How Nevada Got the Blues

The Silver State’s gradual shift from Republican to Democratic rests on more than just ethnicity

Photo by Carson City Convention & Visitors Bureau

Photo by Carson City Convention & Visitors Bureau

How did Nevada turn so blue so quickly? It’s a question many were asking in 2008 and 2012, when President Obama carried the swing state.

Analysts have correctly attributed the rise of Nevada Democrats to changing ethnic demographics and Senator Harry Reid’s emphasis on shoring up the party’s infrastructure. But a recent New York Times opinion column poses some other, equally interesting explanations.

How Fragile is the New Democratic Coalition?” asks Thomas Edsall, a journalism professor at Columbia University and former political reporter. He notes that Barack Obama won a larger popular and electoral vote nationwide in 2012 than Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis did in losing the 1988 presidential race, but that Dukakis actually won 129 more counties than Obama did.

How? Edsall writes, “In the simplest terms, Democrats started to win populous suburban counties in big states with lots of Electoral College votes beginning with Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, at the same time that they began to lose sparsely populated rural counties, many of which lie in small states with very few Electoral College votes.” He cites the Democratic decline in less populous West Virginia and rise in more suburban Pennsylvania to support this argument.

Nevada also exemplifies this change. It’s one of the nation’s most urbanized states, with 72 percent of the population in Clark County, about 20 percent in the Reno-Carson City area and the rest in 14 counties spread over more than 100,000 square miles.

The Silver State has often mirrored national trends. Since 1912, Nevada’s electoral votes have gone for the losing presidential candidate only once (Gerald Ford in 1976 instead of Jimmy Carter). From 1932 to 1980, Democrats controlled Congress all but four years, and Nevada’s congressional delegation reflected that influence, as did its voter rolls (though Nevada Democrats often were more conservative than their national counterparts). Beginning in the 1990s, Nevada became a harbinger of the demographic changes in store for the rest of the country, with an influx of Latinos to the southern part of the state that further reduced the influence of more conservative, sparsely-populated rural counties.

Yet Democrats’ domination has been far from complete. The party claims about 45 percent of registered voters in Clark County, the state’s most populous area. But Nevada has a Republican governor whom many have anointed for a second term, a Republican U.S. senator, an evenly divided House delegation and a legislature that is Democratic but hardly liberal.

One explanation may lie with one of Edsall’s sources, Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist who describes the rise of a “creative class” in the country. In 2012, he found, Obama won more affluent urban counties—the typical homes for scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and other so-called creatives—while Mitt Romney did better in “metros with larger shares of blue-collar workers in manufacturing, transportation, and construction.”

While Obama carried both of Nevada’s major metropolitan areas easily enough, the state ranks infamously low in high school and college graduates, graduate students and support for education—all important factors for the development of such a creative class. Its main industry, gaming, certainly hasn’t put a premium on advanced education, and much of the talk we hear from state politicians about the value of education is just that: talk.

Will Nevada continue its leftward tilt? Time will tell. In the meantime, Edsall’s article is worth a read.

Why do you think Nevadans increasingly vote Democratic? Is the trend likely to continue? Tell us in the comments section below.