‘Oh, it’s gonna be Romney. The election’s on the sixth. Republicans always win when the election is on the sixth.” Vegas guys: Always superstitious about the numbers. Interestingly enough, this is true: November 6 elections produced Lincoln, Harrison, McKinley, Hoover, Eisenhower, and Reagan.
You have a lot of political discussions like this in Las Vegas, but there’s more than numerology to chew on this particular bone. Nevada might very well be the new Pennsylvania: the swing state that is, for Republicans, more of a tease state. In Nevada, President Obama currently leads Mitt Romney by a mere 2.8 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, but most analysts have written the state off as a block of blue in the desert.
You’d think that Nevada, of all states, would be hoping for a change from all that Obama-style hope and change: The Obama economy has been positively savage for Nevada, which suffered foreclosure and unemployment rates clocking in at whatever is just past “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” on the economic-indicator charts. And there’s a built-in Romney-friendly demographic: Clark County, home to Las Vegas, is only about 6 percent Mormon, but the two counties to the immediate north are 48 percent and 22 percent Mormon, respectively. There are several other counties in which Mormons make up more than 10 percent of the population. Nationwide, 84 percent of Mormons say they intend to vote for Romney. If there’s a demographic dark horse for Romney out west, Nevada is probably it.
But there’s a lot more than that arguing his case: Even after a few months of improvement, Nevada still has the country’s highest unemployment rate — 12 percent — and one of the highest foreclosure rates. The all-important hotel-occupancy rate still has not returned to its 2008 level, which itself was significantly off from the 2007 record level of more than 90 percent. During the darkest days of the recession, some of the mid-level casino hotels were suffering occupancy rates in the 50–60 range: catastrophic. Prices at high-profile properties along the Strip were slashed as concessionary rates once used to attract the high rollers were extended to the low rollers and even to the no-rollers.
“Look at this place,” says a worker at a major Strip casino. “There’s nobody here. This is a Saturday night. In Vegas.” Indeed, while the place is not empty, it is rather lightly populated, with a lot of empty barstools, a lot of open tables at the restaurants, and, most worrisome to the local economy, a lot of free space at the gambling tables.
The teetotaling, clean-living Mitt Romney might seem like an unlikely candidate for saving the economy of a state best known for its casinos and whorehouses — the Luxor casino, cutting right to the chase, calls its in-house nightclub “Cathouse” — but there is a great deal of dissatisfaction simmering just below the surface along the Strip, where a number of rank-and-file service workers lamented the unions’ dominance of Las Vegas politics and placed the blame for the city’s straits squarely on the Democrats.
“Harry Reid — how the hell does he keep getting reelected?” asks one discontented casino worker. “I don’t know if Mitt Romney really has a plan for Nevada. But you know what? He doesn’t have to. He has a plan for the other 49 states, and that’s the plan for Las Vegas. People have to be earning money before they can come here to spend it. I want to see this floor full of employees — just not our employees. People need jobs. When they don’t have money, this is the first thing they cut back on.”
Or, as a local casino manager puts it: “Our business model presupposes disposable income.”
Las Vegas has economic problems that go beyond the feckless administration in Washington. The city and the state are virtual hostages of the gambling business. Gambling is not a very good revenue strategy for most state governments, but only the irony-immune could fail to savor the fact that Nevada is one of the few states that don’t have a lottery. Some 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have lotteries, but you can’t buy a state lottery ticket in Las Vegas. Efforts to diversify the attractions on offer in Las Vegas, from building museums to attracting a professional sports team, have been met with indifference or hostility by the casino interests, which simply do not want the competition. (For more on the dubious use of gambling as an economic-development tool, see here.)
Such is the clout of the industry that even Nevada’s reformist Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, himself a former gambling regulator, split with the National Governors Association and many of his Republican colleagues (notably Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett) to back Harry Reid’s legislative play to protect Nevada casino interests from online competition.
All of which gives Nevada one more reason to support the thrifty Mormon Eagle Scout: Romney opposes online gambling. Not because he’s obviously interested in helping out Las Vegas casino operators, but because he knows how to run a cost-benefit analysis. “I don’t want to increase access to gaming,” he said. “I feel that we have plenty of access to gaming right now through the various casinos and establishments that exist.” He cited “the social costs and people’s addictive gambling habits” in his opposition.
It’s a classic Baptists-and-bootleggers coalition. Romney will never darken the door of the Cathouse at Luxor, but he may be the best thing for Vegas in the long run.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.