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.)
The Latino vote is critical well beyond Nevada. The Hispanic population tops 20 percent in the key swing states of Colorado and Florida, and is a burgeoning force in some Southern states such as North Carolina and Virginia. Even Iowa, long the subject of complaints about its lack of diversity and its central role in the presidential nominating gantlet, saw its Latino population boom 84 percent in the past decade (still only 5 percent of the population).
Romney’s personal unpopularity among Latinos is partly attributable to the hard-line immigration stance he took during the GOP primary season. It was one of the few issues on which Romney could lap the field from the right, and he seized the opportunity, especially during the fleeting moments that Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared to be a formidable foe; that’s when Romney memorably embraced a doctrine of “self-deportation.”
The issue has had a spillover effect. In the NBC poll, Latinos said that Obama would handle every major policy area better than Romney, including the economy, by at least a 2-1 advantage.
Romney is working to close the gap in the state. His campaign has hired a Nevada Hispanic outreach director, which it says is a GOP first. Romney’s son Craig has cut Spanish-language ads that feature a fact that the candidate himself rarely mentions on the trail: Mitt Romney’s father was born in Mexico. The campaign has dispatched its highest profile Latino surrogates to the state, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Bush Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.
HIDING THE BALL
Given Romney’s stance on the Dream Act and his tough rhetoric on immigration, his campaign has focused its communications to Latinos (and almost every other demographic) on a one-size-fits-all message on the economy.
“Jobs and the economy—it trumps everything,” said Ryan Erwin, a GOP strategist and top Romney adviser in the state. “You can’t walk through a grocery store or a small business without hearing people talking about the economy. It is a pretty narrow focus if anyone thinks Hispanic voters aren’t caring about the economy as much as anyone else.”
The Obama campaign is doing everything it can to undercut Romney’s credibility as the potential fiscal fixer-in-chief. A barrage of TV ads, in English and Spanish, has questioned Romney’s character, portraying him as an out-of-touch millionaire with offshore bank accounts who can’t relate to their financial woes. Romney’s plans for a car elevator at his La Jolla, Calif., beach house, his wife’s “couple of Cadillacs,” and his friendship with NASCAR team owners have helped the Obama cause. “That has a real resonance in a state that’s been hit as hard as we have,” said Zac Petkanas, a senior strategist for the Nevada state Democratic Party.
The party has recent practice in demonizing the opposition to distract from a tepid economy. In 2010, unpopular Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stood for reelection amid an even worse economic climate. The Democrat won by casting his GOP opponent, tea partier Sharron Angle, as an extremist who couldn’t be trusted. Romney, calm and cool in his second presidential bid, is a far more difficult mark. But the strategy is much the same.
In the La Raza speech, Biden skewered Romney for his Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island cash stashes, and hidden tax returns. Then, in a single line, he linked Arizona’s controversial immigration law and Romney’s shrouded personal finances.
“He wants you to show your papers, but he won’t show us his,” Biden said. The crowd thundered its approval.
Republicans say that Team Obama is simply trying to divert attention from the economy, especially among Latinos. “They cannot run on their record,” said Hector Barreto, a former Bush administration official and now the cochairman of Juntos con Romney, the campaign’s Hispanic-outreach effort. “They know it, and we know it.”
(The Romney operation had hoped that Carlos Gutierrez, the former Bush Commerce secretary, could make a rebuttal speech at the four-day conference, but La Raza turned him down, saying that the request came too late. Instead of a spot at the podium, Gutierrez and Barreto were relegated to the hallways.)
Republicans complain that the president’s June policy decree, which could allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children to stay and work without fear of deportation, is crass political pandering.
“Pigeonholing Latino voters into focusing entirely on immigration is an insult,” said Pete Ernaut, an influential GOP strategist in the state.
But it appears to be working. The July NBC poll gave Obama a 44-point lead among Latino registered voters nationally, 67 percent to 23 percent.
With less than three months until the election, neither Romney nor Obama has skated a flawless performance in Nevada.
