just asking questions

Nevada’s Political Oracle on the State’s Crucial Midterms

Nevada Independent editor Jon Ralston. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

If you follow politics and are familiar with one journalist from Nevada, it’s probably Jon Ralston. A longtime reporter and talk-show host, he founded the nonprofit Nevada Independent in 2016. But he’s best known nationally for his biannual election analysis on Twitter and on his blog. With his granular knowledge of Nevada’s early voting patterns, Ralston has reliably predicted the outcome of presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial elections in the perpetual swing state for the last decade-plus. This year, Nevada is once again at the center of the political universe: Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is seen as the most endangered Democratic incumbent, and the Democratic governor and three members of Congress are also in tight races. I spoke with him about why Democrats should be feeling at least a little optimism about early returns, how Harry Reid’s death affects the party’s ground game, and why Nevada’s Republican candidates haven’t drawn that much attention for their extremism.

As experts have warned us every year since at least 2016, trying to extrapolate trends from early voting numbers is generally a fool’s errand. But you’re known as the one guy in the country who’s able to practice this art with real accuracy. So with the caveat that it’s pretty early in the early voting in Nevada, what are the numbers telling you so far?
It looks like two things are happening after 6 out of 14 days of early voting. One is that the pattern is mirroring the trend that occurred in 2020, which was the first cycle in which every registered voter here got a mail ballot. In 2020, Republicans were winning the early vote in Clark County, where Las Vegas and 70 percent of the vote is, and then the Democrats were just overwhelming that advantage in mail balloting, which accounts for about twice as many ballots returned as the in-person voting.

That pattern is occurring again this year, except it’s way scaled down. Turnout is very low, so it’s hard to know whether it’s going to remain low or if there is going to be a flood of mail ballots coming later or if there’s going to be huge Election Day turnout, especially by Republicans who always do well on Election Day — but who, as you know, have been cautioned against the mail ballots by some of their leaders, quite irresponsibly.

I’m surprised by the low in-person early turnout because in Georgia, for instance, turnout so far is very strong. But maybe this is comparing apples and oranges because people don’t get a mail ballot automatically there. 
The problem, as someone who analyzes this in a granular way, is there is no apple to compare this to. They all look like oranges to me. The natural comparison would be 2018 because it was the last midterm. But we did not have universal mail ballots in 2018. And so the turnout pattern is completely different and looks more like 2020 in a fractional way, if that makes sense. It’s probably about 40 percent less right now than in 2020. But five days in, and with 170,000 people having voted in the two major urban areas that are going to make up 85 percent to 90 percent of the vote — you might start to get an idea of what’s going on. And what’s going on is the Democrats are slightly overperforming their registration in both areas. They have to be happy about that, but it’s still very early.

What is it about Nevada that makes it possible to forecast these outcomes with a better rate of accuracy than in other states? Or are you just that good? 
Well, I’ll let others judge how good I am. I have a pretty good record of doing this, but it’s a combination of things, I always like to say. First of all, I give up the rest of my life for a few weeks and just have numbers swimming in my head and on my spreadsheets. And so I really focus on this. Before we sent everyone a ballot, about two-thirds of the vote was in by Election Day. And so I could spot trends happening. The Democratic machine, the so-called Reid machine, was able to create a firewall in Clark County. And by that I mean they would bank so many votes there that it would be impossible for the Republicans to overcome in the rest of the state on Election Day — or it would look like they could overcome it, and I could make some predictions based on that. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I also have sources who can help me analyze the data. There are a lot of data geeks who work in campaigns, right? They’re doing the same kind of modeling I am. And so it was obvious to me, for instance, in 2016 before Election Day — I said, “Trump’s going to lose Nevada.” And he did. Republicans had a bigger Election Day than I thought, but Democrats had banked so many votes that it didn’t matter.

When there’s that many votes before Election Day, and if you can compare trends, and if you know people who understand this stuff, you should be able to do it pretty well.

But I imagine this new system makes that job much harder, with the added factor of mail-in ballots and not knowing how many of those are still forthcoming.
It certainly does. It made it harder in 2020, but still, there were so many votes in. I told you, usually it’s two-thirds before Election Day. In 2020, it ended up being 90 percent before Election Day. I didn’t know that at the time, but that’s what happened. So I was able to make certain projections, and I said that Trump had a very, very uphill battle to win Nevada. And again, that turned out to be true.

