Prior to Nevada’s Republican Senate Primary, most analysts believed that the seat would be captured by Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D - NV) had become the poster child for, and architect of, controversial pieces of legislation on President Obama’s agenda, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. After a surprising primary that saw the rise of Sharron Angle, a member of the Nevada Legislature and Tea Party favorite, the stage was set for a slugfest in the west. Polls conducted over the weekend prior to election day showed Angle with an advantage over Reid of +2.7 in the Real Clear Politics average.
But, a lead in the polls does not always guarantee victory in unpredictable election cycles. The perception that a candidate is too extreme can tip the balance toward the opposing candidate and provide for surprising outcomes.
Angle’s defeat can be attributed to a combination of three factors. Firstly, she took an aggressive stance on immigration that hurt her considerably with Hispanic-American voters. The Reid campaign capitalized on this position to brand Angle as outside the mainstream. Second, independent voters and those somewhat disappointed with President Obama’s job performance broke evenly between the two candidates, bucking the national trend of this voter group. Finally, Angle’s positions and attacks by the Reid campaign were successful in painting her as too extreme. Polling numbers show that an overwhelming majority of voters who were concerned with a candidate being too extreme cast their ballots for Senator Reid.
The candidates sparred repeatedly on immigration policy. Senator Reid took an immigrant-friendly approach, and in a brilliant piece of campaign strategy, promised a vote on the DREAM Act during the lame duck session of Congress. The DREAM Act, co-sponsored by Senator Reid, would allow young illegal immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship by attending college or serving in the Armed Forces.
Angle, on the other hand, bet big on the issue and took a strong stance against illegal immigration. Attack ads followed. One ad, The Wave, used words and phrases like “joining violent gangs,” “fear,” and took issue with Senator Reid’s opposition to “declaring English our national language." At a speaking appearance at a local high school, Angle only made matters worse when she answered a young Hispanic-American’s question about her ads by stating, "I don't know that all of you are Latino, some of you look a little more Asian to me."
In the end, Hispanic Americans made a profound impact on the outcome of the election. In Nevada, 15% of voters were identified as Latino. Among Latino voters, Senator Reid won by a margain of 68% to 30%, whereas Angle won over White voters 53% to 41%. Reid's ability to win the Hispanic vote by such a high margin was significant. With a strong fiscal platform focused on economic issues, Angle could have potentially won 50% of the Hispanic vote, just like Republican Marco Rubio won 55% of the Hispanic-American vote in Florida’s three-way Senate race. Devloping a strong economic campaign and reaching out to Latino voters - just like Rubio - would have given Angle a significant boost. Had she won around 50% of the Hispanic vote, Senator Reid’s margin of victory would have been cut in half to around 20,000 votes.
Angle’s immigration position also alienated other minority groups and moderate voters. Senator Reid won handily among African Americans (78% to 11%) and Asian Americans (79% to 19%). Although African-Americans are typically split on actual immigration policy, they are generally more sympathetic to the concerns of other minority groups.
Additionally, moderate and independent voters leaned toward Reid at a much higher percentage than national trends. This likely can attributed to two factors: the perception of Angle as outside the mainstream on issues like immigration; and Reid’s success in localizing many of Obama’s controversial legislative achievements.
A Lesson for Republicans
Sharron Angle’s defeat in Nevada provides Republicans with an important lesson looking forward. Republican candidates were successful this election cycle running on economic policy, the national deficit, and against the president’s legislative agenda. They tended to be less successful when focusing their campaigns on social or controversial issues.
Angle’s campaign epitomized what many independent and moderate voters tend to dislike about the Republican Party. Nevada has the highest unemployment and home foreclosure rates in the nation. Instead of focusing her campaign on those issues, Angle became bogged down in controversial topics that provided Reid greater opportunity to label her as outside the mainstream. For voters that felt the most important quality in a candidate was to be moderate and not too extreme, Senator Reid won an overwhelming majority. Angle failed to effectively turn the election into a referendum on the Obama agenda.
President Obama’s Impact
Predictably, Senator Reid won an overwhelming majority of those voters who either strongly (95% to 2%) or somewhat (84% to 8%) approve of how Obama is handling his job as president. Also not surprisingly, voters who strongly disapprove of President Obama broke for Angle (89% to 7%). However, Reid gained an advantage over Angle amongst the somewhat approve/disapprove voting groups. While Reid enjoyed healthy support among voters who somewhat approve of President Obama, it is surprising that Angle did not command similar support from voters who somewhat disapprove; each candidate earned an equal percentage of this vote.
In this race, Reid’s success with independent voters and voters somewhat disapproving of the president provides a misleading indication of how the electorate views Obama and his platform. Reid’s success can be attributed to his ability to personalize legislation and make the election about his achievements for Nevada. Unlike few other Democrats, Reid successfully used health care reform to his advantage, by appealing to voters with specific, emotional advertising that made no direct mention of the health care bill itself. This is evidenced by the success of Reid’s ads in dial sessions conducted by The Word Doctors (e.g. Medical Reform ad, dial session). In the end, voters afforded him another opportunity to improve their state and lives.
Given Reid’s initial unpopularity and President Obama’s low job approval in the state, the results on November 2nd were surprising. The combination of all these factors - Angle's immigration stance, Reid's success in portraying her as outside of the maintream, and his ability to win over independents - dampened Angle’s efforts, and allowed Reid’s political machine and strong Hispanic support to carry him across the finish line.
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