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Trump gets chance to pounce as Biden's Nevada grip loosens

President Donald Trump gives a fist pump after disembarking Air Force One on Sept. 8, 2020, at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C.

JOYCE N. BOGHOSI/WHITE HOUSE

By JUSTIN SINK AND TYLER PAGER | Bloomberg | Published: September 12, 2020

Democratic nominee Joe Biden's allies in Nevada fear economic woes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic could cost him the state in the November election, giving President Donald Trump a fresh opportunity as he travels to the new battleground this weekend.

Record unemployment from the crash of Nevada's hospitality industry and safety restrictions that closed the casinos for months have thrown formidable get-out-the-vote operations by Democratic groups into turmoil, organizers said.

Biden had a 5-point advantage in the state at the beginning of September, according to a University of Nevada-Las Vegas Lee Business School poll, the first state survey of the general election. But this week, the Cook Political Report shifted the state's rating from "likely Democrat" to "lean Democrat."

Separately, a New York Times/Siena College survey released on Saturday showed Biden up by 4 points, 46% to 42%, after polling of likely voters taken Sept. 8-11. Democrat Hillary Clinton won Nevada by 2 points in 2016.

A surprise win in Nevada, which Trump lost in 2016, could help the president compensate for a loss in another battleground ground state like Michigan or Pennsylvania. Nevada has only six Electoral College votes, compared to Michigan's 16 and Pennsylvania's 20, but Trump's campaign sees a re-election victory path that would entail winning a series of smaller states anchored by Minnesota instead of the Rust Belt states that put him in the White House.

And for Biden, Nevada is one of the few states where Democrats have eked out victories where he must now play defense. And if, as expected, his Electoral College margin is narrow, he cannot risk losing a state they believe they are protecting from Republicans.

Trump will seek to seize on the new advantage with a visit to the Silver State this weekend. The campaign swing includes two rallies – one in Reno on Saturday, followed by another in Las Vegas on Sunday – as well as a roundtable discussion on Latino issues at the Treasure Island casino. He'll also look to appeal to Latino voters with a roundtable in Phoenix on Monday.

Democrats are worried that the pandemic has dulled a key edge they have always had in Nevada – the power of union and other organizers to register voters and engage in get-out-the-vote efforts, all stopped by worries about spreading Covid-19.

"I think Nevada could end up very much like Michigan did in '16," said D. Taylor, the head of Unite Here, the powerful Culinary Workers Union's national organization. He was referring to Trump's 2016 victory margin of less than 1 percentage point in that state, which propelled him toward an Electoral College win over Clinton.

Taylor said he worries national groups and other unions are overlooking Nevada, banking on recent Democratic successes.

Particularly alarming, Taylor said, was the lack of in-person canvassing from Democratic-aligned groups. Taylor said his group is closely following health guidelines as it resumes in-person voter contact, and he is urging others to follow suit.

"We're telling folks we need to be out talking to people," he said. "The Trump folks are on the doors, and they're spreading all kinds of misinformation."

The Biden campaign said it would begin dropping off fliers at homes and planned to open distribution centers for yard signs. It is also setting up Spanish-language phone banks and organizing events with Latino groups.

The in-person work is even more important this cycle, Taylor said, because a significant number of voters have disconnected their phones because of economic hardship. And while all registered voters in Nevada will receive a mail-in ballot, Taylor said some need help from organizers to manage the confusing process.

"It's not the easiest thing to figure out on your own and it's intimidating so walking through with people how you do the mail ballot is important so if they do them, they don't get nullified for some mistake," he said.

Biden also has not been fully embraced by Latino voters, who make up about 17% of the state's eligible voters, according to the Pew Research Center. The former vice president lost the Nevada caucuses to Senator Bernie Sanders, who won half the Hispanic vote, according to CNN's entrance polls of the January caucuses. Only 17% of Hispanic Democratic voters supported the eventual Democratic nominee.

The Trump campaign believes its tough-on-illegal-immigration messaging and anti-abortion judicial appointments have made inroads with Latinos who are in the country legally – themes Trump is likely to highlight at the roundtable discussions.

Yvanna Cancela, a Nevada state senator and a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, said Latino voters are critical to the campaign's success and "part of every single strategic decision that our team makes."

Peter Koltak, Sanders's campaign senior adviser in Nevada, said he is "cautiously optimistic" about Biden's chances in the state, but flagged warning signs. He's worried that Democrats may wait too long, until the race tightens, to invest "the right resources into the state" and that Biden has not made inroads with Hispanic voters.

"He just doesn't have a relationship with Latino voters," he said. "Frankly, this is the first time he's ever run for national office in an era in which Latino voters are as powerful as they are."

The UNLV poll showed Biden leading 43% to 29% among Latinos - significantly worse than Clinton, who won the group 60-29% in 2016, according to exit polls.

Trump, facing headwinds of his own, is using this weekend's trip to shore up his campaign finances, and his support.

The president will attend a pair of high-dollar, in-person fundraisers during the trip, including an event Sunday, where couples will fork over $150,000 to attend a roundtable discussion.

Infusions of cash have become critical for Trump - particularly in states, like Nevada, that he didn't win in 2016 - after Biden outraised him by more than $155 million last month. The president this week said he would consider putting his own money toward the campaign if he felt it was necessary to win.

His campaign had reserved $6.1 million in advance advertising time in Nevada beginning Tuesday, according to Advertising Analytics, but cut the past week's ads, saving $526,960. Biden is running ads in Nevada and has $3.5 million budgeted there through Election Day.

Yet the Trump campaign believes that even without advertising, a well-timed visit can help turn hospitality industry workers to his side by criticizing the virus safety protocols that Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak has put in place.

Nevada's unemployment rate reached 28.2% in April – the highest percentage of workers unemployed in an American state ever recorded. The rate dropped to 14% in July, but still represented the third worst jobless rate among states.

"President Trump has spent his first term delivering wins for the Silver State, and with a campaign that's had a permanent presence in Nevada for years, the president has all the momentum heading into November," said Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager.

Nevada Republicans have blamed Democrats for a slow recovery, accusing Sisolak of scuttling rallies Trump had planned for airport hangers in Reno and Las Vegas.

"Democrats are trying to keep President Trump from speaking to voters because they know the enthusiasm behind his re-election campaign cannot be matched by Joe Biden," Trump communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement.

Sisolak tweeted that his office had "no involvement or communication with the event organizers or potential hosts," and said that state restrictions on the size of gatherings had been in place for weeks.

Former Nevada senator Harry Reid said that while he always expected the presidential race to be tight in his home state, Democrats may actually see an advantage if voters blame the president for the coronavirus crisis.

"We are the destination resort of the world," Reid said. "We've been hurt really bad by his inaction and doing nothing to set a standard for what we should do with this coronavirus. I think that we take nothing for granted but we have a number of things going for us."