Winning Nevada: Democratic Hopes in the Silver State hinge on securing the state’s rising Hispanic Population

Publish:  Jan 26, 2012

By The Atlas Western Research Pod

Nevada is one of the premier battleground states for Democrats in 2012.

The state added a congressional seat after the 2010 Census, bumping the total electoral votes at stake to six. In 2008, Barack Obama won Nevada with over 55% of the vote. This year, Nevada will again be a highly targeted state for the President’s re-election campaign, with polling showing Obama running even or slightly ahead of his potential Republican challengers in Nevada.

The state is also a top target for Democrats trying to expand their majority in the U.S. Senate by knocking off incumbent Republican Senator Dean Heller.

Earlier this month, Heller stood in front of the monthly ‘Hispanics in Politics’ breakfast meeting in Las Vegas and defended his position and vote against the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

Presumed Democratic challenger, Representative Shelley Berkley, immediately charged Heller with taking an extreme position on immigration, comparing it to Nevada tea party and losing 2010 Senate candidate Republican Sharron Angle saying: “his Sharron Angle-like record on Hispanic issues is one he can’t run away from.”

Aside from being right, exposing  Heller as an extremist on the immigration issue illustrates how critical the Hispanic vote is in Nevada and how turnout and support from the Hispanic communities can make or break a campaign for Democrats in the state.

National polling shows a slim majority of voters and an overwhelming number of Hispanic voters favor the DREAM Act. A November 2011 poll by Univision News/LD National LATINO Electorate Poll shows 58% of voters support the DREAM Act, including 84% of Hispanic voters.

Additionally, 46% of Hispanics identify the DREAM Act/Immigration as the number one issue facing their community, and 23% say it is their number one issue of concern.

A Gallup poll from December of 2010 showed similar results with 54% of national voters supporting the DREAM Act, and nearly 70% of non-white voters supporting the act.

Nevada’s Hispanic population is growing fast, nearly doubling its voting age population (VAP) in the past decade and now totaling nearly 25% of the VAP in the state.  In 2004, the Hispanic vote share in the state was 10%, in 2008 it grew to 15% and in 2010 it was 16%.

Hispanic support has been critical for Democratic campaigns in Nevada, including Barack Obama in 2008 and Harry Reid in 2010. In those races, 76% of Hispanics supported Obama and 69% supported Reid. For both Obama and Reid, Hispanics made up a significant portion of the actual votes these candidates received — in 2008, Hispanics accounted for roughly 21% of all the votes cast for Barack Obama in Nevada, even though their vote share was just 15%. In 2010, Hispanics accounted for nearly 22% of all the votes cast for Harry Reid even though Hispanic vote share was 16%.

Hispanic support for Democrats near or above 70% is not a given though. In 2004, 60% of Hispanics voted for John Kerry, and in the 2006 gubernatorial election, just 55% of Hispanics voted for Democrat Dina Titus.

Berkley needs increased support from Hispanic voters to counteract what has been in the past few elections the declining support for Democrats in Nevada by both white and Independent voters. In 2008, Obama received 45% of the white vote and 54% of the Independent vote and Harry Reid received just 42% of the white vote and 44% of the Independent vote in 2010.

An October 20-23 Public Policy Poll of 500 Nevada voters showed President Obama continuing to struggle with these same groups of voters. 53% of Independents disapprove the President’s performance, and just 44% approve. Obama gets low marks from white voters as well, with just 36% approving and 61% disapproving of his job performance.

In potential head to head match-ups against Republicans Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, Obama leads Gingrich 49-46 and is tied 46-46 with Romney. Obama is helped by strong support by Hispanic voters, leading Gingrich 71-23 and Romney 66-17. The same poll shows Berkley tied with Heller 45-45. Hispanic voters choose Berkley by a wide margin, 74% for Berkley and 16% for Heller, with 10% of Hispanics still undecided. The poll also shows Berkley getting just 38% of the white vote (Heller 53%) and 37% of Independents (Heller 39%).

Complicating Obama’s, Berkley’s and Democrats’ chances in Nevada could be Hispanic voter enthusiasm about the 2012 election. Polling released at a Project New West summit in October showed Nevada’s Hispanic voters “are less interested in the 2012 elections” compared to the general electorate so far.

This enthusiasm gap presents a challenge to President Obama and Rep. Berkley. They are going to need to maintain and potentially expand their strong lead among Hispanic voters and increase voter enthusiasm within that group to win in November.