weather icon Clear

Political divide between Nevada’s urban and rural counties grows

Nevada’s political divide between rural and urban regions is wide.

Nevada voting trends in the 2016 election demonstrated the growing clout of Clark County, which has about 70 percent of the state’s population, and the need for future candidates to connect with voters in the state’s urban centers.

Though Donald Trump won the presidential election, Hillary Clinton carried the state, with the widest margin of victory in Southern Nevada. Clinton carried Nevada with slightly more than a 2-point lead: 47.89 percent to Trump’s 45.53 percent.

Clark County and, to a smaller degree, Washoe County, put Nevada’s six Electoral College votes in Clinton’s column.

In Clark County, where 68.16 percent of all the Nevada ballots for president were cast, Clinton had a double-digit lead over Trump: 52.39 percent to 41.75 percent. In Washoe County, the state’s second most populous county, Clinton had an edge of slightly more than 1 point.

The rest of Nevada was Trump country. The catch: Those vast rural swaths of the state contained just 13.2 percent of the 1.12 million ballots cast in Nevada’s presidential race.

It’s a trend that’s expected to only continue in the foreseeable future, as the bulk of the state’s population growth is projected to be centered in Clark County. The pattern also fuels expectations that Nevada’s political dynamics will continue to look more like California, with power to win elections concentrated in urban cores and diminished influence in rural areas.

State demographers have predicted Nevada’s population will grow by more than 425,000 in the next two decades, with a potential 319,501 population increase projected for Clark County and an 83,926 increase projected for Washoe County. Meanwhile, population decreases are projected for 10 rural Nevada counties by 2035.

“The reality is you have so much of the population concentrated in Clark County it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the more Republican upstate to impact elections,” said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.

Roberta Lange, chairwoman of the Nevada State Democratic Party, said Democratic candidates went to rural counties to campaign and noted that it’s “no secret” what the voting trends there are.

For Republicans, the path to doing better in Nevada, and Clark County in particular, is by connecting with nonpartisan voters. That’s the group of registered voters that has increased the most in Clark County and Nevada.

In the 2012 presidential election, registered nonpartisan voters made up just 17.78 percent of all Clark County voters. Four years later, nonpartisan voters made up 21.75 percent of the county’s electorate.

To be sure, both Republicans and Democrats made gains in the number of registered voters, with Democratic registered voters outnumbering registered GOP voters in both 2012 and 2016. But the biggest gain in Clark County was in registered nonpartisan voters, which went from 151,490 in 2012 to 221,545 in 2016.

This trend gives Republicans hope that Nevada will stay more of a purple state and less of a blue state in future elections, including 2018.

“The largest relative growth in Clark County has been on nonpartisan voters, and that’s going to be the key and that is why both the state and county are going to make it very much a purple state,” said Jordan Ross, state whip for the Nevada Republican Party.

At the same time, Nevada is going to start looking more and more like its neighbor to the West.

“We’re slowly becoming very similar to California,” said Assemblyman Ira Hansen, a Republican from Sparks in northern Nevada. “Rural people in general and native Nevadans like myself tend to be very conservative or even libertarian.”

However, he added, “most of my fellow legislators from Clark County are actually surprisingly protective of rural Nevada” and want to protect the “old West aspect of the state.”

Clark County’s pivotal role in swaying elections is due to its population size and sheer number of voters, not because of the region’s ability to turn out votes at a greater rate than the rest of the state.

Most Nevada counties outperformed Clark County in turnout rates. Statewide, overall voter turnout was 76.78 percent. Clark County’s turnout of 75.29 percent was a hair below the state average. Meanwhile, most rural counties had turnout rates that exceeded Clark County and the state average.

Out of the 15 rural counties outside Washoe and Clark counties, only four had turnout lower than Clark County’s turnout. The county with the lowest turnout was Mineral County, which had 67.89 percent turnout. The highest turnout was in Douglas County, where it was 94.39 percent. Washoe County’s turnout was 79.56 percent.

Contact Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2904. Follow @BenBotkin1 on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.