LAS VEGAS— President Obama has no business asking Oscar Cuevas for his vote.
Since Obama assumed office, Cuevas, 23, lost his job as a cell-phone store manager when the shop went out of business. He spent the next two years unemployed. His parents lost their home and moved in with him. So did four of his siblings, one with a newborn child. Cuevas hasn’t paid his own mortgage in months, and the bank has come knocking. He now has a job helping to register Latino voters, but he still can’t make his house payment. Too many other bills have piled up.
Cuevas voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but he is undecided this time. “He’s not doing a bang-up job,” Cuevas said, flashing an infectious smile.
For 100 years, Nevada has been the quintessential presidential bellwether, siding with the victor in 24 of the past 25 campaigns (it missed only Jimmy Carter), more than any other state. And this year, both sides are pouring millions of dollars into ground operations and television advertising to frame the debate.
If the 2012 election is about the economy, then Cuevas—and Nevada—should be a lost cause for Obama. The state has topped the charts in unemployment (at 12 percent), foreclosures, and faded dreams. In some Las Vegas neighborhoods, more than eight in 10 homes are underwater, worth less than they were bought for. In the “best-off” ZIP code in the Las Vegas region, 42 percent of homes are underwater, according to Zillow, the real-estate tracking firm. The only construction work here these days seems to be boarding up abandoned houses.
And yet the president is not just competitive in Nevada, he is leading Republican Mitt Romney, according to most polls. It is not the 12-point margin he won by in 2008, but a slim lead is still a lead.
Vice President Joe Biden’s July speech here to the National Council of La Raza crystallized the Obama campaign’s strategy aimed at Latinos. Speaking in the foreclosure capital of America, it was 10 minutes before Biden mentioned the economy. Instead, he warned the crowd of nearly 2,000 Latino activists of the dangers posed by a President Romney.
“Close your eyes,” said Biden, channeling his inner revivalist.
In the span of a minute, he asked them 10 times to “imagine” the horrors of a Romney presidency. Biden spoke of “self-deportation,” Arizona’s immigration law, and a veto of the Dream Act. Civil rights, voting rights, college scholarships, health care coverage for Hispanics—all are on the line. “Close your eyes and imagine,” he repeated.
The Obama campaign’s tactics here in economically ravaged Nevada were laid bare: Shoot the messenger (Romney) and change the subject (from the economy).
Just as Obama wants Latinos to close their eyes to picture a dark Romney future, Romney wants them to open their eyes to the hardships of their Obama economic present.
“Given the dynamics of what’s going on [in the economy], it’s tough to imagine the president could be as close in this thing as he is,” said Sig Rogich, a GOP operative in the state who designed television ads for President George H.W. Bush’s campaigns.
Latinos are a big reason why. Although Nevada voted for George W. Bush twice, the state’s Hispanic population surged 81 percent between 2000 and 2010. Hispanics are now a quarter of the population and a muscular share of the electorate. They will grow stronger: The 2010 census showed that 39 percent of Nevada residents under 18 are Hispanic.
A FAILURE TO CONNECT
“You just don’t make old white voters like you used to here,” said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada (Las Vegas). Despite a depressed economy that has disproportionately hurt Latinos, particularly those in the construction trades, they haven’t fled Obama’s coalition. Yet.
They are voters like Adriana Reyes, a 24-year-old who has a janitorial job at a mall and is still living with her parents. “Can’t move out because the family is struggling,” she said, as she walked through a shopping center where two discount markets compete with empty storefronts. “It’s bad.” She doesn’t blame the president entirely, but she says, “He doesn’t seem like he’s done a lot.”
A registered independent, Reyes voted for Obama four years ago. Now she’s not sure. “I go for where it’s going to help out the economy,” she said. She still isn’t sold on the idea that Romney is that candidate, though.
Reyes is not alone. In interviews with Nevada voters, political strategists, and politicians, it’s clear that the state’s financial collapse has moved many voters out of the president’s camp and into the undecided column. But many have yet to migrate all the way to embracing Romney. The polls agree.
A major reason is Romney’s image problem with Latinos. In a July NBC News/Telemundo/Wall Street Journal poll, only 22 percent of Latinos nationally viewed Romney positively; 44 percent held a negative view. (In contrast, 64 percent of Hispanics viewed Obama favorably.)
This article appears in the September 1, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.