Both campaigns are carefully plotting their path of least resistance to 270 electoral votes and Nevada is potentially central for each campaign. Obama won the Silver State by 12 points in 2008, but it has an extremely weak economy and the polls show have shown a close race, even if Obama has consistently held a lead.
But over the last few months, Democrats decisively won the voter registration wars and registered Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans by an ’08-esque margin. In Clark County, home to Las Vegas, Democrats now lead by more than they did in 2008, and they’re still counting registration forms. Romney will almost certainly do better among Nevada independents and Democrats than McCain did four years ago, but the Democratic voter registration edge gives Obama considerable breathing room, provided they get decent turnout.
70 percent of Nevada voters live in Clark County and Obama won it by 19 points in 2008. After running up the score for several months, Democrats now represent 45 percent of registered voters there and hold a 15-point edge over Republicans. If Obama wins Clark County by double digits, it is very difficult for Republicans to compensate with the remaining 30 percent of the state, especially since Reno’s Washoe County represents about half of those outstanding votes and promises to be quite close. In 2004, Bush's strong performance outside of Clark County allowed him to win Nevada by 21,000 votes despite losing Clark County by 26,000 votes. But in 2012, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 125,000 voters in Clark County, so a Bush-esque performance outside of Clark County wouldn’t even cover half of the gap. Obama probably won’t win Clark County by 120,000 voters, but he doesn't need to. Given the polls, the state economy, and the behavior of the two campaigns, Romney's chances in Nevada can't be dismissed. But these numbers are tough to overcome.
Moreover, even though the polls show a tight race in Nevada, recent history suggests that it wouldn’t be wise to put too much stock in polls that bring good tidings to Nevada Republicans. In 2010, Harry Reid outperformed the RCP average by a net-8.3 points in a stunning come-from-behind victory; in 2008, Obama outperformed the polls by a net-6.8 points, winning the state in unexpected double-digit fashion; and in 2004, Kerry outperformed the polls in Nevada more than in any other state, although the polls only understated his performance by 3.7 points. Obama would win the state comfortably if the polls underestimate his performance by a similar margin.
One possible explanation is that pollsters aren’t getting a representative sample of Latino voters. In 2010, CNN and Mason Dixon polls showed Reid with a 4 and 6 point lead in Clark County, where 29 percent of the population is Latino, even though he would ultimately win by 13 points. PPP found Reid leading by just 23 points among Latino voters, even though he would ultimately win by 39 points. Similarly, PPP found Obama leading by 25 points among Latinos, but Obama won Nevada Latinos by 54 points. The polls also underestimated Obama's strength in New Mexico and Colorado, two other states where Democrats depend on the support of Latino voters.
Despite the tendency of polls to understate Nevada Democrats, Romney has only led in one Nevada poll conducted since the onset of the general election campaign. And while I'm not usually inclined to dig through cross-tabs to pick polls into oblivion, it's worth flagging that this year's polls hint at issues similar to those that bedeviled pollsters in the last few cycles. The recent SurveyUSA poll showed a tied race in Las Vegas and Obama only held a 14 point lead among Latino voters. Rasmussen only showed Latinos as 10 percent of the electorate---a dismissively low figure. There isn't consistent evidence that Romney is winning the outsized share of independents necessary to compensate for the Democratic registration edge, either: PPP and Rasmussen actually found Obama ahead among independents. They Romney campaign might have stronger evidence that they can win a surprising number of Democrats or independents. But if they don't, the Romney campaign wouldn't be wise to count on winning the state. Republicans should view Nevada as a potentially pleasant surprise if it goes their way, not a must-win.