Nevada Student Voters May Swing the State and the Nation

RENO, Nev. -- In 2004, the University of Nevada went red--and so did the state. This time, UNR will likely go blue--and with it, perhaps, the nation.

Nevada works like this: Las Vegas will vote for Sen. Barack Obama and rural Nevada for Sen. John McCain. In Washoe County (which is rural outside of Reno) McCain leads by one percentage point, according to local media polls. He needs Washoe to take Nevada.

For either candidate, UNR could be the key to the White House.

"This election in Nevada can be decided by a few hundred votes," Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada told a group of students on campus on Oct. 14. "A few hundred people can change Barack Obama's life."

A slew of student-run political clubs exist on campus. At least half a dozen of them are billed as Republican or conservative; twice as many as are billed Democratic or progressive. Yet the Republican groups have been much less active. Leaders of the student groups discussed issues, but could not describe any major efforts to campaign on campus.

Aside from the Clinton years, Nevadan students and residents have traditionally voted Republican. The party appeals to many of the traditional values of a rural "Wild West" state.

Second amendment rights are important here. It's not hard to find a group of folks discussing gun ownership rights as the key issue every four years, just find any old barbershop or saloon.

Financial conservatism is important here. Nevada was one of the first -- and hardest -- hit states in this sub-prime mortgage crisis. Budget cuts that were unimaginable a couple years ago have been made (and have significantly damaged the approval ratings of the state's Republican governor). The idea of smaller government and less taxes on middle class families appeals to Nevadans. And while that may not necessarily be a characteristic of the Bush administration or of a McCain administration, it is an idea for which Nevadans vote Republican.

National security is important as well. President Bush's version of it, that is. Just like in every other state (and just like they should be), when soldiers from Nevada die in the Middle East, they are regarded as heroes. Small town media outlets flock to relatives for interviews. When the mother of a fallen Marine in Sun Valley, (part of the greater Reno area) lost her mobile home to a kitchen fire, the whole community rushed to donate money in a bank account opened to help her recover.

Nevada is a state of neighbors with common beliefs.

And one common belief here is that if America doesn't "finish the job" in Iraq, that Marine died in vain.

Whether right or wrong, true or false, based on fact or faith, these beliefs run thick in Nevada. And the Republican Party has staked claim to those beliefs.

On the UNR campus, the support for Sen. Barack Obama is amazing. The Republican students call it "Obama-mania." That's not a bad way to describe it.

It seems that many college Republicans have thrown in the towel. In interviews, many Republican students cited a statistic that "there are over 200 paid interns from Obama's campaign on campus." While that statistic isn't quite accurate, it illustrates how dominant the Democratic Party is on campus.

There are of course plenty of Obama interns on campus, although a spokesperson from the campaign declined to say exactly how many interns, how many hours interns worked or how much they were paid. The interns themselves were not authorized to speak with the media.

For weeks, one could hardly walk the campus without being asked by a volunteer to "register to vote for Obama."

"Not so long ago, it was a conservative campus," says Dr. John Scire, a UNR political science professor, Vietnam combat veteran and Obama donor.

Now "I don't see any concentrated effort on campus" from conservatives, he says.

Though vastly outnumbered, Republican students do exist on campus. And for the most part, they are polite, well-read young adults willing to discuss the issues.

Perhaps it's a matter of bias, but their beliefs seem to be based on fallacies.

"I'm a social moderate. I don't believe in pushing my views on people," says Donnell Dike-Ankam, 23, a member of the College Republicans club at UNR and host of a conservative talk show on the college radio station. "But I don't want them pushing their views on me."

Dike-Ankam, who is African-American and grew up in a Democratic-voting and politically active family, shrugs when asked if he thought he should vote Democratically, based on that belief.

Abortion? The Patriot Act? McCain's promise to appoint socially conservative judges to the Supreme Court?

Shrugs, shrugs, and shrugs.

It's not a lack of understanding of the issues. Dike-Ankam is rather knowledgeable of every topic discussed. He just doesn't believe that McCain will enforce a conservative standpoint of those issues. He believes McCain to be a moderate.

Then again, many Nevadans believed Bush to be a moderate in 2000.

Dike-Ankam speaks with passion when questioned about race. Sitting on the third floor of the student union, overlooking the campus, he leans in and slams his hand against the table.

"To vote for someone based upon the color of their skin, whether they're black, white, green or blue, I think is not a good decision matrix," he says. "I think it's really actually a bad thing ... you're voting based on the color of their skin, not the content of their character."

Dike-Ankam is an exception to nearly every stereotype, including that of Nevada as a whole. Whereas he started leaning from Left to Right in 2004, most Nevadans started leaning from Right to Left.

Local media polling show that Obama leads in Nevada by two percentage points, though the poll has a four percent margin of error.

Obama ads run on local television about eight times more frequently than McCain ads.

With Nevada's five electoral votes within a two-percentage point reach of McCain, one would expect him to put more resources into his campaign here. Especially on the UNR campus. He has not.

There is more than one reason why Nevada has turned blue. One is a horribly failed Bush doctrine. Another is Nevada's influx of Californians who moved to Nevada to purchase cheap homes just before the mortgage bubble burst.

Perhaps the Nevada natives are just realizing that the Republican Party doesn't quite reflect their values.

The fallen Marine whose mother's home burned down, he was in my high school graduating class. His death wasn't in vain. Like many Nevadans, I'll be voting on behalf of my values this November. But I won't be letting the Republican Party claim those values, and neither will my neighbors.