Why a Blue-Leaning Swing State Is Getting Redder

Last week, when The New York Times and Siena College released a poll that showed President Joe Biden in trouble in battleground states, Democrats began to sound apocalyptic. The panic, turbocharged by social media, was disproportionate to what the surveys actually showed. Although the results in my home state, Nevada, were the worst for the president out of the six swing states that were polled, the findings are almost certainly not reflective of the reality here, at least as I’ve observed it and reported on it.

Nevertheless, they bring to the surface trends that should worry Democrats—and not just in Nevada.

The Times/Siena data show Donald Trump ahead of Biden in Nevada 52 percent to 41 percent, a much larger margin than the former president’s lead in the other battleground states. Could this be true? I’m skeptical, and I’m not alone. After the poll came out, I spoke with a handful of experts in both parties here, and none thinks Trump is truly ahead by double digits in the state, where he lost by about 2.5 points in the previous two presidential cycles. But Nevada is going to be competitive, perhaps more so than ever.

Some of the Times/Siena poll’s internal numbers gave me pause. Among registered voters in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located and where 70 percent of the electorate resides, the poll found Trump ahead of Biden 50–45. But Democrats make up 34 percent of active voters in the county, compared with Republicans’ 25 percent, and Biden won Clark by nine percentage points in 2020.

Other recent polls, not quite as highly rated as Times/Siena’s, have found the presidential race here to be much closer than the Times did. Last month, a CNN poll of registered Nevada voters found Biden and Trump virtually tied. Recent surveys from Emerson College, which has been unreliable in the state in the past, and Morning Consult/Bloomberg both had Trump up three points among likely voters. The Times/Siena polling outfit has a good reputation, but shortly before the 2020 election, it found Biden ahead of Trump in Nevada by six percentage points, more than double Biden’s eventual margin of victory.

[Read: Is Biden toast?]

Nevada is difficult to poll for a variety of reasons. Here as much as anywhere else, pollsters tend to underestimate the number of people they need to survey by cellphone to get a representative sample, and they generally don’t do enough bilingual polling in Nevada, where nearly a third of the population is Hispanic. Nevada also has a transient population, lots of residents working 24/7 shifts, and an electorate that’s less educated than most other states’. (“I love the poorly educated,” Trump said after winning Nevada’s Republican caucuses in 2016.) The polling challenge has become only more acute, because nonpartisan voters now outnumber Democrats and Republicans in Nevada, making it harder for pollsters to accurately capture the Democratic or Republican vote. (Since 2020, a state law has allowed voters to register at the DMV, and if they fail to do so, their party affiliation is defaulted to independent.)

Nevada matters in presidential elections, but we are also, let’s face it, a tad weird.

Still, Democrats have reasons to worry. Nevada was clobbered by COVID disproportionately to the rest of the country, because our economy is so narrowly focused on the casino industry. The aftereffects—unemployment, inflation—are still very much being felt here. Nevada’s jobless rate is the highest in the country, at 5.4 percent. That’s down dramatically from an astonishing 28.2 percent in April 2020, when the governor closed casinos for a few months. Although the situation has clearly improved, many casino workers still haven’t been rehired.

Democrat Steve Sisolak was the only incumbent governor in his party to lose in 2022, and his defeat was due at least partly to the fallout from COVID. Fairly or not, President Biden wears a lot of that too, as all presidents do when voters are unhappy with the economy. The Morning Consult/Bloomberg poll illuminated the bleak pessimism of Nevada voters, 76 percent of whom think the U.S. economy is going in the wrong direction.

Here, as elsewhere, voters are also concerned about Biden’s age, and that informs their broader views of him. Sixty-two percent of Nevadans disapprove of Biden’s performance, according to the Times, and only 40 percent have a favorable impression of him. Trump’s numbers, although awful—44 percent see him favorably—are better than Biden’s here, as well as in some blue or bluish states.

In Nevada, and in general, Biden is losing support among key groups—young and nonwhite voters. The Times/Siena poll found Biden and Trump tied among Hispanics in the state, despite the fact that Latinos have been a bedrock of the Democratic base here for a decade and a half. In the 2022 midterms, polls taken early in the race showed Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate, losing Hispanic support, though her campaign managed to reverse that trend enough to win by a very slim margin.

Democratic presidential nominees have won Nevada in every election since 2008. Democrats also hold the state’s two U.S. Senate seats and three of the four House seats, and the party dominates both houses of the legislature. But the state has been slowly shifting to the right—not just in polling but in Election Day results. In 2020, Nevada was the only battleground state that saw worse Democratic performance compared with 2016, unless you include the more solidly red Florida. Nevada’s new Republican governor, Joe Lombardo, is building a formidable political machine. Republicans have made inroads with working-class white voters here, leaving Democrats with an ever-diminishing margin of error.

[Ronald Brownstein: Republicans can’t figure it out]

Abortion, an issue that was crucial to Cortez Masto’s narrow victory, could help Biden in Nevada. The Times/Siena poll showed that only a quarter of Nevadans think abortion should be always or mostly illegal. A 1990 referendum made abortion up to 24 weeks legal here, and the law can be changed only by another popular vote. Democrats in Nevada, though, want to take those protections a step further next year and are trying to qualify a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to guarantee the right to abortion. As the off-year elections last week showed, that issue, more than the choice between Biden and Trump, could be what saves the president a year from now. Nevada also has a nationally watched Senate race in 2024, in which the incumbent Democrat, Jacky Rosen, has already signaled that she will mimic her colleague Cortez Masto and put abortion front and center in her campaign.

So many events could intervene between now and next November, foreign and/or domestic, and we have yet to see how effective the Trump and Biden campaigns will be, assuming that each man is his party’s nominee. Democratic Senator Harry Reid was deeply unpopular here in 2009, then got reelected by almost six percentage points; Barack Obama was thought to be in trouble in 2011, then won Nevada and reelection.

Democrats clearly hope that if Trump becomes the Republican nominee, many voters will see the election as a binary choice and will back Biden. But if the election instead becomes a referendum on Biden’s tenure, including the economy he has presided over, Trump could plausibly win Nevada—and the Electoral College.