This year’s even tougher, though, because of the low turnout right now. And we’re not sure whether it’s people waiting to vote or whether people just haven’t gotten their mail ballots. There’s been some anecdotal evidence that people just haven’t received them yet. There’s one other thing that makes it much more of a challenge this time, which is that there’s been an explosion of independent registrations. And it’s unclear how many of them are going to vote. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a huge amount or much different than other election cycles so far.

I think this goes without saying — and it’s funny, people misunderstand this sometimes —that I don’t know. It’s like people think I open these ballots as they come in, and I can see who they voted for. I just know the patterns: The Democrats are generally going to hold most of their base. The Republicans are generally going to hold most of their base, give or take a few percentage points. So I can figure out who they’re going to vote for and who they probably vote for and model off of that.

On a national level, these midterms are often presented as being about crime and inflation on one side and abortion rights and preserving democracy on the other. Given that inflation has hit Nevada particularly hard and the fact that abortion is still legal there, I’m wondering if you think Democrats have an even tougher job making their case than in some even other states. 
There’s a lot of swirling winds here, and you named some of them. Inflation and gas prices are as bad here as they are anywhere in the country. Related to that, Joe Biden’s numbers here are absolutely horrific. They’re below 40 percent in some Democratic polls. So you have the Republicans at every opportunity trying to tie every Democratic candidate to Joe Biden and inflation and gas prices. People running for offices that have nothing to do with this are blaming the Democratic candidate for secretary of State or state treasurer for high gas prices because they think that resonates. And that’s working to some extent, it would appear. We’re also a purple state anyhow, and elections generally are close if there are reasonable candidates. And we can talk about that, by the way, because there are some very unreasonable candidates on the ballot this time in Nevada.

Can you get enough people who care about the Dobbs decision to turn out who otherwise wouldn’t in a midterm? Can you get enough Hispanics to come out and vote for Democrats as they have in the past to stanch the bleeding from the economic arguments Republicans are using? That’s a very good question. I don’t think anybody has an answer.

Are you telling me it’s all going to come down to turnout?
I’m not going to say those words. But you know what? It’s funny because I joke about that cliché myself all the time, but never has it been more true than in Nevada this time.

And Nevada’s different when it comes to abortion as well, and many national commentators get this wrong, saying it’s embedded in the constitution. It’s not. There was a referendum 32 years ago that embedded a statute. A statute can only be changed if it appears on the ballot and is passed by another referendum. So it’s very difficult to change it here. Republicans have tried to blunt the abortion attacks by saying, “It’s settled law here.” That’s not exactly true. Of course, a governor could pass a parental notification law, could pass or at least advocate for a waiting period, all kinds of other things to try to impinge on the right to have an abortion.

In the Senate race especially, Catherine Cortez Masto has really leaned into the two issues that you mentioned. I’ve said facetiously that if I went outside and ran into Catherine Cortez Masto on the street and said, “Nice weather we’re having,” she’d say to me, “Did you know Adam Laxalt is pro-life?”

Hey, it’s on message.
Right. Exactly. And that, that she is. She’s a very disciplined candidate.

It frustrates me as a journalist and a human being that the other issue you mentioned, the real threat to democracy posed by election deniers, isn’t more of an issue. Laxalt, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate here, was the chief election denier in 2020 fronting for the Trump campaign. He made all kinds of unsubstantiated claims. He was part of lawsuits that went nowhere. And he has made certain claims during this campaign that indicate he may try to challenge the results if he loses. In fact, he’s explicitly said, “I’m going to sue to make the election closer if I need to.” That’s a paraphrase, but it’s only a slight paraphrase.

