The problem with political rallies is that everybody in the audience already intends to support the candidate for whom the rally was held. You might call it preaching to the choir.
But political rallies are not really conducted to persuade undecided voters. They’re designed to energize supporters to become volunteers and to reach out to friends, family and neighbors to vote for the candidate. So, what you do is bring in a heavy hitter to attract an audience, then hope the urgent messages emanating from the stage stir the crowd into action.
This may or may not have happened Wednesday morning at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid held a rally attended by about 1,200 people. Reid’s big draw was about as big as it gets in Democratic Party circles: former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton is no stranger to Las Vegas, having stopped here many times over the years as a presidential candidate and president in the 1990s and as a former president campaigning for Democratic candidates and causes in the 2000s. He has friends and political allies here. Plus, I’ve gathered he genuinely likes our town.
I’ve seen Clinton in person four times now, three times speaking in Las Vegas and once at a newspaper convention in Little Rock, Ark. Each time, he managed to eschew the rhetoric of the time and explain what was happening in the world with a folksy clarity and succinctness. On Wednesday, he introduced his speech like this: “Let’s get down to the meat of the coconut.”
Clinton said polls reflect that voters have three basic feelings right now: anger, apathy and amnesia. The anger is over the economic meltdown and its lingering effects. The apathy has emerged from the fact that things are not getting better as many had hoped. The amnesia is reflected in the growing support for the very political and economic policies that got us into this mess in the first place.
In regard to the anger, Clinton acknowledged there are good reasons to be upset. But he advised that decisions made in anger often turn out to be regretted. “Don’t let anger cloud your judgment,” he said.
As for apathy, he offered little sympathy for those who aren’t concerned about what’s going to happen in the future. “There’s nothing wrong with this country that we can’t fix,” he said.
He had a little trouble understanding the amnesia. Considering that he left the White House with a vibrant economy, a budget surplus and low unemployment, Clinton noted that things went to hell during the next eight years under President George W. Bush. “What caused this mess was too much risk and too little oversight,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Clinton said, the countries that have best weathered the economic meltdown — he mentioned Canada and Australia — have done so because of stronger oversight of financial institutions and practices.
He enthusiastically championed Nevada becoming the first state in the nation to achieve energy independence. “The sun shines and the wind blows here,” he said, summing up two linchpins of Nevada’s potential new economy.
By embracing, encouraging and financing clean energy projects, he said, Nevada could diversify its economy and put thousands of unemployed construction workers back on the job. Construction workers also could retrofit schools and other buildings to improve energy efficiency. “This is the single best thing you can do to put Nevada back to work,” he said.
Now, despite the aura of post-presidency wisdom that Clinton regularly imparts, he remains a partisan. After all, he came to Las Vegas to boost Rory Reid’s campaign. Part of his speech, therefore, involved drawing a contrast between Reid and his opponent, Republican Brian Sandoval. To that end, Clinton pointed out that Reid has offered detailed plans for what he would do if he becomes governor, while Sandoval has offered little in the way of a vision for the office.
“One candidate has put out a detailed plan,” Clinton said. “The other fella looks great in a suit.” Having a little fun, Clinton went on to express a degree of jealousy about Sandoval’s magazine model visage. “He’s a handsome dude,” he said.
Embracing substance over style was an easy sell to the 1,200 die-hard Democrats crowded into the House of Blues. But what of the world beyond the party rally? In that world, Reid remains 10 to 15 percentage points behind Sandoval in the polls — an alarming margin considering a majority of Nevada’s registered voters are Democrats. With just a month before the start of early voting, how does Reid deliver his substance-over-style message to those in the middle who either remain undecided or lean toward Sandoval?
It’s going to be tough. Reid has volunteers working across the state, but this is a different Nevada landscape than the one from which Barack Obama emerged victorious in 2008. For Reid, anger, apathy and amnesia all stand in his path to the governor’s mansion.
Geoff Schumacher (email@example.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday.