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.”