Harry Reid was a goner.
In the dying embers of the 2010 midterms, the Senate majority leader appeared to be on the ropes. Polls from a variety of well-known outlets showed tea party champion Sharron Angle leading him in the final weeks of the U.S. Senate race in Nevada. No less of an authority than Nate Silver, who correctly predicted 34 of the 36 Senate races that year, pegged Angle as the favorite in his final forecast.
But on Election Day, the Nevada polls were proven wrong. Reid defeated Angle by nearly 6 points, powered by his labor-led field organization and the state’s increasingly diverse electorate.
Today, less than two weeks before the 2012 election, the ghosts of those failed predictions continue to haunt pollsters in Nevada. Even as recent surveys show the presidential race tightening, with Republican nominee Mitt Romney inching closer to President Obama’s lead, those who know the numbers best say the state remains one of the hardest in the nation to predict.
Gary Segura, a pollster for Latino Decisions and a professor of political science at Stanford University, told TPM that pollsters often neglect to conduct interviews in Spanish — problematic in a state where many residents don’t speak English as a first language. That shortcoming, Segura said, likely undersold Reid’s level of support two years ago and may be occurring again this year.
“That was a huge flaw in the pre-election polling of the Reid-Angle race,” Segura said. “Anyone not interviewing in Spanish could be underestimating Obama’s support by about one to two percent, depending on the assumptions you make about Latino turnout in Nevada.”
There are other explanations offered for why Nevada is such treacherous territory for pollsters. Many residents don’t own a landline telephone, and a large portion of those who do may not pick up when it rings.
But Republican pollster David Flaherty said Reid’s ground game was the difference in 2010. Over the course of his long career, Reid, with the assistance of the influential Las Vegas culinary unions, has built an extremely effective “get out the vote” operation. Many Reid supporters who had already cast their ballots for the longtime senator before Election Day were excluded from various pollsters’ likely voter models. Flaherty said the outcome of this year’s presidential race may hinge on whether that grassroots apparatus can deliver for Obama.
“I’m curious to see if Democrats can do the same thing for Obama that they did for Harry Reid in 2010,” Flaherty told TPM. “Can Harry Reid’s invincible machine get it done again? That’s what we’re waiting to see.”
There may already be evidence that it is paying dividends for the president. As of Tuesday, Nevada Democrats had turned in more than 60,000 early ballots while Republicans had turned in about 44,000.
Still, Flaherty said his Colorado-based firm, Magellan Strategies, has found clear movement in Romney’s direction following the first presidential debate on Oct. 3. After the president held leads of 4-5 points in Nevada during the summer months, Magellan now places the state in the toss-up column. And if a candidate’s travel itinerary is any indicator of which states are in play, Romney’s joint rally with running mate Paul Ryan on Tuesday in the Las Vegas suburbs and a solo appearance Wednesday in Reno could be telling.
“The Obama campaign clearly spent a lot of time and effort driving up Romney’s negatives during the summer, and the Romney campaign arguably didn’t do enough to address those concerns,” Flaherty said. “But the debate enabled him to show millions of Americans the ‘real Romney’ and steer the conversation back to the economy. Romney is winning on the economy right now and that’s helped him in Nevada.”
Republicans claim a slight edge in the state’s ad wars. Romney and his allies have dropped about $23 million on advertisements in Nevada, compared with the little more than $20 million spent on ads there by the Obama campaign and groups supporting the president. Over the weekend, Romney picked up an endorsement from the Reno Gazette-Journal, the state’s second largest newspaper, which endorsed Obama in 2008. And between a large Mormon population and an unemployment rate that ranks as the highest in the country, Nevada seems like fertile ground for a Romney candidacy.
But Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told TPM that the likelihood of the state going red is “remote.” His firm released a poll last week that showed Obama with an 8-point cushion among likely voters there.
Mellman has plenty of credibility in Nevada. As Reid’s pollster in 2010, the Mellman Group’s research diverged from the organizations that showed Angle with leads late in the campaign. Mellman cited a litany of factors — Reid’s get-out-the-vote efforts, the Democrats’ roughly 90,000 voter registration advantage and a burgeoning Latino population that will likely overwhelmingly support the president — that all portend an Obama win in Nevada. He also noted that Obama has been given political cover by Nevadans who acknowledge that the state’s economic woes predate his presidency.
“This could change. When the national number moves, swing states move too,” Mellman said. “But I think it’s very likely that the president is going to win Nevada. There is no indication of Romney progress in Nevada and no indication that he has improved his chances of winning Nevada.”
Even prominent Republicans in the state appear to be growing bearish on the prospect of a Romney victory there. A top adviser to popular Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) said Tuesday that he expects Obama to carry the state.
That sentiment reflects a growing sense that Nevada may not be as competitive as other battlegrounds. Mellman said recent polls have shown Republicans faring much better there than what his analysis suggests. His polling even points to a win by Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) in the state’s U.S. Senate race, while most recent surveys have shown her trailing to incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV).
“Look, right now we’re the only poll showing Shelley Berkley ahead, and others show Obama ahead but by a smaller margin than he actually is,” Mellman said. “But bottom line, Romney is not leading Nevada.”
Obama has consistently led in the state throughout this election cycle. In fact, no poll this year has shown Romney with a lead in Nevada. The president’s strength there could provide his campaign with a potential western firewall to couple with states in the Midwest. For example, if Obama were to carry Nevada, Wisconsin and Ohio — arguably the three swing states where he has run the strongest — he could accumulate just enough electoral votes to win re-election, even if Romney runs the table in Colorado, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Florida.
The PollTracker Average illustrates Obama’s persistent edge in Nevada.
Tom Kludt is a newswriter for TPM. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, he lives and works in New York City. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at Tom (at) talkingpointsmemo.com.