drive into Fallon, Nevada, pop. 8,403, through the usual thicket of Burger Kings, Wal-Marts, and Subways, and you find yourself in a Western town from central casting, complete with a saddle shop, dilapidated lodges, and rows of small wood-frame houses. The sun beats down on nearly deserted streets; were a posse to ride in, it wouldn't look out of place.
On this midsummer afternoon, a couple dozen locals have braved the heat to make their way to the Elks Lodge. Munching on pineapple chunks, cookies, and kiwi slices from the bare-bones buffet, they listen as Carissa Snedeker, chair of the Rural Nevada Democratic Caucus—which facilitates meetups between Dems scattered throughout the state—explains what's about to transpire: the Churchill County mockus, or mock caucus—a dress rehearsal for the election-year ritual in which voters will choose a presidential candidate by clustering into groups supporting various contenders.
It's not a new concept for Nevadans—the state's Democratic and Republican parties have always held caucuses rather than primaries to select their nominees—but what's new is the national spotlight: Earlier this year, the national parties plucked Nevada's caucus from the also-ran pack and pushed it to January 19, the front end of the primary schedule. The move came in recognition of a dramatic shift in the nation's electoral map: Where once the presidency couldn't be won without the South, it's now the fast-growing desert and mountain belt from the Rockies to the Grand Canyon that could determine who occupies the White House.
Snedeker's job is to get her charges ready for their historic role, which mostly means explaining how the hell a caucus works. Attendees are encouraged to coalesce into cheering squads for—in lieu of presidential hopefuls—pizza toppings. There's a lot of shouting and cheering and vote swapping, and, after an hour, the group seems to have gotten the general idea. Anchovy can't attract enough supporters and is eliminated; vegetarian ends up with the most delegates, while pepperoni and everything divvy up the rest. "All the eyes of the nation are going to be on us," Snedeker exhorts them at the end. "The Democratic National Committee is taking a chance on us."
in particular, the dnc is taking a chance on the spectacularly rugged, arid country south and east of Reno. Democrats have historically won Las Vegas and environs—liberal and libertine, racially diverse, rapidly growing, and a trade union stronghold. But outside of Clark County, if you were a Democrat, you kept that fact to yourself. "You mention taxes in this county," says Charles Lawson, a cochair of the Democratic Party in Lyon County, a few miles down the highway from Fallon, "and they'll bite your head off."
There are only five towns of any size in Lyon County: the agricultural hub of Yerington (alfalfa, grains, onions, and garlic); Fernley, an exurb whose population has nearly tripled in the past decade; little Silver Springs, lacking even a supermarket to call its own; the proud old Comstock Lode town of Dayton; and Stagecoach, an outpost of 2,300 on Highway 50 (a.k.a. the California Emigrant Trail). In between are large ranches, working mines, a few oases, and lots of sun-singed, scrub-covered mountains. Many of the old-timers here pretty much built their houses from scratch; the newcomers live in $200,000 tract homes and commute to work in Reno and Carson City. Lyon County is a place where rainfall makes headlines and federal mandates on arsenic levels in scarce water supplies can throw people into paroxysms of rage; in the casinos that dot the roadsides, truckers and bored seniors gamble for Wal-Mart vouchers. "People who come out here," Snedeker says, "tend to want to be left alone."
That kind of isolation is getting harder to come by. Thanks to an influx of out-of-staters looking for sunshine, cheap real estate, and jobs (Amazon has a huge shipping center here), Lyon has become one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation. It's not the kind of boom that's made anyone rich—the income per capita is only about 75 percent of the national median. But it's the sort of exurb-meets-country growth that defines the most fluid part of the American electorate.
In 2004, George W. Bush won the nation's rural counties by 19 percent. But a poll conducted this summer by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that nationwide, rural voters tilted Democratic 46 percent to 43 percent. And when the firm did another survey specifically targeting Western voters to find out the reasons for the shift, they found that voters trusted Democrats more than Republicans on many of the major issues—health care, jobs, immigration, the environment, Social Security, the war in Iraq. Only among those who rated terrorism as the most important issue did the gop score resoundingly higher marks. If Iraq were to somehow disappear as an issue, says David Walker, one of the firm's pollsters, "I don't know if it's obvious that Democratic opportunities in the region would go with it. There are other things going on."
Several factors make the West ripe for a shift—a growing Hispanic population and comparatively limited influence from evangelical churches. And the recent trend lines look good for Democrats: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada all had Republican governors in 2000; today only Nevada does, and polls show voters would dump Jim Gibbons—tainted by allegations of bribery, sexual assault, plagiarism, and hiring an undocumented nanny—if they could.
But to secure Nevada, the Dems need to both win big in Sin City (where 79 percent of the registered voters voted in 2004) and minimize the party's losses in the "cow counties," as Las Vegans refer to the hinterlands. The ranching and gold-mining country on the Utah border is a lost cause, but in places like Lyon County, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats only 2:1. If the party can peel off maybe a thousand votes here, a thousand more in each of another few rural counties, and get an additional 5,000 to 10,000 in Vegas, that's the Nevada election—and, under a not-so-unlikely scenario, the presidency.
