Nevada as a whole has been a swing state for more than a century. With their 6 electoral votes, they certainly aren’t large enough to decide a general election on their own, but they do serve as a decent bellwether, having sided with the winning candidate in all but two elections since 1908. But 2016 was one of those two instances, and three elections in a row going blue has led to a decidedly leftward turn for the state.
To understand the shift in politics for the state as a whole, you must understand the shift within the state. The population has long been heavily concentrated in and around the Las Vegas area at the extreme southern tip of Nevada, with another large pocket in the northwest around Reno and the state capital, Carson City. Over the last few decades, these areas have continued to grow, mostly with people coming in from California seeking lower taxes, more freedom, and a generally lower cost of living than in their home state.
As Californians come in, they bring their California values, including their political views. This leads to them voting generally for Democrats in local and statewide elections — and the presidential contests followed soon after. This has left a bad taste in the mouth of many rural Nevadans, most of whom lean Republican.
But Nevadans, whether rural or urban, have one thing in common — a strong libertarian streak. The state is famous for its lax laws regarding gambling, drinking, and generally permissive lifestyle, including being the only state which allows prostitution, albeit with some heavy regulations on it.
Distrust of regulation of just about any aspect of life is strong with Nevadans, which is a major part of why they live in the state in the first place. To the west is California, known for its heavy-handed liberal approach to big government, high taxation, and multitude of regulations of free markets. To the east is ultra-conservative Utah, the closest thing the US has to a theocracy with its heavy Mormon influence on social issues and Republican leaning viewpoints in general. For anybody who wants to live in the west with as little governmental and societal influence in their lives as possible and Nevada is the natural option.
Nowhere is the rural urban divide in the state more apparent than in the local economies. The largely urban Las Vegas and Reno areas rely heavily on tourism, while the rural and mountainous areas are more about ranching and mining. The only thing they have in common is their disdain for government rules — but in very different ways.
Miners, ranchers, and other rural Nevadans have problems with ever increasing environmental regulations. The rules and increasingly growing federal lands set aside for preservation have encroached on their ability to make a living. The highly publicized Bundy ranch standoff is a prime example of this dynamic coming to a head in the area.
For the urban areas, regulation is unwelcome for entirely different reasons. There’s a reason Las Vegas has the reputation it does as a city where anything goes and few things are forbidden. While the federal government, for the most part, doesn’t interfere in the scene here and in Reno, the residents therein certainly fear that they might. And with the possibility of ramping up the failed Drug War, tougher rules on prostitution (though only legal in certain rural areas of the state, it’s still big business in the cities), and general pushback by social conservatives nationwide, there is a fear that big government will start swinging its bat here as well.
There is still major mistrust toward city dwellers, however. Much of it stems from rural Nevadans, for the most part, being native to the state, while the cities are flush with recent immigrants from other states. They continue to fear the changes to the political landscape that are occurring, and while disdain for big government could be a source for common ground, the gulf between areas of mistrust — environmental and land use regulation vs. regulation of individual liberties — simply don’t have enough overlap to find common ground.
Liberal leaning urbanistes also largely support environmental controls, especially with regard to water preservation in the increasingly parched western US. Additionally, there is an ingrained belief in states’ rights on many of these issues, rather than individual liberty, so attempts at shifting from the two major parties toward the Libertarian Party have largely been ineffective.
As Nevada’s population continues to grow and continues to move to the left, the Silver State appears poised to shift out of swing state status and toward a safe Democratic pickup for the next couple of election cycles.