RENO, NV — Fall has come to Reno, and the autumn transformation is in full swing. Now, as a chill enters the morning air, and the leaves begin to change from green to orange, red and yellow, a horde of Obama volunteers are working to change the state electorally from Red to Blue.
If Barack Obama carries the state of Nevada on Election Day, and wins the presidency, he will do so by doing the same thing he did to win the Iowa Caucuses back in January – luring new voters to the polls.
Obama is not the first candidate to pay lip service to idea of reaching out to new voters, but one look at the voter rolls in Nevada tells the story of just how Obama is doing it – and how those new voters may carry him to the White House.
The question is: Are these new voters a real force, and will they come to the polls by Nov. 4? The answer to that question may ultimately determine the next President of the United States.
This is a state that John Kerry lost to George Bush by just 21,500 votes. That was back in 2004, when the state had 1.07 million voters. In 2004, Republicans held a slim registration advantage of less than 5,000 voters – the Republicans had 434,239 voters versus 429,808 registered Democrats, according to numbers from the Nevada Secretary of State.
But what a difference four years makes.
Voter registration in the state has skyrocketed to 1.45 million voters. And Republicans' slight registration edge is gone. Democrats now have a registration advantage of more than 110,000 voters in Nevada. Here in Washoe County, which Bush carried back in 2004, the reversal has been profound. In 2004, Republicans had an 18,000-voter registration advantage among the county's 233,000 voters. Now, there are 269,000 registered voters in the county – 105,000 Democrats and 104,000 Republicans.
The challenge for the Obama campaign now is getting those voters to the polls. Just nine days before Election Day at Obama headquarters, located in the shadow of Downtown Reno's largest casinos, Nevada deputy communications director Jeff Giertz is busily huddling with volunteers. Call centers have been set up targeting voters the campaign has already contacted trying to get those voters to the polls. Obama himself made two stops in the state Saturday – one here in Reno, another in Las Vegas – urging supporters to vote early, and his campaign ads on the air here are driving home a similar message.
Since Oct. 18, when early voting began in Nevada, more than 6,000 Washoe voters have gone to the polls – that's more than double the number that had gone by this time in 2004. And the early voting has been mostly Democratic. Fifty-two percent of the votes in Washoe have been Democrats, 33 percent Republicans, and 16 percent decline-to-state voters.
New voters are key to the Obama campaign's national strategy. "We're trying to change the electorate. That's been our strategy from Day One," Giertz says.
The McCain campaign is banking on finishing strong. They acknowledge that Obama voters have early enthusiasm, but they remain cautiously optimistic that their voters will come to the polls, and that by Election Day McCain will carry Nevada.
Nevada spokesman Rick Gorka says the McCain campaign can withstand the obvious enthusiasm of the Obama voters, and hold on to Nevada and the presidency. "Remember, Democrats were dancing in the streets four years ago about the record turn-out and excitement for John Kerry," Gorka said, alluding to the 78 percent turnout among registered Nevada voters four years ago. "They're putting the cart before the horse."
The calculation for winning Nevada is basic for both parties. More than two-thirds of the state's registered voters live in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas. Clark was the only county carried by John Kerry in 2004. Out of the more than 825,000 votes cast in Nevada in 2004, 545,000 of them came from Clark County. Kerry out-polled George W. Bush by 25,000 votes, carrying the county 52-47 percent.
Republicans must try to offset Democrats' victory in Clark County by running up the score in the state's 15 rural counties, where Bush beat Kerry 2-1. That leaves Washoe County, home of Reno and Sparks, as the toss-up. About one-third of Bush's 21,000 vote victory in Nevada came in Washoe County.
"It's Ground Zero in a lot of ways," Giertz said.
Obama has also made visits to the state's rural counties, and enlisted surrogates like Montana Sen. John Tester and former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle to speak to rural Nevada voters. The campaign has kept campaign offices open in Elko and other rural areas of the state in an effort to keep Republican margins down.
The McCain campaign says Obama is wasting his time. "Barack Obama's values are out of step with rural Nevada," Gorka says. "We're happy he's wasting his money fishing for votes in a dried-up fishing hole."
And they add McCain and Palin's Western roots will help them carry the state on Election Day. "They understand the issues of the West — like dealing with the [Bureau of Land Management] and water," said Gorka. Barack Obama and Joe Biden don't know anything about thise issues."
But the battle for Washoe County has been fierce. And surrogates from around the region, including many from California, have come to Washoe County for the closing days of the presidential campaign.
This weekend, California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas was based in Reno, and nearly two dozen Californians were in town walking precincts in Incline Village, near the California border.
And it's not just man power. The CRP has also written a $1 million check to the Nevada State Party to help with the McCain campaign.
"We're sending 300-350 people to Nevada every weekend," Barajas said.
Californians are everywhere in the Nevada Obama effort, as well. In the volunteer sign-in sheet, there were names from Oakland, Cupertino and Walnut Creek. At a Reno-area training for precinct walkers, Selina Ayala, a law student from McGeorge Law School and Raul Macias, a graduate student at Sacramento State University, said they made the trip for the weekend to have a chance to participate in the presidential campaign.
"There's not much going on back in California, so I wanted to go somewhere I could make a difference," said Macias, who spent two weeks in New Mexico on behalf of the Obama campaign earlier this year.
On Sunday, the McCain campaign hosted a "Joe the Plumber Bar-B-Q" outside their campaign headquarters. About 30 volunteers and supporters milled around the parking lot, easting hot dogs and talking about the campaign ahead. One of them was Steve Williams, a local business owner who says he is a strong McCain supporter.
"I believe that an effective government has to be smaller and for the people," Williams said when asked why he supported McCain. "I don't think the Democratic answer is right for our country."