US primaries #6: Nevada

by Jackie_South on February 20, 2016

NV iconToday, Nevada’s Democrats caucus to decide who their presidential candidate should be. It looks close.

Nevada may be the Silver State, but neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders will be happy with a silver medal from today’s primary caucus there.

The Silver State

Nevada is a rapidly growing part of the nation, and with its growth it is becoming more inclined towards the Democrats. But despite Obama’s win there in 2012 (52% – 46%) he only won in two  of the state’s seventeen counties in that year, they just happened to be the two largest.

NV 2012 graph

In fact, Romney did phenomenally well in percentage terms in a number of Nevadan counties. 82% of the voters in Eureka County voted for him, and over three-quarters of the voters in Elko and Lincoln counties too. His vote was over double Obama’s in half the counties of the state.

In contrast Obama’s best result, in Clark County, saw him take 56% whilst his other county level victory, in Washoe County, was on 51% of the vote.

NV 2012 map


As the graph above shows, winning in Clark County though is good enough. Of the state’s 2.7m inhabitants (slightly less than Wales, spread across an area larger than the United Kingdom) 73% live in Clark County, mainly in the urban sprawl of Las Vegas. No other state has a single county that provides such a large proportion of its population.

Second-largest county Washoe, based around Reno, contributes another 15% of the state’s inhabitants. That leaves the other fifteen county making up 12% of the numbers between them.

In contrast to Clark County’s 2 million inhabitants, Esmeralda County has only 783. Yes, you read that right: not 783,000, not 7,830, just seven hundred and eighty three men, women and children live there.

As the map below shows, cities and sizable places are very much concentrated in two conurbations. I have included every city larger than 5,000 here, from the city of Las Vegas’ 600,000 to Winnemucca’s 7,500. The map gives some hint of the vast expanses of uninhabited land amongst the Basin and Range deserts of the centre of the state.

In addition to cities, sizeable “census designated places” are included, the largest of which is Paradise, to the south of Las Vegas proper. Paradise includes much of what people think of as Las Vegas, including the mega-casinos of the Las Vegas Strip and McCarran airport.

The shaded areas represent the main urbanised areas of the state.

NV county map


So, Nevada is part liberal playground around Las Vegas and Reno, part ruggedly self-reliant and right-wing Wild West. As a South West state, it has a sizable number of Latinos, comprising 27% of the population.

But there is a strong libertarian streak throughout: guns, gambling, free-flowing alcohol, prostitution (Nevada has the USA’s only legal brothels, but only in the less populated counties). Money conquers all out here.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

So why has the race become so close? Sanders after all is only meant to do well among well-educated, comfortable whites and this is not what Nevada looks like. That large Latin base ought to see Clinton safely home here, and indeed she was 23 percent ahead at the start of the year. Furthermore, Clinton is well supported by organised labour and the unions are particularly important in Nevada, being well organised in the casinos and hotels for example.

Yet now it is neck-and-neck in some polls over the last week.

NV Dem poll 2016

Part of the story may be that Nevada is a relatively young state, and as we have seen from Iowa and New Hampshire Sanders does well among younger voters.

But I think a larger factor is the state of the economy. Nevada’s economy is based around gambling, tourism and rapid housing construction. All of these have been hit hard by the economic woes of the nation and Nevada is the USA’s ultimate boom-and-bust economy. It currently has the third highest unemployment rate in the nation and 20% of its population live in poverty.

In those circumstances, it is understandable why Clinton’s central message of continuing Obama’s work may feel as if it is not going far enough for many Democratic voters in the state.

But that said, caucus polls (as in Iowa) are notoriously worse than those for primary elections (as in New Hampshire). Furthermore, Nevada’s early caucus is a relatively new phenomenon, dating from only 2008, and the state seems to be getting more attention from pollsters this time around – so there are reasons to doubt that they have them properly calibrated for a caucus election. FiveThirtyEight has posted on this subject in more detail.

So, I think it may be close but that Clinton will win through. Ultimately, those labour and Latino votes should help organise for the caucuses, and ground organisation is critical for caucus success.

But you would be unwise to put any money on it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John Stone February 21, 2016 at 12:07 pm

Winnemucca. Now there’s a great album!


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