LAS VEGAS — If there’s any battleground state that should concern President Barack Obama, it’s Nevada. The state leads the nation in unemployment. It ranks fifth in foreclosures after months in the top spot – or bottom, depending on how you look at it.
But with the help of a surging Latino population and a strong union presence, Obama holds a narrow lead over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in this state with the fifth largest Hispanic population in the nation. The president has the support of nearly four out of five registered Latino voters in Nevada, according to Latino Decisions polling, which takes into account a 9 percent bump in support after Obama granted hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants two-year deferrals to remain in the country legally.
Nearly 270,000 Latinos are eligible to vote, accounting for about 15 percent of the electorate, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
“We’re going to give Obama another chance,” said Ruth Arriaza, a manager at a Latino fast food restaurant.
Arriaza, and her husband, Alex Martinez, 35, lost their “dream home” after going bankrupt during Obama’s term, but they said he was the only candidate who really cared about immigrants.
Martinez, a heating and air conditioning technician, said he was disappointed in the president for failing to pass comprehensive immigration restructuring after campaigning on the issue, but he said Obama deserved credit for using his executive powers to helping children who were brought to the country illegally by their parents.
Not all Latinos feel the same way. Rolando, 69, and Esperanza Varera, 58, also lost their house. And they don’t see the president helping them get it back. Esperanza, who’s originally from Mexico, said that what many recent Latino immigrants failed to understand was that if they didn’t have jobs and couldn’t keep their homes, then there was no future for them in the United States.
“They say we should be Democrats,” she said. “They say Republicans don’t like Latinos, but that’s not true. The Republicans are the ones who are going to fix our economy so that Latinos can get their jobs back.”
Nevada has only 2.7 million residents, but its six electoral votes could be decisive in the election. Obama’s support may have surged with Latinos, but it’s dropped with white Nevadans, giving Romney an opportunity. Still, Romney must overcome the fact that Nevada voters don’t fit traditional voter profiles. And more 70 percent of the population lives in socially liberal Clark County, home to the most extravagant casinos in the nation.
“We’re a state built on gambling,” said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno. “The bars never close. We have legalized prostitution in 10 counties. We’re at the bottom of the percentage of individuals who attend church.”
In interviews with dozens of residents across Las Vegas, it’s clear that the economy wasn’t necessarily everyone’s top issue. On social issues is where Republicans generally lose ground, Herzik said.
Both candidates paid Nevada a visit last week, each seeking to motivate supporters and convince remaining undecided residents that he’s the best-qualified man to tackle local challenges.
On Wednesday night at a rally outside Las Vegas, Obama touted falling unemployment rates and rising home values. He warned that a Romney presidency would “turn the clock back 50 years for women and immigrants and gays.”
Earlier that afternoon in Reno, Romney zeroed in on struggling homeowners. He warned that a second term for Obama would mean “the values of your homes continue to bump along in the basement.”
Obama handily won Nevada in 2008 with 55 percent of the vote, but he’s lost the backing of many supporters over the lack of economic progress since the Great Recession. The state is far from a Democratic stronghold; George W. Bush won it in 2000 and 2004.
Like many of their friends, Jeff and Alicia Wagner voted for Obama in 2008, believing that he could put Nevada and the country back on track. Unemployment had reached 8 percent that November, which was its highest in two decades, and the state already was leading lists of “worst hit” states from the recession.
The Wagners’ optimism turned sour as the state’s unemployment rate continued to rise, peaking at 14.5 percent last year. An architect, Jeff Wagner said his best friend had lost his job and then his home. Their own home is worth 50 percent less than they paid for it, he said.
“Four years ago it was very clear that our peer group was in Obama’s camp,” said Alicia Wagner, 29, an interior designer. “We just saw a lot of friends take steps backwards.”
“We believed in the rhetoric of change,” Jeff Wagner, 33, said after voting for Romney in early polling. It was his first vote ever for a Republican president.
Ethan Souder, 32, his wife, Laura, and his 7-year-old daughter attended Romney’s Las Vegas rally last Tuesday. A member of the U.S. military, he’s being dispatched to the Middle East next month, his fourth overseas assignment.
Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself, Souder criticized Obama for planned defense cuts and said the country needed a new leader like Romney. Part of the cuts stem from a deal agreed on by the president and bipartisan members of Congress that involved a package of spending reductions if a budget deficit-reduction program isn’t in place by the end of this year.“I’d like to help, but (military regulations) prevent me from volunteering for any political campaign,” he said.
Republicans also have cut into the Democrats’ registration lead in Nevada. As of April, they’d reduced Democrats’ advantage to 36,000 registered active voters. But with the help of the unions, who’ve paid some members to take time from their casino jobs to register voters, the Democrats made a strong final push. They now have 90,000 more active voters registered than Republicans do.
There are some signs of improvement in Nevada. Foreclosures have begun to drop and home values are rising.
Those seeds of hope are enough for Kyle Matthews to stick with Obama. The trade show coordinator said exhibitions were coming back as well, giving her optimism about the future. Watching football last week at Meatheads video poker bar, she said she worried about Romney’s lack of specifics on the loopholes he’d close to cut tax rates.
“When I talk to my friends, we at least think we’re on the right track,” she said. “And there’s a lot of trepidation for someone who’s not articulating a clear path.”
Still, the state continues to lead the nation in unemployment, at 11.8 percent. More than 70 percent of Nevada homeowners owe more money on their mortgages than their homes are worth, known as being “underwater,” according to RealtyTrac, which tracks foreclosures across the country.
Among the eye-catching billboards that advertise comedy shows and strip shows are others from lawyers promoting their expertise in short-selling underwater homes.
Those types of concerns are on the minds of dozens of volunteers at the Romney headquarters in Las Vegas, where they make hundreds of calls a day encouraging supporters to get out and vote.
“If you’re sick, you call a doctor,” said volunteer Alex Caveda, 30, who said he’s struggled to get full-time work since he graduated four years ago from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “You have a problem with the economy, you get someone who has worked and succeeded in the economy.”