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5 November 2018updated 06 Nov 2018 1:24pm

In Nevada, one of the closest races in the country, everything comes down to turnout

Democratic challengers are still facing the perennial question: will they have convinced enough traditional non-voters to cast their ballot?

By Nicky Woolf

The race for Nevada’s senate seat has become one of the tightest in the country. And in an election where control of the Senate could come down to a single swing in a single seat, all eyes are on the battle between incumbent Republican Dean Heller and his Democratic challenger, Jacky Rosen.

The RealClearPolitics polling aggregator puts Rosen ahead by a single percentage point, while the 538.comforecasting model gives Rosen a 55.9 per cent chance of winning. Nevada is also electing a governor on Tuesday, and that race is just as tight: Trump-supporting Republican Adam Laxalt is currently ahead of Democrat Steve Sisolak by just one fifth of a percentage point, according to the RCP polling average.

The political divide between urban and rural communities is a dynamic visible everywhere in the US to a certain extent. But it is particularly stark in Nevada: more than two-thirds of the state’s population lives in a single county, Clark, which contains the city of Las Vegas. But rural voters outside the city would be key to Heller’s victory.

Democrats across the country are counting on an increase in turnout among an anti-Trump coalition of younger voters, women, college-educated whites, and minorities, often concentrated in urban areas, to win. But there’s a problem there. Nevada ranks 45th in the country for college attainment, and Clark county has the lowest level of voter registration and the lowest level of voter turnout in the state. In the last midterm election in 2014, turnout among Nevada Latinos was just 31 per cent. For Rosen and Sisolak to win, that number needs to be much higher.

However, this time around, David Damore, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas tells me, the Democrats have a “secret weapon” that wasn’t politically active in the same way four years ago – the Culinary Workers Union. “They have 57,000 members, half of which are immigrants or come from mixed families,” he says. “They come from neighbourhoods where you need to get the vote out for the Democrats, and they’re very active in that.”

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The union run citizenship naturalisation outreach programs for immigrants working in Vegas’s hotels, restaurants, and casinos – as much as 20 per cent of the population of Clark county are immigrants. They also run efficient get-out-the-vote operations on election day. “They’re very, very powerful and effective because they are able to turn out the marginal voters,” Damore says.

Nevada Democrats have another powerful weapon in their arsenal. Former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid may have formally retired from politics, but he is still active in the state party. In fact, it was Reid who recruited Rosen to run for the House in 2016, and Reid who suggested she run for the Senate seat; he also weighed in to the gubernatorial primary on Sisolak’s behalf, Damore tells me.

Damore thinks Rosen has a steeper hill to climb than Sisolak. The current governor, Brian Sandoval, has also refused to endorse Adam Laxalt, despite being a fellow Republican. Laxalt’s own family, in a hilarious development, have even denounced him.

Which means that so far, the signs are good for the Democrats. According to a column on Monday by Jon Ralston, the editor of the Nevada Independent and an oracle in Nevada politics, the early vote numbers have been promising.

“What’s clear is that younger people are voting in higher numbers, that while the president has animated the right as no other Republican can, Trump Fatigue is beginning to settle in the saner corners of the political universe and anger is rising,” Ralston wrote, predicting a victory for the Democrats in both the Senate and the governor’s race.

Nevada is more often an outlier than a bellwether – in 2016, it was the only swing state to vote for Hillary Clinton – so maybe the Democrats should hold off on opening the champagne quite yet. But if the rise in youth vote Ralston does turn out to be part of a national trend, then perhaps that “blue wave” is coming after all.

“It all comes down to turnout” has become a running joke among journalists covering US politics. But nonetheless, turnout in US elections remains dismally low on the left and among younger voters. The reason it is worth asking is because, after two years of the Trump administration, we will discover whether or not a line has been crossed that will change that widespread apathy.

So the question in Nevada, the thing that makes it a perfect encapsulation of Tuesday’s midterm election as a whole, is this: which parts of the electorate will turn out to vote? Will a coalition of young people, college-educated whites, women, and minorities sweep both Heller and Laxalt aside in a “blue wave”? Will the fact that students, young people, poorer people, Democrats, vote less than older, more right-wing people, finally be proved false? Or will Trump’s older white male supporters continue their run of being the most reliable voting bloc?

Because if the past few years has not changed anything, if turnout does not finally go up, if those groups aren’t moved to express their democratic will, then honestly: what will it take?