Nevada Democrats’ Lag in Voter Registration Draws Fear of 2020 Loss

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden talks with supporters at a campaign event in Reno, Nev., Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo

The Democrat Party’s lag in voter registration in Nevada amid the novel coronavirus pandemic is drawing concerns from political strategists that the Silver State could flip to President Donald Trump in 2020.

Since the onset of the pandemic earlier this year, the well-tuned political machine built, in part, for Democrats by former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has begun to trail its Republican counterpart in one vital statistic: voter registration.

For much of the past two decades, Democrats have relied on their allies within organized labor to register thousands of new voters annually to keep elections competitive in Nevada. Partly due to large-scale in-migration from other areas of the country, with transplants being drawn by work in the state’s gaming and tourism industries, Democrats have never been at a lack of new and willing registrants. Between 2000 and 2017, Nevada’s population grew by approximately one million individuals, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The majority of the population growth has been clustered around heavily urban Clark County, which is home to Las Vegas. Clark County, which now houses three-fourths of Nevada’s total population, is increasingly the epicenter of Nevada politics. The county’s Democrat skew, thanks to voter registration and engagement efforts by powerful unions like the Culinary Workers Local 226, provided the margin of victory in close races for the Senate and governorship in 2018.

With the outbreak of coronavirus, however, that status quo seems to have been upset.

In April, the GOP surprised many by registering more voters than Democrats for the first time in years. Overall, that month Republicans added 2,512 new voters to their rolls, compared to only 2,303 for Democrats, according to data from the Nevada secretary of state’s office. The trend continued in May when the GOP added a further 3,870 voters to its universe, while Democrats only added 2,354.

Even though Nevada’s overall voting population decreased in June, attributed to routine voter list maintenance in the state’s second-largest county, Republicans surged ahead of Democrats in the months following. Between the beginning of July and the end of August, the party added more than 18,000 voters to its rolls. Democrats, in comparison, only registered about 15,000 voters during the same period.

The GOP’s dominance has shown little sign of diminishing even as Democrats kick their general election efforts into gear. In September, Republicans registered 18,136 voters to only 15,059 for Democrats.

Despite the gains, Democrats still hold a registration advantage of nearly 88,000 active voters across Nevada. The figure, though, is not daunting as first impressions might lead one to assume.

In 2016, Democrats held an even larger registration advantage, nearly 97,300 voters more, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only carried the state marginally. During that race, Clinton received 47 percent to Trump’s 45 percent among Silver State voters, with her margin of victory being a narrow 27,000 votes out of nearly 1.1 million cast total. Clinton’s performance was nearly ten percentage points worse than that of former President Barack Obama in 2008.

Given the GOP’s success in voter registration, a number of Nevada-based political strategists and activists have begun sounding the alarm that Democrats should not take the state for granted this year. Such calls have been loudest from those on the left, who spent years working to turn Nevada from purple to blue.

“I am saying every day: We are more vulnerable than you think we are,” Annette Magnus, the executive director of the Nevada Battle Born Progress, told the New York Times in September. “We frankly need to fire up our base a little more, and we have so much work in front of us. Nevada does not have the resources we need to do that yet.”

The fears presented by Magnus and other progressives are not without merit. Although Nevada has favored Democrats since Trump took office, in general, it has been a competitive battleground where neither party has been able to forge a lasting electoral majority. Apart from Obama’s impressive victories in 2008 and 2012, no presidential candidate has carried Nevada by more than five percentage points since 1988.

Nevada’s competitive environment was on display even in 2018 when Democrats rode a “blue wave” to victories up and down the ballot. That year the party’s candidates for governor and the United States Senate won their seats by less than 50,000 votes despite heavily outspending Republicans.

Complicating matters for Democrats this year in Nevada are a few significant outside factors.

First, the coronavirus pandemic has not only impacted the party’s efforts to register voters, but also its ability to mobilize. For years unions like Culinary have spent the summer ahead of a general election conducting in-person outreach door-to-door to shore up its base. The pandemic, however, made such campaigning nearly impossible until late-July, even then at a greatly scaled-down format.

Similarly, it is unclear exactly how potent the power of unions like Culinary will be this cycle. In mid-March, with coronavirus reaching its height, Nevada’s Democrat Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered a statewide economic lockdown. Given that nearly one-third of all jobs rely on tourism, the lockdown had a disproportionate effect in Nevada compared to other states.

In March, nearly 98 percent of Culinary’s more than 60,000 members, many of them employed in casinos and hotels throughout Clark County, were laid off. As of September, only half have returned back to work as the state’s economy struggles to adjust to social distancing requirements and business capacity limits. Nevada’s unemployment, which hit a high of 28 percent in March, is now down to 14 percent—still one of the highest in the country.

Although unions like Culinary have attempted to adjust to the layoffs by organizing food drives and help with utilities for their membership, there are concerns that the economic situation could depress turnout for Democrats.

Further adding to the situation is Trump’s better-than-expected polling among Latino voters, who make up nearly 20 percent of Nevada’s eligible voters. A series of polls indicate that if the general election were held today, Trump would likely get 30 percent or higher among the Latino demographic.

If accurate, the results do not bode well for the Democrat nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. In 2016, Clinton received 66 percent support among Latino voters, compared to Trump’s 28 percent, according to exit polls from the race. Although the figure seems high, it is lower than the 71 percent that Obama received in 2012.

Exit polls from 2016 indicate that Trump received 29 percent of the Latino vote in Nevada, compared to Clinton’s 60 percent. Even a minor shift in support to Trump among Latino voters in 2020 compared to four years prior could make a big difference in as competitive and diverse of a state like Nevada.

For many political observers, all of those extenuating circumstances appear to imply the presidential race in Nevada might be closer than initially thought. Biden, himself, seems to be realizing the potential threat. Last week, the Democrat nominee dispatched his vice presidential running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), to rally supporters in the Silver State.


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