Renegade Nevada claims election bellwether status

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- With its 24-hour casino gambling, legalized prostitution and drive-through wedding chapels, Nevada seems anything but conventional. But when it comes to voting in presidential elections, the maverick state is as mainstream as it gets.

After Missouri voters favored John McCain in November, Nevada now has the best record of any state since 1912 for siding with winners - including Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The Silver State voted for the victor in 24 of the past 25 presidential elections. The lone exception was when Republican Gerald Ford won Nevada over Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976 by a margin of fewer than 8,000 votes out of more than 200,000 ballots cast.

Missouri, Ohio and New Mexico closely follow, siding with the winners 23 times over the same period.

"Everybody is looking to the heartland for the bellwether state," said Guy Rocha, Nevada's state archivist. "But it's the renegade state of Nevada that has the best track record over nearly a century. We're a lot more mainstream than people are giving us credit for."

Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada, Reno political science professor, attributed Nevada voters' penchant for picking winning candidates to their lack of commitment to the major political parties and ideologies, saying it makes voters open to both Democrats and Republicans.

"We're No. 1 because we're not overwhelmingly partisan," Herzik said. "We're not like California next door, where if a Democrat is breathing they're elected."

But Terry Jones, a University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor, said he doubts Nevada will continue its hot streak because its demographics aren't representative of the nation.

Jones said the state has more Hispanics, service workers and urban residents than the national average, and fewer evangelicals and blacks. He said Missouri lost its bellwether status because it has more evangelicals and fewer Hispanics than the national average.

Ohio is a more reliable bellwether because its demographics more closely match the national average, Jones said.

Jones offers another explanation for Nevada's record of predicting presidential victors: sheer coincidence.

"It's an accident of probability, not a case of 'as Nevada goes, so goes the nation,'" he said. "I'm not willing to label Nevada a bellwether state. Nevada is by far more libertarian on social issues than other states."

Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political science professor, agrees that Ohio's demographics make it a more reliable bellwether. He also notes no Republican has ever won the White House without capturing Ohio.

Asher also echoed Jones, saying that with Nevada's large numbers of service workers, a growing union movement and Hispanics who could mobilize politically, the state may not mirror the national vote in the future.

From a population of 1.2 million in 1990 to 2.7 million today, growth has dramatically changed the face of the state. Hispanics who made up just 10.4 percent of the state's population in 1990 now account for one of every four residents.

"You can imagine a decade down the road Nevada might be more reliably Democratic, while Ohio will probably still be more in competition," Asher said.

David Damore, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor, said he thinks Nevada's growing numbers of Hispanics and other minorities reflect change that faces the entire nation.

"I think we're a microcosm of the future of America," he said.

Besides Nevada's weak political parties, an influx of newcomers less anchored to the parties has contributed to the state's bellwether status, Damore said. Independents account for 16 percent of Nevada's registered voters, and more than one of every five when splinter parties are included.

Nevada, which led the nation in growth almost continuously over 21 years before falling to eighth last year, has become a swing state over the past two decades, with presidential candidates spending more time vying for its five electoral votes.

Its 25 percent Hispanic population compares with 15 percent nationally, while blacks account for 7 percent of the state's population compared with 12 percent nationally, according to 2007 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Service workers at businesses such as restaurants and hotels make up 26 percent of Nevada's work force compared with 8 percent nationally, while urban residents account for 92 percent of the state's population compared with 79 percent nationally, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Exit polls show white evangelicals made up 16 percent of the state's electorate in November compared with nearly 25 percent nationally.

"There's not a demographic answer for our ability to be a bellwether because we are somewhat atypical," Nevada professor Herzik said. "Nevada is fun to look at as it kind of defies some of the traditional explanations like demographics."

Experts say New Mexico also can make a case for being a bellwether because it has the best record since 1912 for picking the winner of the presidential popular vote, missing only once.

Like Nevada, New Mexico also went for Ford in 1976. Unlike Nevada, New Mexico in 2000 supported Democrat Al Gore, who won the national popular vote but lost the electoral vote to Bush.

Nevada archivist Rocha warns that candidates and others ignore Nevada at their own risk.

"We may not have been perceived by the media, but when you do your analysis you realize Nevada has been a bellwether state and it has been elevated with Missouri's outcome," Rocha said.

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