In 2008 Election, Nev. County May Have Key Role

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Democrats have made big gains in voter registration in Nevada. Eric Herzik, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, says while Barack Obama may do well in Clark County, where Las Vegas is, to win the election, the race may come down to Washoe County, home to Reno.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now, to my co-host, Melissa Block. She's in Reno, Nevada to learn more about what makes that state such a hotly contested battleground.

MELISSA BLOCK: Nevada has just five electoral votes, so why are both campaigns working so feverishly, especially here in northern Nevada in Washoe County, home of Reno? For answers, I talked with long-time Nevada politics watcher Eric Herzik. He heads the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Dr. ERIC HERZIK (Political Science Department, University of Nevada, Reno): In national politics, Nevada has really been a swing state for easily the last four elections. We voted for Bill Clinton twice. We voted for George Bush twice, by small margins both times. So no party really dominates in Nevada politics and has not easily for the last 20 years.

BLOCK: It's thought of, though, as a red state.

Dr. HERZIK: It's kind of funny that Nevada is thought of as this kind of reliable red state because, if you think about it, we're a state that's built on gambling. The bars never close. We have legalized prostitution, and by vote referendum, we've enforced very liberal abortion laws in the early 90s. This is not the social conservative Eden that Pat Robertson is going to retire to. I think what happened in 2004, John Kerry just ran a terrible campaign.

BLOCK: How so?

Dr. HERZIK: Well, one thing you don't want to do is come across as an eastern liberal that really is looking down upon a part of fly-over America. And I don't think Kerry ever overcame that image. And a matter of fact, he never pronounced the state's name correctly.

BLOCK: Oh, he said Nev-ah-da?

Dr. HERZIK: Nev-ah-der. He just never captured the imagination of the Nevada voter. I don't know that Nevadans love George Bush. And if the Democrats would have had better turn out in Clark County, Las Vegas, which is the strength of the Democratic Party, the state easily could have been blue instead of red.

BLOCK: If the Obama strategy is bet on the West, how much of a complication is it that you know is Sarah Palin, a westerner and a woman on the ticket?

Dr. HERZIK: Sarah Palin really helps John McCain. The conservative base in Nevada, McCain was not their choice. He came in third in the caucus here. He ran behind Ron Paul. He had the same problems, I think, with the conservative base in Nevada that he did nationally. Sarah Palin solves that.

BLOCK: But if the Republicans get a Palin boost, the Democrats still have numbers in their favor this time around. Remember, the Nevada caucuses were very early in the primary season. Democrats mobilized and turned out in huge numbers. Twelve times as many Democrats took part in the caucuses as did four years ago. And Eric Herzik explains what that means for registered voters.

Dr. HERZIK: In 2004, there were roughly 10,000 more Republicans than Democrats in the state. But now, you've got a 70,000 vote bulge for the Democrats, and these are new registrants. The number of Republicans has remained pretty constant. The number of independents has remained pretty constant. These are new registrants on the Democratic side. It really started with the caucus. The caucus was a great boost for the Democrats in this state in terms of getting new registrants, getting key parts of the party and their base organized and really enthused. The message that Obama needs to bring is, let's keep that enthusiasm but make sure you'll vote in November.

BLOCK: How important is Washoe County?

Dr. HERZIK: Washoe County could be arguably the most important county in this election if it comes down to a single state, and the electoral map falls out to where you have just a few swing states. Washoe County could easily be the county that decides Nevada. And Nevada could easily be, as it almost was in 2000, the state that could decide the election.

BLOCK: So right here, you're saying, out of all the counties across this country, you're saying right here is sort of...

Dr. HERZIK: You know, there are a handful of counties in every swing state that can probably make the same claim. But if it comes down to a nail biter on election night, as it has, really, for the last two elections, then people will be looking at Washoe County, and both candidates will be judged, how well did you do in terms of turning around - for the Democrats, turning around a losing formula and for the Republicans, maintaining a winning formula.

BLOCK: That's Professor Eric Herzik at the University of Nevada in Reno. And tomorrow, we'll hear about the ground operations for the Obama and McCain campaigns here in Washoe County. I'm Melissa Block in Reno.

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