LAS VEGAS -- If there’s any battleground state that should concern President Barack Obama, it’s Nevada. The state leads the nation in unemployment. It ranks fifth in foreclosures after months in the top spot – or bottom, depending on how you look at it.
But with the help of a surging Latino population and a strong union presence, Obama holds a narrow lead over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in this state with the fifth largest Hispanic population in the nation. The president has the support of nearly four out of five registered Latino voters in Nevada, according to Latino Decisions polling, which takes into account a 9 percent bump in support after Obama granted hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants two-year deferrals to remain in the country legally.
Nearly 270,000 Latinos are eligible to vote, accounting for about 15 percent of the electorate, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
“We’re going to give Obama another chance,” said Ruth Arriaza, a manager at a Latino fast food restaurant.
Arriaza, and her husband, Alex Martinez, 35, lost their “dream home” after going bankrupt during Obama’s term, but they said he was the only candidate who really cared about immigrants.
Martinez, a heating and air conditioning technician, said he was disappointed in the president for failing to pass comprehensive immigration restructuring after campaigning on the issue, but he said Obama deserved credit for using his executive powers to helping children who were brought to the country illegally by their parents.
Not all Latinos feel the same way. Rolando, 69, and Esperanza Varera, 58, also lost their house. And they don’t see the president helping them get it back. Esperanza, who’s originally from Mexico, said that what many recent Latino immigrants failed to understand was that if they didn’t have jobs and couldn’t keep their homes, then there was no future for them in the United States.
“They say we should be Democrats,” she said. “They say Republicans don’t like Latinos, but that’s not true. The Republicans are the ones who are going to fix our economy so that Latinos can get their jobs back.”
Nevada has only 2.7 million residents, but its six electoral votes could be decisive in the election. Obama’s support may have surged with Latinos, but it’s dropped with white Nevadans, giving Romney an opportunity. Still, Romney must overcome the fact that Nevada voters don’t fit traditional voter profiles. And more 70 percent of the population lives in socially liberal Clark County, home to the most extravagant casinos in the nation.
“We’re a state built on gambling,” said Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno. “The bars never close. We have legalized prostitution in 10 counties. We’re at the bottom of the percentage of individuals who attend church.”
In interviews with dozens of residents across Las Vegas, it’s clear that the economy wasn’t necessarily everyone’s top issue. On social issues is where Republicans generally lose ground, Herzik said.
Both candidates paid Nevada a visit last week, each seeking to motivate supporters and convince remaining undecided residents that he’s the best-qualified man to tackle local challenges.