Donald Trump continues to trail in key swing states, but that has not been the case in Nevada, a state that helped him clinch the Republican nomination.
Hillary Clinton arrives Thursday to campaign in this battleground state that Barack Obama easily carried twice as both public and internal campaign polls show a dead heat here.
Trump’s resilience in Nevada is surprising considering Clinton’s many advantages here: her access to the strong organizational muscle of labor, a growing Latino population that has chafed at Trump’s tone on immigration, and Obama’s successes, which laid the groundwork for her run.
There are a series of complex factors at play in the Silver State. Though the economy has improved, many voters here say they still feel the sting of the recession. This is also a state that strongly values Second Amendment rights, and both Republicans and conservative Democrats see Clinton as too liberal on that issue.
Nevada’s anti-government bent and libertarian streak make it a good fit for Trump, who won a resounding victory in the caucuses here.
In interviews this week, voters were generally more forgiving of Trump’s controversial remarks than in other states — insistent that the most important thing about his candidacy is that he can bring change (even if they aren’t quite sure what that change will be).
Dan Lingle, a welder from the Reno area, said the economy is so bad that he had to go back to work for himself.
“I’m 61 and white — so things haven’t been good for me at all,” he said.
“A sense of entitlement is the only reason I think anybody would be voting for Hillary Clinton,” Lingle said. “We’ve got to get back to a country that’s working. Even though he’s a loose cannon, I think Trump would be better for Americans and jobs…. People are just fed up with the status quo. Anybody voting for Hillary right now is just voting for Obama again…. The world is ready for a woman president but not that one.”
So far Clinton — and Trump, with his unforced errors — have managed to make the election a referendum on Trump. But the coolness with which voters have greeted her in Nevada illustrate her weaknesses as a candidate. If Trump becomes a more disciplined candidate in the coming weeks, and begins to strike a more moderate tone — as he did on immigration in an interview with Sean Hannity that aired Wednesday night — Clinton could be facing an uphill climb in Nevada and other states.
Democrats and some independent voters here say they are frightened by Trump’s unpredictability. But some of that fear and uncertainty about Trump has been negated by the fact that Clinton is also widely distrusted.
Larry McDaniel, a Democrat from Golden Valley, said he is voting for Trump because he doesn’t trust the Clintons or “the way they’ve moved money around” from donors to their foundation.
He disagreed with Trump’s call for a Muslim travel ban and Trump’s characterizations of undocumented immigrants, who he described as some of “the most wonderful and trustworthy people I’ve known in my life.”
But Trump, McDaniel said, “talks our language.”
“Do I think all the people who are coming over (the border) are murderers and rapists? No, I don’t. But do I think we need to protect our borders in a more reasonable manner? Yeah, I do,” said McDaniel, a 69-year-old general contractor. “He’s not afraid of saying something that’s not politically correct.”
“Do I think he’s his own worst enemy at times? Yeah, I really do,” McDaniel continued. “It’s like ‘Don’t put your foot in your mouth again — I’m trying to believe in you, but golly.”
Clinton’s struggles with Democrats
For all of Trump’s flaws as a candidate, Clinton is struggling with trust issues even among women who are voting for her.
“I feel like I’m voting against someone as opposed to for someone,” said Treva J. Hearne, 69-year-old attorney from Reno who was eating breakfast at the popular local diner known as Two Chicks.
When Obama ran for president, Hearne was a precinct committeeman: “I was out there every day working. I have done nothing (this cycle). Nothing.”
“We’re talking about the first woman president,” said Hearne. “Don’t we want her to be a Michelle Obama-type? Somebody who rises above the fray. Somebody who is not so involved in politics that you feel as though they’ve been dirtied?”
“This is the feeling you walk away with: that she was willing to do whatever it took to get where she is today,” Hearne said. “And I suppose, just being an old hippie, I really have a problem with that.”
Tom Malen, a 65-year-old Democrat from Reno, said he’ll vote for Clinton even though he’s not excited about either candidate.
“I think she would be stronger all the way around. She’s a very smart lady. Donald Trump is too used to being in charge. He’s too used to, ‘My way.’ This is the way it’s going to be,” Malen said.
