Next up: Nevada, where politics are very different

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 15, 2008 

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Now for something completely different.

The 2008 presidential campaign is turning from the familiar political terrain of such states as Iowa and New Hampshire and heading West to a different America.

Nevada features voices and accents that the campaign hasn't yet heard, feels the promise and problems of explosive growth and is simply a dazzling place that's reinventing itself so fast that while the politicians all talk about change, Nevada is change.

It's changing so fast, in fact, that politicians might find it hard to navigate before both parties hold caucuses there Saturday.

"It's hard to pin down what is really Nevada," said state demographer Jeff Hardcastle.

It's part rural West, still with silver mines and the Mormons who helped settle the northern tier. It's casinos and the glitter of Las Vegas, of course, but the old Mafia-run casinos have given way to corporate-owned resorts.

Mostly it's people: A crush of newcomers is pouring in, nearly tripling the size of Las Vegas since 1990 and changing the state's complexion, culture, economy and politics.

They've come from everywhere — Midwest retirees in search of sunshine, Californians seeking escape from traffic and congestion and creating them anew, Mexicans looking for jobs. Although the pace has slowed, 50,000 people a year still move to the Las Vegas area.

They've made Nevada the fastest growing state in the union for nearly two decades, though Arizona grabbed the title the last two years.

"Nevada is America's melting pot," said Billy Vassiliadis, an advertising man and prominent Democrat who's watched the state change dramatically since he moved there from Chicago at the age of 18 in the 1970s.

"Most of the people here are transplants like me. It's become more diverse, more urban. Sadly, it's also lost some of the charm of the old West."

That rapid demographic change helped put Nevada in play for the two major political parties and makes it a must-stop for candidates, particularly for Democrats, who want to show that they can appeal to Hispanics and win in a region where local Democrats have been chipping away at Republican dominance.

One in four Nevadans is Hispanic, making it the first state with a large Hispanic population to vote.

That's a tempting target for Democrats, who think they can win a majority of the Hispanic vote nationwide in a general election, particularly if there's a backlash against Republicans for opposing immigration policy changes that would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.

Yet many Hispanics in Nevada are newcomers, without any ties to U.S. politics. Few dare predict how many Hispanics — or any Nevadans for that matter — will show up for the state's caucuses Saturday.

"All this tremendous growth has brought a lot of new people who don't have any political foundation," said Ken Fernandez, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

"We're often near the bottom in voter turnout. Why? We have a very large immigrant population. They haven't been acclimated or aren't even citizens. People expected enormous turnout here in 2004 because we had so many candidates come here. But turnout was still fairly low."

If there's a place to look for turnout, it's the unions. Las Vegas is heavily unionized, with 60,000 members of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 working in the casinos, hotels and restaurants, and members of the building trades unions constructing 40,000 hotel rooms.

While northern Nevada still mines gold and silver — it's the fifth-largest producer of gold in the world — tourism in Las Vegas is the state's economic engine and the magnet for most of the growth.

All the new people helped turn the state into a competitive political battleground. After going solidly for Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1980s, the state went narrowly for Democrat Bill Clinton in the 1990s and for Republican George W. Bush by a razor-thin margin in 2000 and 2004.

Voter registration is split evenly.

But Democrats wooing the state's Hispanics or union members must remember that this is still the West.

"The diversity alone makes it more progressive than it used to be," said Vassiliadis, also a lobbyist and Democrat who supports Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. "But all the politicians tend to be more libertarian and less interested in a Big Brother, regulated state."

Indeed, Nevada has a leave-us-alone attitude that permeates the culture, from gun rights and skepticism about the federal government to the ad campaign from Vassiliadis' agency that teases, "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas."

"Ideologically, we're pretty unique," said political scientist Fernandez. "Fiscally conservative, socially liberal. We have gambling, we have legal prostitution. We're sort of unique."

FACTS ON NEVADA

2006 population: 2,495,529

Change 2000 to 2006: +24.9%

White: 65.2%

Black: 6.6%

Asian: 4.4 %

Native American: 1.1%

Hispanic: 19.7%

Median household income: $44,581

SOURCE: Almanac of American Politics 2008

PAST PRESIDENTIAL WINNERS

2004: Bush, 50%

2000: Bush, 50%

1996: Clinton, 44%

1992: Clinton, 37%

1988: Bush, 59%

1984: Reagan, 66%

1980: Reagan, 63%

REGISTERED VOTERS

Democrat: 40.2%

Republican: 39.3%

Other: 20.5%

ON THE WEB

Census information about Nevada.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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