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How Nevada’s unemployment factors into the 2020 presidential election

The Silver State could play a crucial role in Trump’s reelection chances. But it also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country since the pandemic struck.

SHARE How Nevada’s unemployment factors into the 2020 presidential election

In this March 17, 2020, file photo, people wait in line for help with unemployment benefits at the One-Stop Career Center in Las Vegas. The coronavirus pandemic has been particularly brutal to the tourism-dependent economies of Nevada and Hawaii, lifting the unemployment rate in both states to about one-quarter of the workforce.

John Locher, Associated Press

In early October, the day after debating Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris in Salt Lake City, Vice President Mike Pence headed south to make a stop in Boulder City, Nevada, population: 16,207. 

With dusty red mountains and six American flags serving as a backdrop, Pence made an appeal to southern Nevada voters, stressing their importance in President Donald Trump’s quest for a second term. “We are 26 days away from another great victory for the American people, and the road to victory runs right through Nevada,” Pence said.

Former Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid said the same last year, when he told Vox: “If you want to do well in the West, you have to come to Nevada.”

Both campaigns were following that strategy on Tuesday, as Trump’s son Eric attended events in Reno and Las Vegas, while Harris stopped in Reno. The president will hold a rally Wednesday just across the state border in Bullhead City, Arizona.

Nevada has gone for a Democrat in every presidential election since 2004, but it is still considered a “purple state,” and Republicans are hoping it will swing bright red this year. Trump lost Nevada in 2016 by a narrow margin, and he fared better than prior Republican candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney, according to The Associated Press.

So far, polls show Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading in Nevada (by an average of 7 points), but some polls predict a narrower race.

Nevada is one of 14 states that are critical to both the Biden and Trump campaigns according to Vox. The outlet categorized it as one of the states Biden must “defend,” along with New Hampshire, Maine and Minnesota.

While Nevada doesn’t hold many electoral votes, if the race is close, winning Nevada could prove crucial.

Before the pandemic

With Trump trying to close the polling gap, there’s one factor that may hinder him in the Silver State: jobs.

Noting Nevada’s exceptionally high unemployment rate, University of Nevada, Reno political science professor Christina Ladam told Fox News, “If we relate this to the approval numbers of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus (which are lower than the general approval numbers), we might expect these unemployment numbers to hurt Trump especially hard in Nevada.” 

In August, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida (all battleground states that Trump won by thin margins in 2016), all had some of the highest unemployment numbers in the country.

However, in Nevada those rates have remained consistently high.

Jobs are tied to the economy, which is consistently one of Americans’ top concern each election cycle, although the share of that concern has been dropping since 2008. In 2020, 14% of Americans cited economic issues (from unemployment to the wealth gap) as the top problems facing the country in a poll conducted by Gallup this fall. The other top issues were the coronavirus (with 30% of respondents saying it was the top issue facing the country) and government/poor leadership (23%). 

The three presidents who lost their reelection bids in the last 70 years — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — all saw unemployment rates between 7%-8%.

For the majority of Trump’s presidency, the economy has been strong. But since the coronavirus hit and the economy shut down to stem the spread, states like Nevada have had to cope with record job loss without a clear end in sight. 

Nationally, there have been modest job gains in the last month (unemployment fell from 8.4% to 7.9% in September), but Nevada has one of the highest jobless rates in the country. In August, Nevada had a 13.3% unemployment rate and in September it fell slightly to 12.6%. That’s because much of the state’s economy, especially the southern parts of Nevada, is reliant on tourism and the gaming industry, which were hit particularly hard during the widespread economic shutdown last spring.  

When the $600 weekly unemployment benefit expired this summer, the situation worsened for Nevadans — the benefit had made up about 14% of the state’s weekly earnings, the Reno Gazette Journal reported.

“I think it’s very reasonable to suppose that voters are going to look at the overall state of the economy, and probably that’s going to work in favor of Biden in this election,” a University of Nevada political science professor told The Wall Street Journal.

Blame game

So far, Biden continues to lead in the polls in Nevada. An early October poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College showed Biden ahead by 6 points — 2 points up from September. The latest New York Times/Siena College poll shows Biden’s lead unchanged.

One factor on the jobs front working in Biden’s favor in Nevada is the support of the Culinary Union — one of the most powerful political groups in the state representing 60,000 workers, many of whom were employed in casino resorts but lost their jobs in March. Half of the Culinary Union’s members are still unemployed. 

The union has deployed its members to canvas for the former vice president, providing on-the-ground support for an otherwise largely online campaign. 

In an opinion editorial published in the Las Vegas Sun, Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline wrote, “But under President Donald Trump, working people have been overlooked and undervalued. Now, the economic fallout from Trump’s botched pandemic response has spiraled out of control.”

While the union represents a large share of unemployed Nevadans, not all those out of work blame the president for the cratering economy. 

One former nightclub promoter told the Journal, “I put the blame on the governors because (Trump) gave them free rein to control their own states.”

And an out of work performer told the publication, “I strongly believe that Trump has the right idea that opening certain aspects of our economy and communities will benefit us more than keeping it closed.”

How many Nevadans believe that Trump can get them back to work? And will they show up to the polls? The president’s supporters are betting they will. But they will have to wager among themselves even in this gambling mecca, where betting on a presidential election is illegal.