford, though not by a lot. That was the only time since 1908 that Nevadans haven’t cast their electoral votes for the winning presidential candidate.

The key to understand that trend is that Nevada hasn’t shaped the rest of the country, but the rest of the country shapes Nevada. For the past century, Nevada has grown through in-migration, and new arrivals didn’t leave their views at the border; they brought them along. In the 1920s, the U.S. leaned Republican, as did Nevada. From 1932 to 1980, the U.S. trended Democratic, so Nevada did—and it usually went Republican when the rest of the country did. Since 1980, the national trends have leaned Republican and more conservative than in the past, and Nevada has been part of that.

All of which makes Nevada, yes, a bellwether state.