Since he has been president, Obama has made offhand remarks that disparage spending in Las Vegas. “You don’t blow a bunch of cash in Vegas when you’re trying to save for college,” he said in 2010. It was a cutting remark for a city and state that relies so heavily on tourism, and at a time when the industry had cratered. Locals took offense, elected officials howled, and business visibly declined.
“Did it hurt us? It did,” said Jan Jones, a former two-term Las Vegas mayor in an interview in her office at Caesar’s Palace casino, where she’s now an executive. Jones is a Democrat and supports Obama.
Romney’s misstep came last fall. “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process,” he said during a Las Vegas swing. “Let it run its course and hit the bottom.”
In a state where the housing bust could take more than a decade to recover, that remark “went over like a lead balloon,” said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at the University of Nevada (Reno).
But more than a poor turn of phrase, Herzik said, Romney’s comment raised questions about what he would do as president to help Nevada. The GOP free-market philosophy of lower taxes and fewer regulations is largely a reality in this Western outpost. “We’re a state built on gambling; the bars never close; we have legalized prostitution in 10 counties,” Herzik said.
That laissez-faire approach had fueled decades of spectacular growth. And, in recent years, a staggering collapse. “If low taxes and regulations were the panacea, then Nevada should have led the nation out of recession,” Herzik said. Instead, it has been among the laggards.
Erwin, the Romney adviser, said that Nevadans blame a growing federal bureaucracy under Obama for strangling the recovery. “Governor Romney’s message of economic freedom is going to resonate well here,” he said.
Still, nagging questions remain, even among Nevada Republicans, about what exactly Romney is promising. His campaign “is now, ‘He did bad, and I can do better,’ ” Ernaut said. “At some point, voters are going to say, ‘How?’ ”
LIMITING THE DAMAGE
The extent to which the Latino electorate will be motivated to come out for Obama remains one of 2012’s great intangibles. To win here, Romney does not need to carry the Latino vote. But he must limit Obama’s margin of victory. The state’s GOP governor, Brian Sandoval, who is Latino, won election in 2010 despite garnering only a third of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polling.
The president faces some headwinds among Latinos nationally. Despite the June decree, Obama’s overall deportation record has been a sore subject. His administration has set records, ejecting nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants in the last full fiscal year.
Obama also promised in his 2008 campaign to tackle a comprehensive immigration overhaul but then did little to advance such a plan, even as Democrats controlled all the levers of government in 2009 and 2010. Romney’s campaign regularly reminds Hispanics of this. “Now you’re getting around to it,” Barreto said of the deportation freeze. “Why? Because you’re running for reelection. Why? Because the enthusiasm is down in the Hispanic community.”
Another wrinkle in November’s Hispanic turnout is a local labor fight that could have national implications. The most potent union in the state, Culinary Workers Union Local 226, nearly half of whose 55,000 members are Latino, is threatening to sit out the election if contract and organizing disputes remain unresolved. If this key cog in the Democrats’ Latino-turnout machine stays on the sidelines, it could cost the Democrats dearly. Still, most analysts expect the union to ultimately mobilize.
If Latinos are Obama’s great demographic trump card in this desert state, Romney has a smaller one of his own: the Mormon vote. The community accounts for an estimated 7 percent of the population but votes at a far higher clip. Church members are expected to turn out in droves for Romney, the first presidential nominee from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and for the state’s GOP senator, Dean Heller, who is also Mormon and is locked in a tough race.
Of course, the biggest wild card remains how the Nevada economy fares between now and November. Las Vegas, more than anywhere, depends on a confidence economy—visitors feeling flush and spending like it—and confidence has been on the decline.
The economy is a constant worry for Cuevas, whose family is living in his house that’s on the brink of foreclosure. Sure, he said, he’s still “looking” at both Obama and Romney, but that’s not really the right word. He can only afford to glance at politics these days. He thinks about the election a lot, though, as he helps register voters. Election Day is when Cuevas becomes unemployed again.
“This job,” he said, “ends Nov. 6.”
This article appears in the September 1, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.