"Lyon's interesting, because there is a state Democratic organizing effort there," says state Rep. David Bobzien, an up-and-coming Democrat from Reno. "Yerington's the old agricultural Nevada and Fernley's the outer ring of growth—the urban explosion coming out of Reno." And historically, Bobzien says, it's been the newcomers who have shaped the political dynamics of the region. In the 1980s, blue-collar migrants fleeing California shored up the region's Goldwateresque identity; more recently, exiles from the San Francisco housing market have brought more progressive views.
"These communities are just right, or a little bit more, of center, yet they are changing quickly because of the influx of people," says 38-year-old Fernley mayor Todd Cutler, whose goatee and stylized crew cut echo a town motto, "A blend of the old with the new." An ex-elementary school principal, Cutler considers himself an independent, but admits to leaning Democratic. His constituents, he says, "want to make sure their lifestyle is secure." As more people move in, demand for a regional transit system linking Fernley to Carson City and Reno has been rising; so have fears that high gas prices and the real estate meltdown will bring growth skidding to a stop.
Earlier this year, leading Democrats created a hush-hush organization named Project New West to figure out how to frame core Western issues—in the same way, perhaps, that the gop turned abortion, guns, and gays into winning political motifs. With "strategic guidance" from a who's who of Dem officeholders, New West is extremely cagey about its work, but other Western Democrats have no trouble naming the core themes. "Water is absolutely a crucial issue," says Kari Chisholm, a political and Internet-strategy consultant who runs the blog WesternDemocrat.com. Obscure water disputes between counties, between farmers and cities, utility companies and native tribes, can be more important here than welfare or Social Security. There's concern about the impact of sprawl on the wide-open spaces; worries about energy costs; discontent over the growing income gap (almost every Western state has passed a living-wage initiative during the Bush years). In Nevada, the controversy over the proposed nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain has made environmentalists popular in areas that once had no truck with them. And where many Western voters once viewed national Democrats—hostile to guns, friendly to taxes—as Big Brother incarnate, in recent years the Patriot Act, illegal wiretaps, and Terri Schiavo have made the gop look like the party of federal intrusion.
All of which has made for some odd political bedfellows. "I liked Bush Senior," says 70-year-old Pat McIntyre, a retired lighting consultant who worked for many decades in California before moving to Stagecoach. "But I don't like this Bush. He started off pretty good, but he got lost. No Child Left Behind, they just made a mess of it. And we've got to stop spending as much as we're spending." A politics junkie who hasn't supported a Democrat for president since JFK, McIntyre favors Social Security privatization, the war in Iraq, school vouchers, and a crackdown on illegal immigration. He says he'll most likely support Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani—yet for the first time in nearly 50 years, he's left himself open to considering a Democrat. "I don't know where the heck the Democrats are going," he says. "But the Republicans are getting just as bad."
The Democrats' big bet, and the gop's nightmare, is that they might be able to court the likes of McIntyre without losing support from, say, a teacher in the Bronx or an immigrant advocate in Los Angeles. It's quite a circle to square, though the polls suggest it's by no means impossible; after all, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has easily won Nevada ever since 1986, with only one nail-biter in 1998.
Still there are those, including Las Vegas Sun political commentator Jon Ralston, who consider the Dems' optimism somewhat premature. Someone like Hillary Clinton, Ralston argues, will score well with the Democratic faithful, but will stumble in states like Nevada come the general election. "The Republicans should be heavily favored to win here no matter who they nominate," Ralston says. Remember, he adds, that Democrats did get hammered in most of the state in 2004 and that in the 2006 governor's race, the scandal-ridden Gibbons "still managed to beat a very talented Democrat."
still, the optimism on the ground is palpable. Lawson, the Lyon County party chair—and grandfather, and fifth-generation Nevadan—says closet Dems are coming out: Last year, barely a handful of people turned out to the local party meetings. Now a few dozen give up a weekend morning once a month to plot how to turn Lyon blue.
It was only three years ago that the Democrats dared to drive a float in Fernley's Fourth of July parade again—something they hadn't done since the '80s. They were booed and pelted with tomatoes. Two years ago, there was no heckling, just silence and a few smiles. In 2006, a couple of people cheered. This year, I watched as classic cars and floats congregated on First and Center streets near the asphalt, gypsum, and cement plants. The Dems' flatbed was emblazoned with a huge "Hometown Heroes" banner and pulled by a green Chevy Avalanche with Lawson at the wheel; supporters marched alongside, throwing Wonka Nerds to the crowd. They headed toward Out Of Town Park, passing car dealerships, pawn shops specializing in guns and ammo, mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants, kids on horseback, and the railroad tracks heading off into a shimmer of heat. Nobody booed, not even the guys with the white flag and the handwritten banner, "This is the flag Harry Reid salutes." More than a few people waved flags and cheered as the Dems' truck inched past. "We have a real challenge talking to Republicans out here," Snedeker told me, tossing candy with abandon. "But we're getting better at it."