Bellwether Nevada: 'If we go with Donald … that's probably how the country's going to go'

History suggests whoever wins Nevada on Nov. 8 will be moving into the Oval Office in January. The state has backed the winner every time for 100 years, except in 1976 when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford.

State's percentage of whites with no college education exactly matches the national average

Halifax native Julie Osborn, centre, shares a drink with two members of Drinking Liberally's Henderson, Nev., chapter. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

To be a Democrat in Henderson, Nev., is to be on a blue island in a red sea. In the last federal election, 15 of the 16 counties surrounding the city voted Republican — and they're not afraid to throw their weight around.

"There was a sign on my mailbox one day written in marker: 'Hillary for prison,'" Democrat Norma Unger said Monday. "I'm terrified!"

That's why she decided to found a chapter of the national social group Drinking Liberally in Henderson. Every week, several dozen Democrats get together at a local bar to commiserate over cocktails.

Halifax's Julie Osborn is among three Canadian dual citizens at this gathering, sharing their fears of a Trump presidency.

"Trump's followers are aggressive, bullies," she said in an interview. "It's almost like a modern-day Hitler."

Every single theme, every single narrative that we've heard ever since the primaries, we see that played out in Nevada.- Dan Lee

And yet, Nevada voted above the national average for Obama in 2012, and the state's Democratic Party has a huge advantage in voter registration. In Nevada, as in almost all the swing states, polls indicate Clinton and Trump are neck and neck. According to Osborn, it wasn't supposed to be this close.

"With the number of supporters I see, it's a concern, it really is," she said. "It's so close that it's enough to make me nervous."

UNLV political science professor Daniel Lee says that in the past 100 years, Nevada has been on the 'winning' side of the presidential race in every contest except one. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Nevada is only worth six electoral college votes, but every swing state could be crucial. And according to Dan Lee, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, history suggests that whoever wins here in November will likely be moving into the Oval Office in January. 

"Over the past 100 years, Nevada has supported the eventual winning candidate every time except for once back in 1976," said Lee. In that year, the state supported Republican incumbent Gerald Ford over Democrat Jimmy Carter, who won the presidency.

A collage of Trump paraphernalia at the Nevada Trump headquarters in Las Vegas. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"What's interesting about Nevada is pretty much every single theme, every single narrative that we've heard ever since the primaries and even up through the general election, we see that played out in Nevada," Lee said.

Nevada is a reliable bellwether, because in many ways its population reflects much of the country. Here, as he has in many states, Trump has tapped into frustration with the changing economy. The state's percentage of whites with no college education exactly matches the national average. And according to Lee, that's Trump's key constituency. 

Electoral Nostradamus

"So that demographic balance shifted towards Trump and it has helped him keep pace with Clinton in the race," he says.

Republicans, too, are aware of Nevada's history as an almost infallible electoral Nostradamus. 

"If we go with Donald, and he's the elected person for Nevada, that's probably how the country's going to go," said Dwight Mazzone, chairman of the Clark County Republican Party, in an interview. 

Vietnam veteran Dwight Mazzone, chairman of the Clark County Republican Party, admits the Democrats have a better "ground game."

He says the Access Hollywood tapes and accusations of sexual misconduct haven't hurt Trump's popularity in Clark County. Too many people, he says, have bigger issues, like the economy.

"I'm the guy that gets those phone calls," Mazzone said. "I hear the tenor of their voice, I hear their concerns, how are they going to be able to survive?"

Not optimal

But again reflecting a national pattern, Nevada's Republican political party is a house divided. Its Republican Senate candidate recently announced Trump should drop out. 

"Because of the tape that came out, he withdrew his support of Mr. Trump," Mazzone said. He adds that co-ordination between the Republican party and the Trump campaign hasn't been optimal.

"If you just watch the news you kind of get the dichotomy of the two," Mazzone said. 

UNLV political science professor Ted Jelen says in terms of key election issues in Nevada, "the state of the economy is a very big deal." (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Clinton has been bombarding the state with ads. And Mazzone admitted the Democrats have a much more sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaign.

"They've had a better ground game for years and years and years, but that's just the way they work," he said. 

If they show up

And working against the Republicans — here and in many states — there is a growing Latino population that's solidly behind Clinton, said Ted Jelen, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

If they show up at the polls, that is.

"The big thing is turnout, turnout, turnout, turnout," Jelen said. "If 70 per cent of the eligibles vote, Clinton wins in a walk away; 55 per cent turnout, Trump wins very comfortably."

If that happens, Osborn and the other expats sitting around the bar in Henderson say they have their escape route north already mapped. 

They raise their glasses. A toast.

"To Hillary!" Osborn says.



Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.