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For the next few days, Nevada will be the center of the political universe. But like the ad says, “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Simply, what happens in February won’t matter much in November. That’s when the state will turn into a battleground. And if the past two election cycles – and results of the 2010 Census – are any guide, the Latino vote and the issue of immigration reform will once again prove decisive in the 2012 general election—not only in the Presidential race, but in key House and Senate contests as well.
Here are some of the relevant facts and figures to keep in mind about Nevada, as well as some analysis from my colleagues at America’s Voice on the recent elections and what their results mean for the 2012 contests.
Latino voters are expanding their political clout in Nevada, and they care deeply about immigration
If there’s one number that you need to know it’s that in 2012, Latinos constitute 26% of the state’s population. Latino Decisions estimates that Latinos will comprise 15% of Nevada’s registered voters by the 2012 general elections.
Nevada’s Latino population grew by 81.87% from 2000 to 2010 – 46% of all population growth in Nevada during the decade and the primary reason why Nevada gained an extra seat in Congress after the 2010 Census.
Nevada’s Latino electorate is largely comprised of Mexican-American voters, who are more directly affected by immigration issues than Cuban voters in Florida. As the Center for American Progress recently wrote, “In contrast to Florida, where Mexicans make up 15 percent of the Latino population, in Nevada, Mexicans make up 78 percent of the Latino population.”
Immigration is a key, motivating issue for Nevada Latino voters. In Latino Decisions’ election eve polling in 2010, 38% of Latino voters in Nevada said that immigration was the most important issue in determining their vote and another 31% said that it was “one of the most important” issues. Forty-four percent said immigration was the most important issue facing the Latino community that politicians should address. In the same poll, 74% of Nevada Latino voters supported a path to citizenship for the undocumented while 76% opposed Arizona’s SB 1070.
2008: Obama flips Nevada and other states from red to blue, with help of Latino voters
President Obama got 55% of the vote in 2008 in Nevada, which was one of the four states in Obama’s column that George Bush won in 2004. In each of those four states, which also includes Colorado, New Mexico and Florida, the Latino vote was a decisive factor in Obama’s win.
Latino voters made up over 12% of the Nevada electorate in 2008 and Latino voter turnout there jumped over 164% between 2000 and 2008. In 2008, 76% of Nevada Latinos voted for Barack Obama, helping him win a state that George W. Bush had won in both 2000 and 2004.
2010: The immigration issue was key to erecting a “Latino firewall” in the West that led to Majority Leader Reid’s victory and ended the “Republican wave” at the Rockies
According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D), Latinos were the deciding factor in his close race against Republican Sharron Angle in 2010. In October 2011, Senate Majority Leader Reid said, “I would not be the majority leader in the United States Senate today, but for the Hispanics in Nevada.”
Latino Decisions election eve polling from 2010 found that Reid’s margin over Sharron Angle was 90% – 8% among Latino voters. Angle ran a notoriously aggressive anti-immigrant campaign, punctuated by some of the most blatantly anti-Latino ads seen in recent political history, while Reid was a clear and strong voice in favor of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. According to exit polls, Latino turnout was up from 12% of the electorate in the 2006 mid-terms to 15% in 2010.
Immigration was a major factor in driving Latino voters to the polls for Reid. In 2010, 38% of Latino voters in Nevada said that immigration was the most important issue in determining their vote, according to Latino Decisions’ election eve polling, and another 31% said that it was “one of the most important” issues. The Las Vegas Sun quoted Gilberto Ramirez, a first-time, recently-naturalized voter from Reno, explaining why Sharron Angle’s anti-Latino ads motivated him to vote and to support Senator Harry Reid: “She was depicting me as a gang member. I served seven years in the Marine Corps.”
2012: Top of the ticket Republicans are anti-immigrant – and that matters
Mitt Romney has already seared his image as an anti-immigrant candidate into the minds of Latino voters. Romney’s vow to veto the DREAM Act and his continued calls for self-deportation of undocumented immigrants are reverberating in the Latino community – and will continue through November. As noted below, DREAMers were protesting outside of Romney’s Las Vegas office yesterday. We have a feeling he’ll be seeing a lot more of them. Romney is also being advised by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the author of Arizona’s SB 1070, which is strongly opposed by Latinos in Nevada. Kobach is also a former attorney for the legal arm of the FAIR – which has been labeled an anti-immigrant hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In the 2012 Senate race in Nevada, labeled a toss-up by the Cook Political Report, the appointed incumbent, Republican Dean Heller, has established his anti-immigrant credentials early, in stark contrast with the Democratic Senate candidate, Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (who represents many of Nevada’s Hispanic neighborhoods). The issue is already playing out badly for Heller, who appears poised to make the same mistakes as Sharron Angle. As the Associated Press wrote in early January, “Heller’s appearance at a monthly Hispanics in Politics meeting was intended to be an olive branch toward the Hispanic community after he cancelled a meeting with the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce in October, prompting accusations from some Hispanic leaders that Heller was shunning the Latino community. But the meeting quickly evolved into a debate on immigration, with Heller repeating his opposition to illegal immigration several times, even as Hispanic leaders warned him that the stance could alienate some Latino voters. Heller also reiterated his support for an overhaul of the 14th Amendment…”
Latinos are also poised to play key roles in House contests. The Cook Political Report currently lists NV-4 and NV-3 as races to watch, and considers NV-3 to be highly competitive. In NV-3, 13.67% of voters are Latino. In the newly-created NV-4 district, voter numbers are not yet available, but Latinos comprise 27.26% of the district’s overall population.