Forget Las Vegas, presidential candidates gamble on winning over Reno's voters

Photo: City of Reno

 (Photo: City of Reno)

It's tough to be Reno.

"The Biggest Little City in the World" is largely overshadowed by its bigger, glitzier brother to the south, Las Vegas.

Sure Sin City has its famous showgirls, championship fights and glamorous headliners like Mariah Carey and Britney Spears, but when presidential election season rolls around none of that will matter much to the candidates hoping to lock down the crucial early battleground state.

Reno, on the other hand, does matter.

"Washoe County, where Reno is, is the swing county," David Damore, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a pollster for Latino Decisions, told Fox News Latino. "The Republicans always win the rural counties, the Democrats win Clark County [where Las Vegas is], and Washoe this time is going to be the toss-up."

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Washoe County is a microcosm of a state that many see as a microcosm of the U.S. Over last 20 years the state’s population has diversified rapidly – thanks in large part to the growth of the Latino community – and one that has seen more people move out of rural areas and into the cities than almost anywhere else in the U.S.

While the state has always been a bellwether in presidential elections – voting for the winner of every election since 1912, except for 1976 – Nevada took on a greater national prominence in electoral politics in 2008 when it joined Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as one of the early deciding states in the parties’ nomination process.

Since then residents of the Silver State have received frequently visits from candidates on both sides of the aisle looking to win over caucus-goers. Almost all of the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have made stops in the state, and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton already has opened two offices in the state – one in Las Vegas, the other in Reno.

"It's a state you want to be in if you love politics," Albert Morales, who heads the Democratic National Committee's Hispanic engagement, told FNL. "If we win Nevada, we will win Colorado, so it's going to be critical for us."

What makes Reno and Washoe County so important is that it has the second-largest population of any county in the state behind the 2 million people in Clark County and that, unlike Clark, it is not seen as a lock for the Democratic Party.

In 2012, Barack Obama carried Nevada in 2012 by winning only Clark and Washoe counties, but he didn't have much wiggle room in Washoe, where less than 7,000 voters separated him from Republican challenger Mitt Romney. (His 2008 margin against McCain was larger.)

In 2004, the tables were turned. Incumbent George W. Bush beat challenger John Kerry by less than 7,000 votes. The county went Republican in the previous nine presidential elections as well, ever since Lyndon Johnson squeaked past Barry Goldwater by a mere 1,800 votes in 1964.

Some experts suggest that what makes Washoe County the place to watch in 2016 is the growing number of Latinos, who could swing the vote to the Democrats for a third straight election, especially if Republican candidates keep up their tough talk about immigration.

Between 2000 and 2014, Washoe's population jumped from 339,486 people to 440,078. In the same period, the county's Hispanic population went from about 16 percent to a little less than 24 percent.

"These candidates with a harsh rhetoric toward immigrants are not going to do well with Latino voters," Jesus Marquez, a conservative radio show host for La Voz de Nevada, told FNL. "In order to get Latino voters we have to acknowledge that there is a problem with the immigration system all over the country and have a plan to fix it."

As candidates face the Republican-leaning history of Washoe versus its changing demographics, all the campaigns are making a concerted effort to reach out to voters in the northern part of Nevada.

Jeb Bush and Rand Paul made swings through the region following the second Republican debate, held in Southern California on Sept. 16. Hillary Clinton announced the opening of her Reno office in early September, while a surging Bernie Sanders drew 4,500 to an event he hosted in the city.

With more than a year before the presidential election, it is all but guaranteed that residents of Washoe County will get the chance to see every candidate at least once before they head to the polls next November.

Whether that helps or hurts voter turnout is the big question. During the 2012 midterm election, many Latino voters stayed home, possibly because of the government’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

"Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in Nevada but the big issues next year will be the turnout," UNLV's Damore told FNL. "While the Democrats say that they're expected to get 60 to 75 percent of the Latino vote, the big unknown is the size of the electorate."

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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