What’s weird is that he hasn’t broken through as a national threat to democracy the way Kari Lake in Arizona has. Maybe it’s different on the ground there, but I think he’s viewed more commonly as kind of a bland, generic, kind-of-Trumpy but not insane Republican.
It’s so funny you say that. I’ve been crying from the rooftops that people have been hearing about these high-profile Senate candidates like Herschel Walker and Blake Masters and Dr. Oz saying all this crazy stuff. And they’re asking, “How come the Republicans couldn’t find better candidates in those states?” And Adam Laxalt is as bad as they are, but he’s seen a little differently because his campaign has done something the other campaigns have not done: They’ve kept him quiet. They’ve cocooned him to a great extent. Generally, they only let him talk to friendly interviewers. He’s still managed to say a few crazy or dumb things, but not nearly as many as some of the other ones. And he has a base in this state, too. He was attorney general. He ran for governor and lost. And he fronted for the Trump campaign.

There’s also Joe Lombardo for governor, running against the incumbent Democrat Steve Sisolak, and Jim Marchant, running for secretary of State. Marchant has expressed some pretty extreme views but hasn’t gotten the attention of, say, Mark Finchem.
I said this the other day, and I believe it: Jim Marchant makes Mark Finchem look like a statesman. Jim Marchant is way, way out there. He’s a QAnon guy. He’s a Mike Lindell acolyte. He has said all kinds of nonsensical things, including, “We haven’t had a legitimate election here since 2006,” perhaps forgetting that he was elected to the assembly in 2016.

So he’s a terrible candidate who would not have a chance except for two things. One is that it could be a Republican year. And I saw some focus group about a month and a half ago. No one knows what the secretary of State does. No one knows who the candidates are. So you have this tribal voting going on, and he’s been ahead in most polls. The only sustenance Democrats and sane people can take is about a third of people are undecided, so there’s still a chance he loses.

Getting back to Harry Reid for a minute, who you’re writing a book about. He was the dominant force in Nevada Democratic politics for decades and ran the famous turnout machine that gets an obligatory mention in every article about the state’s politics. He also handpicked Cortez Masto as his successor years ago. I’m wondering how much his death actually affects things on the ground there. Is it fading without his influence, or did he build a lasting institution that doesn’t need him as a leader anymore?
It’s a very good question. It drives the people who run the Reid machine crazy to hear that they’re faltering, to hear that it’s fading because he’s not around. Basically, the same people are running it as when he was alive. There’s no sign from the early turnout that the machine is gone. They feel that they built this organization almost a decade and a half ago when we became an early-caucus state in 2008 and that the machine is still there, that it functions.

It may not be quite as well funded as it used to be because Reid is gone, although they say they have the money to get it done. And it may be hampered a bit by the fact that the Democratic Party is no longer what I’ve often referred to as a legalized money-laundering operation for the Reid machine. Reid was just an overwhelming figure in the Democratic Party for all kinds of reasons. But the people who are the field operatives, who run this thing, are still around. Do they miss his presence? Do they miss his counsel? Do they miss his fundraising ability? Of course they do. Do they miss it enough to where the machine is not going to work as well? We’re going to find out in a couple of weeks.

Your longtime motto about Nevada has been “We matter.” From a purely personal perspective, with all eyes on the state again as it seems to be every election cycle, how much are you enjoying this?
Well, I’m older, so maybe my enjoyment level isn’t quite what it used to be. And my role’s a bit different now, you know. I started this nonprofit site about five and a half years ago. And I bumped myself up from editor to CEO about a year ago. But I still follow this stuff in as close to a granular way as I can.

I’ve always thought that the national media gives short shrift to Nevada, which is where the #wematter hashtag was born. Because, you know, we’re far away. We’re kind of this weird state with the caricature of hookers on every corner and slot machines in the grocery stores and the 7-Eleven. But we’ve been a swing state now for many cycles. And Nevada is not as weird as you people think it is. We’re a microcosm of the country in many ways, especially Vegas, which has changed so much since I moved here in 1984. It’s now very demographically diverse and reflects America more than New Hampshire or Iowa.

Catherine Cortez Masto’s seat could determine control of the Senate, and we have three of our four House seats in play in addition to the governor’s race. They’re all close, or at least polling shows them to be close. There’s all kinds of speculation about how many seats the Republicans are likely to win, and most people think they’re going to take the House. But you have three seats here that could flip that could be significant.

We do matter. We should matter. And of all the elections I’ve covered, we matter more in some ways this election than we do in any other.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Nevada’s Political Oracle on the State’s Crucial Midterms