Nevada Voters May Be Key In November
MADELEINE BRAND, host
OK. Let's get out of Washington now for a look at how people are going to vote in the presidential race. Nevada has been the most reliable election bellwether in the country. Voters there have backed every presidential winner except one since 1912.
ALEX CHADWICK, host
President Bush won the state by a narrow margin both times that he ran, that's our most recent President Bush. Nevada is a swing state again this year and Washoe County, home to Nevada's biggest little city, Reno, is the swing county in this swing state. Amanda Becker reports.
AMANDA BECKER: The Reno rodeo is the highlight of the summer in northern Nevada.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Singer: Oh, coming on home.
BECKER: People travel from all corners of the state and the rest of the country to try their hand at roping, mutton busting and steer decorating. Next to the arena, alongside funnel cake vendors and carnival games, volunteers from the Washoe Republican Party set up a table to register voters. GOP County Chairman Heidi Smith says rodeo people are their kind of people.
Ms. HEIDI SMITH (GOP County Chairman, Washoe County, Nevada): Washoe County is still basically rural. We still have ranches and farms, and we still have big rodeos. We are concerned about our families, we are concerned about our jobs, but most of the people here want to make sure that we're more conservative than most.
BECKER: Smith says that Republicans in Washoe always been true conservatives. Just a five-minute drive from the rodeo grounds, a downtown river walk is a sign that Reno is changing. Shops and restaurants along the river walk are filled with a new group of Nevadans who are enjoying cheese plates and wine. Chris Polley(ph), the owner of Jungle Vino, says his wine bar and adjoining coffee house, Java Jungle, cater to a new group of residents that live in and around downtown.
Mr. CHRIS POLLEY (Owner, Jungle Vino and Java Jungle): I would say more folks that just weren't necessarily raised here in Reno are finding this area and really making it what it is. So what you hear from the locals is, oh my God, I didn't know that downtown has changed so much.
BECKER: Downtown has attracted new residents from the East Coast like Russ King, who is not part of the traditional political establishment here. King comes to Java Jungle for his morning cup of coffee.
(Soundbite of espresso machine)
BECKER: He bought his loft condominium in 2006, after conducting business here for more than a decade.
Mr. RUSS KING: Ten years ago it wasn't very nice down here, but now it's lit up with all sorts of people coming and going. Reno's in the middle of, I guess, some sort of renaissance.
BECKER: And that's breathing new life into liberal political activism. Residents like Dave Cladney have even started hosting Democratic house parties.
Mr. DAVE CLADNEY(Resident): It's a conservative area. I would say that. It used to be much more, but I think as more Californians have moved in here, there's more moderation.
BECKER: There's still more registered Republicans here, but the margin of their lead has dropped by two-thirds. State archivist Guy Rochest (ph) says this is as close as he's ever seen voter registration.
Mr. GUY ROCHEST (State Archivist): And for the first time, it appears that one could either win as a Democrat in Washoe County or lose close.
BECKER: Historically, presidential candidates haven't spent much time in Washoe. They went to Las Vegas and Clark County. But Washoe Democratic party treasurer Matt Dickson(ph) says Senators Barack Obama and John McCain will need to structure their campaigns differently this year.
Mr. MATT DICKSON (Washoe County Democratic Party Treasurer): The traditional campaign in Nevada has always been if we can win Clark County big, the rest of it is too small to matter. But under the radar the last four, six, eight years - these areas up here have grown.
BECKER: Both parties have new and nonpartisan voters in their sights. Independents make up 15 percent of the electorate here. Dickson says nonpartisans are closeted Democrats who are now ready to come out of hiding.
Mr. DICKSON: When I moved here eight years ago, it was hard to be a Democrat. We kind of hid in the back. And you didn't want anybody at work to know. I didn't want any of my clients in my day job to know. I'm a Democrat. Don't tell anybody. I think a lot of people who registered as Independent and nonpartisan so that their Republican friends, colleagues and bosses wouldn't find out they were really Democrats are now willing to come over to our side. And that's the shift we're seeing.
BECKER: But Washoe GOP Chairman Heidi Smith says if you call yourself a nonpartisan in Nevada, you're really a conservative.
Ms. SMITH: We have a tremendous amount of Independents who will, in the end, vote Republican.
BECKER: Republican or Democrat, voters in Washoe County are important this year. University of Nevada-Reno political scientist Eric Herzik says voter turnout in Los Vegas is low. So what happens in Washoe will be the real question.
Dr. ERIC HERZIK (Professor, University of Nevada, Reno): But if we assume that the Clark County turnout - even if it goes up, but the Republicans are able to at least play close, Washoe County could really be the deciding county.
BECKER: Which means Reno, Nevada's biggest little city, should be getting a lot of campaign visits this year. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Becker.
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