“She knows politics. Donald only knows he’s the board chairman and it’s going to be ‘My way.’ Nah, not when you hit Congress pal. He only has X amount of power. He’s not a king,” Malen added.
Democrats have won here in past election cycles by painting their opponents as too extreme on social issues — making inroads with more libertarian leaning voters. It has been harder to paint Trump with that brush, because his position on abortion has evolved dramatically over the decades and he is viewed as more flexible on gay rights issues than other Republicans.
Getting new Trump voters to the polls
Still, the key to winning this state will be turnout and boosting voter registration, which has been a huge focus of both sides in recent years.
George W. Bush narrowly won Nevada in 2000 and 2004 on the strength of his ground game and his unique appeal to the burgeoning population of Latino voters.
But to make up for high Republican turnout here, Democrats have heavily ramped up their voter registration efforts, helping to lay the ground work for Obama’s 12-point win over John McCain in 2008 and his nearly 7-point win over Mitt Romney in 2012.
In part because of her fierce primary season battle against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton has a far more organized effort here than Trump — one that existed long before the Nevada caucuses.
As in other states, Trump is leaning heavily on the Republican National Committee to help him contact and persuade voters.
Strategists here, however, note that because his outsider message resonated here, Trump blew away expectations for the Republican caucuses, winning in a landslide by drawing out many new GOP voters.
Some 75,000 Republicans turned out for the caucuses, compared with just 33,000 when Mitt Romney ran in 2012. Because Trump voters and potential volunteers are new to the process, the Republican National Committee has increased the number of new volunteer trainings that they are conducting in the state to reinforce the importance of phone-banking, door-knocking and sustained voter contact — underscoring the fact that merely showing up at Trump rallies will not help him win the state.
A recent Suffolk University poll showing Clinton up 44% to 42% in Nevada suggests some geographic hurdles for Clinton, which is why her surrogates — including Tim Kaine and Bill Clinton — have been so visible here.
In the Democratic stronghold of Clark County surrounding Las Vegas — where Democrats can rely on the culinary workers and other labor unions to turn out voters in huge numbers — Clinton is leading Trump by 13 points.
Though Green Party candidate Jill Stein is not on the ballot here, third party candidates like Libertarian Gary Johnson are siphoning some of the support away from the two major candidates. And in an even more intriguing sign of how polarizing both Clinton and Trump are among the electorate, 3% of respondents in Clark County said they would choose Nevada’s “none-of-these-candidates” option on their ballot. Seven percent of voters were still undecided.
In Washoe County, the state’s bellwether, Trump led Clinton by three points in the Suffolk poll, making it a dead heat. That is a key reason why Clinton is campaigning in Reno on Thursday; and Trump will attend a local party fundraiser in Lake Tahoe on Friday night.
Gun politics helping Trump
Not surprisingly, Trump has a wide lead in the sparsely populated rural counties where even conservative Democrats are concerned that Clinton has moved too far to the left on gun rights.
David Paleologos, Director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, noted that one interesting finding in the university’s poll was that the gender gap was less pronounced in Nevada than in other battleground states. He believes that is because Clinton is still struggling with gun owners, who make up 40% of likely voters in Nevada according to Suffolk’s poll.
In gun-owning households, Trump led among men 59% to 28% and led among women 56% to 33%, Paleologos said. In non-gun-owning households, the survey showed the reverse: Clinton led among men 59% to 29% and beat Trump among women 55% to 26%.
“To me, that’s the key,” Paleologos said. “The places where the gender gap is neutralized is in gun ownership versus the non-gun ownership households.”
One of the initiatives on the ballot this year in Nevada would require any unlicensed person who wants to sell or transfer a firearm to another person to do the transfer through a gun dealer, who could conduct a background check on the potential buyer.
At the moment, the measure has majority support, but the NRA is lobbying heavily against it — a crosscurrent that could help bring out more pro-Trump voters.
Thursday, Clinton is expected to attack Trump’s “alt-right” message and paint him as out of step with Nevada voters, but she has yet to demonstrate that she has found her own message that resonates with voters here.