Presidential Election

Neck-and-neck in Nevada, Clinton and Trump roll the dice

In a cramped office strewn with hand-written signs setting door-knocking goals and tracking early votes, Artie Blanco reminded a roomful of Californians why they had shown up early in Nevada on the final Saturday before the election.

“Nevada is what’s going to make the difference,” said Blanco, who works for a labor-backed advocacy organization called For Our Future. “This is where the wall will be to keep Trump out of the White House.”

The prospect seemed to offer her audience some relief.

A San Francisco woman said journeying to Nevada helped allay her election anxiety. A woman from Chico, Grace Marvin, also canvassed in North Carolina this year.

“Better to go to Nevada now,” Marvin said, “than Canada later.”

Seven miles away, Donald Trump rallied his loyalists on Saturday afternoon with his second Nevada event in a week. Cars with California license plates were sprinkled throughout the parking lot, and a roar shook the crowd after a speaker referenced Californian attendees. Among them were members of California’s Nevada County Republican Party, who had planned to canvass Nevada on Saturday, as they have previous weekends, but instead chose to see Trump in person.

“There’s been a very big push,” said Carla Embertson, a county GOP official in Truckee and former head of the California Federation of Republican Women. “It’s going to be a very close election, and those six (electoral) votes could make a huge difference.”

Like their Democratic counterparts, Trump supporters living in California have been working to push their candidate over the top in Nevada. Trump’s California director, Tim Clark, said the organization he oversees is “sending groups every weekend.” Conservative students attending UC Berkeley spent their weekend galvanizing Reno residents.

“We’re Californians heading a ways away just to try and make a difference,” said Berkeley College Republicans president Jose Diaz. “We’ve done what we can here in small ways, but it’s a fairly blue state. However, Nevada is up for grabs, we believe, and anything we can contribute we’ll try to put in motion at this point.”

Sandwiched between the Democratic bastions of the coastal West and reliably red states in the mountains and plains, Nevada offers a critical opportunity for both campaigns. The stakes have risen as recent polls show the national race tightening and potentially coming down to a handful of electoral votes.

After years as a Republican bastion, Nevada has become a perennial swing state as demographic changes have buoyed Democrats’ fortunes, paralleling a trend in now-competitive Southern states.

“It was a kind of quintessential let-me-alone Western state that’s morphed into a more diverse, complex state like the rest of country,” said Robert Lang, a professor of public policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Former President Bill Clinton won Nevada twice, though third-party candidate Ross Perot was a factor in that, and Al Gore came within a few points of defeating George W. Bush in Nevada in 2000. President Barack Obama carried the state by a commanding double-digit margin in 2008 and won it again in 2012, albeit less decisively. Both times, he won in the population centers of Washoe County and Clark County, anchored by the Reno and Las Vegas metropolitan areas.

The state remains a focus in 2016, both for the presidential race and the clash to claim the seat of retiring Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s operation has had a presence there since early 2015 and maintains 16 field offices. Clinton addressed a rally at a Las Vegas union hall on Wednesday. Bill Clinton rallied a UNLV audience on Thursday.

Trump has been a regular visitor. He swung through Las Vegas for a rally last weekend and returned to the state for a raucous Reno event Saturday.

“Reno and northern Nevada can carry this state and can carry us all the way to Washington,” Trump told the delirious crowd. “It’s up to the great people of Washoe County to get it done,” he added.

A review of Nevada polls tells the story. Since May, various surveys aggregated by the website Real Clear Politics show Clinton and Trump trading the Silver State advantage nine times. Clinton surged ahead in the days after disclosure of a video in which Trump bawdily bragged about groping women. Trump had an edge more recently amid the newest disclosures about the FBI’s probe of emails linked to Clinton.

Lang said Clinton should benefit from the state’s diverse electorate, a Democratic “machine” built by Reid and the state’s sizable unionized workforce. But he noted that there are “working-class whites in abundance here, and that’s part of (Trump’s) key demographic.”

“I’d give the advantage to Clinton,” Lang said, but “it’s a test. We’ll see where the state is.”

For Californians hoping to alter the outcome beyond their state, which is almost certain to yield its 55 electoral votes to Clinton, the battleground next door offers an opportunity.

“This is a state that has unbelievable focus right now on the election,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who joined a contingent seeking to galvanize early voting on a recent weekend. “It’s the battleground of all battleground states – a different vibe than we’re used to in California. They’re very attuned.”

Liberal allies such as organized labor and environmentalists have worked to dispatch California volunteers to Nevada. Union members have made regular weekend pilgrimages, with the California Labor Federation on pace to more than double its goal of sending out 1,000 volunteers. For the California Democratic Party, the state has served as a sort of staging ground, directing volunteers to Clinton campaign offices that then send them where they’re needed.

“If we were turning out and investing in Hillary voters in California, we would be committing political malpractice” given the state’s solid blue status, party spokesman Michael Soller said, but “the Hillary campaign has invested really heavily in setting up that infrastructure for months in California” that diverts people to phone banks or canvass swing states.

A Sierra Club program has recruited people living in “blue states adjacent to purple states,” said Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club’s deputy executive director. He acknowledged Nevadans can show signs of election fatigue.

“They say, ‘You’re the fifth person who’s been here,’ ” Hamilton said. “Sometimes they get a little irritated.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert