LAS VEGAS – The Buy Low supermarket on Owens and J Streets sits just ten minutes from the Las Vegas Strip if you don't take a wrong turn, but it might as well be a world away.
The Stratosphere Hotel's tower is visible from the almost vacant parking lot, and at night you can see the beam of light shooting up from the pyramid at the Luxor hotel. But here the buildings are low. A strip mall across the street is nearly vacant; only a discount wireless carrier, a barber shop and a Nevada welfare office are still in business.
But this is where Barack Obama hopes to win re-election.
On a sunny, breezy Sunday, Obama's campaign has chosen this parking lot to unveil an RV with his logos plastered all around. It's symbolically and practically appropriate: Obama's campaign, and Democrats across Nevada, depend on the constituency politics at play in this largely African American neighborhood. More specifically, Democratic hopes depend on getting those voters most likely to back the president to the polls, and an early voting station is set up in the Buy Low store.
Democrats across the country are pushing their supporters to lock in their votes as early as possible. First Lady Michelle Obama cast her absentee ballot last week, while President Obama will head home to Illinois during a swing-state blitz this week to vote early in person. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat stumping in Nevada this weekend with Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is running for Senate, urged voters in the Buy Low parking lot to "vote like we've never voted before."
After two days of early voting in Nevada, Democrats boast that figures released by county elections officials show they hold a significant lead.
About 53 percent of the voters who turned out on Saturday and Sunday in Clark County, the state's most populous, were Democrats, while just 31 percent were Republicans. The 22-point disparity is higher than the 15 points by which Democrats outnumber Republicans—a sign, the party says, of the field organization Sen. Harry Reid and Nevada Democrats have spent a decade building.
Early voting in Washoe County, home to Reno, showed a similar Democratic advantage. Registered voters in the state's bellwether county split evenly, 38 percent for both Democrats and Republicans. Over the weekend, Democrats made up 47 percent of those casting ballots early, compared with 38 percent for Republicans, a nine-point Democratic advantage.
"We had a blockbuster day yesterday. We’re going to have another great day today. And we’ll continue that until November 6 and give everybody the opportunity to make sure that they express their support for the candidate that’s going to best support them. And in this community, in this state, that’s going to be Barack Obama," Berkley told National Journal.
Republicans consistently run behind Democrats among early voters in Nevada. But the GOP has two firewalls: absentee voters, who tend to hail from rural, Republican-leaning counties in the state, and voters who turn up at the polls on Election Day. But in what could be a troubling sign for the GOP, early reports over the weekend suggest Democrats are even outperforming Republicans among voters casting an absentee ballot. Jon Ralston, the Nevada politics guru, reported that Democratic voters have turned in 52 percent of absentee ballots returned to Clark County, five points higher than their registration edge over Republicans.
Republicans argue that their spending has gone into more nuanced areas than the traditional effort to convert early voters into absentee ballot-casters. "We spent significantly fewer resources on absentee ballots this year than in previous cycles," said Darren Littel, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee based in Nevada. "We chose instead to invest that money into a [get-out-the-vote] effort."
"I'm not saying the [Democrats] put a huge number behind absentee ballots this year, but neither did we, so in terms of resources invested, I'd say we're likely equal," Littel said. "Yet we hold an advantage."
Littel pointed to Republicans over-performing their 2008 turnout, and that Democrats did worse in the first two days in 2012 than they did four years ago.
But the raw vote totals show Democrats in the lead. And that edge is essential to Democratic hopes this year. "Obama and Berkley need double-digit leads in Clark" County, Ralston said. "The first day looked good for Democrats in both [Clark and Washoe] Counties—very good. But [it's] only one day of data."
Democrats are quick to caution that their advantage will shrink. Obama campaign officials repeatedly insist that 2012 is not 2008, that they won't be able to duplicate the enthusiasm Obama generated four years ago. And the first day of early voting is historically their best; Republicans will begin to narrow the gap.
The Democratic margins "won't stay that big, but even if those margins were cut in half at the end of two weeks, that's still very good for them," Ralston said.
But Democrats are also optimistic, first that their advantage this year looks about the same as it did in 2008, and second that more voters have actually turned out over the first two days than those who showed up in 2008. And if it stays that way, Obama will be in strong position in what was once considered a toss-up state.