Nevada went for Bush, but it shouldn't have.
No, I don't mean that its voting machines were rigged, or that Republicans engaged in widespread voter intimidation. What I mean is that on most big-ticket issues--on the sorts of issues that, historically, elections turn on--most Nevadans disagreed more with the national Republican Party than they did with the Democrats. On what is arguably the single biggest issue facing the state, the opening of a vast nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, a statewide survey conducted by the Office of the Governor's Agency for Nuclear Projects in the run-up to the election showed that 77 percent were opposed to the project, which is supported by Bush but opposed by Kerry. Knocking on doors, canvassers also found strong unease about the direction of the war in Iraq, the state of the economy and job security--the critical "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" litmus test posited by no less a conservative icon than Ronald Reagan. They also expressed concern about Bush's water distribution policies in the arid West, about recent judicial rulings encroaching on Native American tribal sovereignty--a big issue in Nevada--about Bush's proposals on Social Security, the lack of affordable healthcare, the price of gasoline and so on.
Yet on election day, George W. Bush won Nevada by 21,567 votes--mirroring the nation, the split was 51 percent to 48 percent. This was just slightly slimmer than the 21,597 edge Bush enjoyed four years earlier.
"The worst part is not comprehending the other side," says Sheila Leslie, a liberal State Assemblywoman from the northern city of Reno. "I've talked to many, many people who voted for that man, and I still don't understand it. They agree he's wrong on Iraq, tax cuts, the environment, and they still voted for him. The tipping point, they can't seem to articulate. They didn't line up the policies of the President with their own personal views, because if they'd done so they would have voted for John Kerry. It was a gut vote, not an intellectual one. It makes no sense. It wasn't a rational vote."
Indeed, many Nevadans who voted for Bush turned around and supported Democrats in other races. Sheila Leslie's share of the vote went from 53 percent in 2002 to 63 percent this time around. In the Washoe County area, of which Reno makes up the major part, Democrats picked up two State Assembly seats, helping to insure that the State Assembly stayed in Democratic hands and balancing a Republican State Senate and a moderate Republican governor (who used to be a Democrat), Kenny Guinn. Democrat Harry Reid--soon to become Nevada's first Senate minority leader--was comfortably re-elected (though Reid made sure to ally himself with the gun lobby and the mining interests, and appealed to culturally conservative Bush voters with his anti-choice stand). And a state minimum-wage initiative passed overwhelmingly. Moreover, legislators who had supported Governor Guinn's move to raise $900 million in taxes in 2003 as an emergency measure to keep the state's schools open were mostly re-elected--despite harsh campaigns against them by right-wing Republicans and conservative media outlets.
Strategists on both sides point to cultural issues as a crucial factor in Kerry's defeat. "The economy, taxes, healthcare, that was lower down the list," says Earlene Forsythe, chair of the Nevada GOP and a longtime Washoe County resident. "The number-one issue was morals." Number two, according to Forsythe, was terrorism. AP exit poll data actually suggested a slightly more complex scenario: Fully one-quarter of voters said terrorism was their number-one concern, and 88 percent of these voters supported Bush. Number two was Iraq--and the voters who cited that as their top issue broke solidly for Kerry. But number three, beating out the economy and taxes, was morals, and three-quarters of those voters chose Bush. Forsythe says the …