Parties firing up voters

Two out of three voters in the Clark County primary were age 46 to 75.

The college crowd stayed home: 18- to 25-year-olds made up only 2.25 percent of voters.

And Republicans turned out in far greater numbers than Democrats — 93,125 compared with 73,122 — in the state’s biggest population center and biggest election-year battleground.

The June 8 primary may be behind us, but a closer reading of who cast ballots offers insight into what each political party must do to turn out the most voters to win on Nov. 2.

Democrats must work to wake up their still-sleepy base and get young folks who came out in record numbers in 2008 for President Barack Obama to return to the voting booth.

Republicans must maintain enthusiasm among an already fired-up base, fueled in part by the Tea Party movement, which is against big government and for less federal spending and fewer taxes.

And both political parties must appeal to Nevada’s growing nonpartisan voters — now 15 percent of the electorate — who swung toward Republicans in 2002 and 2004, then toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and who seem to be leaning more toward Republicans in 2010, early polls show.

"The candidate who can get to the moderates is the one with the right message," said Mark Peplowski, a political science professor at the College of Southern Nevada. "The question for the Republicans is can they hold their base and not have defections come November. And the question for the Democrats is can they get the Obama vote out" when the president is not on the ticket.

This is especially key for the most competitive top of the ticket, the U.S. Senate race. The contest has national stakes and gives Nevada voters a stark choice between Tea Party conservative Sharron Angle, the GOP challenger, and Sen. Harry Reid, the incumbent Democratic leader of the Senate.

Peplowski thinks both parties will see defections as Angle makes the libertarian fiscal argument for smaller government at a time people are worried about the dismal economy and the growing deficit and as Reid argues he has the greatest power to bring home more jobs and federal funding.

"I think you’ll see the president or his surrogates come here no less than 10 times between now and November" to make the power point for the unpopular Reid, Peplowski said.

Start counting. This week, Obama is scheduled to be in Las Vegas for the second time this year to stump for Reid on Thursday and Friday in a visit that will mix politics with official events.

One advertised event will be a rally at CityCenter’s Aria hotel-casino on the Strip that is being billed on invitations to supporters as "An Evening With Barack Obama and Harry Reid."

In February, the president appeared at Aria during a trip used to promote Reid’s re-election and health care reform, which isn’t popular among a majority of Nevadans, according to surveys.

Since then, first lady Michelle Obama has visited Las Vegas as well as former President Bill Clinton, with both making the argument that Reid is a key member of Obama’s team.

The question remains, however, whether frequent visits by Obama will bring young voters back to the ballot box in November. Even Democratic Party leaders aren’t so sure.

"I think the Obama vote is gone," said Erin Bilbray-Kohn, a Democratic Party committeewoman from Las Vegas who nonetheless is not giving up hope. "We have to get them enthusiastic again."

In 2008, Nevada exit polls showed that three-quarters of people voting for the first time picked Obama after a Democratic Party registration drive added 100,000 to the rolls, overtaking Republican Party registration in the state. Now, Democrats still hold an edge of nearly 60,000 among the state’s 1 million-plus active registered voters, according to figures released last week by the secretary of state.

Democratic insiders say the Reid campaign plans to spend $6 million on efforts to get out the vote.

This could help Rep. Dina Titus as well. The freshman Democrat won election thanks to the Obama wave, but she now faces a tough GOP opponent in Joe Heck, a former state senator.

As for the poor Democratic turnout on June 8, the party blames the lack of many competitive races.

"Turnout was comparable with our expectations," said Phoebe Sweet, spokeswoman for the Nevada Democratic Party. "Excitement for the general election is high already."

In comparison to Democrats, the GOP had highly competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial contests. Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons lost his re-election bid to Brian Sandoval, a former federal judge who now faces Democrat Rory Reid, chairman of the Clark County Commission and the senator’s son.

Many political observers believe that both Reids are hurt by being on the same Democratic ticket because there is an anti-dynasty and anti-incumbent trend playing out across the country this election year.

Sandoval is running far out in front of Reid, according to early polls. If the race tightens up, as it is expected to do, that could help Republican turnout, said Peplowski. He speculated that if it appears Sandoval is "winning it running away," GOP voters who aren’t excited about Angle may stay home.

Overall, the primary turnout in Clark County was 26 percent compared with 30 percent statewide. Generally, turnout in midterm general elections is about double that, according to past Nevada tallies.

The state Republican Party will be testing both GOP enthusiasm levels and the party’s efforts to unify behind Angle when it holds its convention in Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday.

Since the divisive GOP primary, some moderate Republicans have either openly lined up behind Harry Reid or expressed public and private doubts about Angle, suggesting she is too conservative or too uncompromising to win their support as well as the general election.

At the same time, there has been a major effort behind the scenes to get Republicans to fall in line, using the argument that the Democratic Party in power is bankrupting America and Americans.

"Forget personalities. Look at the issues," said Bill Pojunis, communications director for the Clark County Republican Party. "The economy, the fiscal issues — these are the things that the Republican Party has to hit on. We will be presenting a unified Republican front up and down the ticket."

Ryan Erwin, a Republican operative, agreed that in the end, the election will likely come down to the bread and butter issue of the economy, as it does just about every November.

In Nevada, 14 percent of workers are unemployed and there are record home foreclosure and bankruptcy rates.

"For all the noise there’s been about whether Sharron Angle’s too conservative to win, a valid question is whether Washington is too liberal for Harry Reid to win," said Erwin. "Will Reid be blamed for Washington’s problems? The answer right now is yes. But if he can turn that around, he can win."

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.

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