Should the 2020 election be close, a strong comprehension of voting demographics in battleground states will become particularly relevant. In preparation for election day, I have therefore been regularly analyzing battleground (or “tipping point”) states. I began this project by reviewing the demographics of Western states, and plan to move eastward, due to the traditional left to right order on a U.S. map. I started by studying Nevada, with its six Electoral College votes. The following analysis presents my findings.
Since 1992, Nevada has partially mirrored both the popular vote and the successful Electoral College winner at the presidential level. The state swung against the Republicans under Bush and against the Democrats under Obama. Nevada was 7.5% to the right of the nation in 1996, 3.5% to the right of the nation in 2000, almost exactly in line with the nation in 2004, 5.3% to the left of the nation in 2008, 2.8% to the left of the nation in 2012, and 0.3% to the left of the nation in 2016. According to this trend, it follows that Democrats should hold Nevada as it typically trends against incumbents. Whether this occurs, however, remains to be seen. This election could continue the historical trend against the incumbent president or it could reverse trajectory to benefit the Republicans (as occurred in the 2018 midterms relative to the national House vote). And the outcome of this election could swing fast-growing Nevada’s voting trajectory for generations to come. The Silver State could become a relatively safe Democratic state like Colorado and Virginia, a perennial swing-state like Florida, or slowly shift into a relatively safe Republican state as Missouri has since the early 2000s or Ohio since 2016.
On a county-by-county level, Nevada is one of the simplest states in the nation to analyze. Nearly seven-eighths of the total vote in the state comes out of Clark County, where the state’s two most populated cities (Las Vegas and Henderson) are located, and Washoe County, whose largest city is Reno. In the last presidential election, Clinton carried these two combined counties by 8.6 points. In Nevada’s remaining counties, which are mostly rural with a few small towns like Carson City and Elko, Trump won by 37.7 points. His most realistic path to flipping Nevada would be to limit his loss in Washoe and Clark Counties to roughly 6.5 points and to win the rest of the state by roughly 50 points. This is possible, but the task is not straightforward.
The best metric for Trump’s strength in Nevada, or lack thereof, is not public-opinion polling but instead changes in voter registration by party, since this is publicly available every month and does not project the views of one person onto 10,000 people like public polling does. On this metric, the situation looks modestly strong for Democrats in Clark and Washoe Counties. In October 2016, the net registration advantage for Democrats over Republicans in Clark County stood at 142,263 out of 1,018,301 active registered voters. In September 2020, that advantage is at 153,241 out of 1,231,351 active registered voters. Although this can be interpreted as good news for Republicans since the net registration advantage as a percent of the number of registered voters decreased for Democrats, padding an extra 11,000 registered voter advantage will help Democrats cushion their raw partisan vote margin in Clark County. In October 2016, Republicans had a net registration advantage in Washoe County of 3,665 out of 263,494 active registered voters. As of September 2020, that Republican advantage has shrunk to 963 out of 294,825 active registered voters.
Thus, if Trump is to cut his losses in Washoe and Clark Counties to the range that he needs in order to win the state, he will have to do it by improving his standing amongst culturally conservative, generally lower middle class Hispanics and Asians who don’t typically vote Republican, but compose a significant portion of Clark County’s population. This much-needed improved performance amongst Hispanics has been showing up in national polling as well as in states with a high Hispanic population like Florida (and not just with the Cuban vote). Similarly, Trump is polling better nationally amongst every Asian ethnic subgroup except Chinese people, compared to 2016. Among Asian-Americans on aggregate, Clinton beat Trump by a 79%-18% margin in the same organization’s 2016 post-election survey, whereas Biden is only up 54%-30% in their latest polling.
Considering that Hispanics accounted for 18% of the electorate and Asians accounted for 6% of the electorate statewide in 2016, these gains offset (or maybe more than offset) Trump’s loss of some white moderate conservatives who are defecting away from the Republican Party in suburbia. This is especially true because Nevada has fewer suburban areas than many Sun Belt states. Despite the marginal increase in net Democrat registration, it is therefore still possible for Trump to narrow his losses in Washoe and Clark Counties by more than 2%.
Outside of Washoe and Clark Counties, Republicans are gaining substantially. Republicans’ registration advantage over Democrats went from 680-111 (October 2016) to 775-84 (September 2020) in Eureka County, 1271-602 to 1502-533 (Pershing), 1582-647 to 1860-511 (Lincoln), 1201-1060 to 1285-866 (Mineral), and 1441-752 to 1765-801 (Storey). Similar shifts have occurred over the past four years in relatively larger counties like Churchill, Lyon, and Nye. These shifts may seem insignificant, due to the small amount of available votes and the fact that most newly registered Republicans may just be Trump-voting Democrats from 2016. However, the increase in Republican registrations does indicate that Trump is likely just as popular as he was in 2016, if not more so. For these reasons, a recent UNLV Business School poll, showing Trump only leading by 28% in the portion of Nevada outside Washoe and Clark Counties, makes little sense. If anything, increasing Trump’s small town and rural support should be feasible.
Despite the metrics and fundamentals looking better for Trump than they did in 2016, his campaign should probably avoid spending too much time and resources in Nevada. First, polling in the state has underestimated Democratic Party support over the past few midterm and presidential elections. The Trump campaign should therefore treat any optimistic internal polling with a massive grain of salt. Second, very few paths to re-election for Trump actually run through Nevada. Until recently, Trump has been consistently favored to win 248 electoral votes in the betting markets. Presuming he holds onto the traditionally red state of Arizona, given the likelihood of at least some Trump-weary Republicans rallying behind him over SCOTUS, Trump would be at 259 electoral votes. In this plausible scenario, Trump would be far better off winning just one of the four tossup Rust Belt states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania) and holding Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district (containing Omaha and its suburbs), as opposed to winning New Hampshire and Nevada. Additionally, Trump’s chances in Nevada are hurt by a recent state law passed through the legislature and signed by Governor Steve Sisolak (D., Nevada) allowing mail-in ballots to be sent to every active voter, rather than requiring voters to request absentee ballots themselves. This law also legalizes the practice of ballot harvesting which will almost certainly encourage Democratic operatives to do what they did in California (the only other state where ballot harvesting is legal) in 2018. This will likely offset any advantage Trump may appear to have on election night in Nevada.
Given all of these factors, I expect Biden to win Nevada by a similar margin to 2016, which would be anywhere between 1.5 to 3.5 percentage points.