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Nevada and Presidential Elections: A History with Some Surprises

Historian Michael Green explores the moments that Nevadans have had the greatest influence on national elections.

Campus News  |  Oct 5, 2016  |  By UNLV News Center
Roosevelt en route to the dedication of Boulder Dam

President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his car en route to the dedication of Boulder Dam. It was officially renamed Hoover Dam in 1947. (UNLV Libraries Special Collections/Manis Collection)

If you were a fan of The West Wing, you may recall that when President Jed Bartlet was leaving office, Rep. Matt Santos and Sen. Arnold Vinick competed to succeed him. Santos barely won with 272 electoral votes, thanks to the votes in one state: Nevada. Meanwhile, watchers of Veep learned how to properly pronounce “Nev-AD-ah” as the Silver State was a pivotal player in Selina Meyers’ failed election bid.

While Nevada has elected one television president and been the battleground for another, has it had an effect on the real thing? Its role may surprise you.

1864

One of the great myths of Nevada’s history has been that it became a state because Abraham Lincoln wanted the gold and silver from the Comstock Lode. During the Civil War, Nevada was a territory, meaning that Lincoln had more control over the ore than he would have if it became a state. But Lincoln wouldn’t control much of anything if he didn’t get reelected. Early in 1864, Congress passed and Lincoln signed the Enabling Act to, yes, enable Nevada to seek statehood. A constitutional convention followed, and Nevadans overwhelmingly approved the delegates’ handiwork.

Then the fun began. First, Nevada sent its proposed state constitution to Washington, D.C., but it was lost. Lincoln refused to sign off on statehood without a constitution, so Territorial Gov. James Nye ordered it telegraphed to the capital. It was the longest telegram in history and cost more than $4,300 at the time. Once the constitution arrived, Lincoln signed the statehood proclamation and on Oct. 31, 1864, making Nevada his treat to the nation—just in time to vote for his reelection.

Ultimately, Lincoln defeated his Democratic opponent, George McClellan, by an electoral count of 212-21. Historians long have debated how much Nevada mattered to Lincoln.

But, Lincoln was, at heart, a politician: he had run for the Illinois legislature six times, the House of Representatives once, and the U.S. Senate twice before being elected president. He knew how to count votes, and he would have appreciated a favorite maxim of former Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada: “There are two ways to run for office: unopposed and scared.” In the months before Nevada statehood, Lincoln was scared: he tabulated a 117-114 victory in the Electoral College. Later, Thomas Eckert of the War Department’s telegraph office added “Nevada 3” to Lincoln’s list. Lincoln had no tracking polls, but he obviously kept track in his own way. And Nevada delivered, even if he didn’t end up really needing our help.

1932

With the Great Depression upending the international economy, Republican President Herbert Hoover was in trouble — even in Nevada, where the dam that bore his name was under construction, providing jobs to thousands of people. Democrats nominated Gov. Franklin Roosevelt of New York for president.

Roosevelt easily defeated Hoover nationally — the electoral vote was 472-59 — and in Nevada, where his margin was 2-1. In Clark County, FDR’s margin was 4-1. Those dam workers blamed Hoover and Republicans for the Depression that prompted them to leave their homes to work under punishing conditions in the tunnels, where temperatures often approached 130 degrees in the summer.

U.S. senators from Nevada affected the outcome — or the election affected their outcomes. Nevada’s senior senator, Democrat Key Pittman, was a campaign adviser to Roosevelt. FDR’s coattails carried Democrats to control of the Senate, and Pittman became chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful body that gave him considerable influence in the White House.

Nevada’s other U.S. senator, Republican Tasker Oddie, was seeking reelection in 1932 and seemed likely to win. But he went down with Hoover, losing to the Democratic Senate nominee, a perennial candidate named Pat McCarran. McCarran owed his victory in part to Southern Nevada, where he carried Clark County by a nearly 2-1 margin that offset Oddie’s advantage in the rest of the state. McCarran campaigned as an FDR supporter and backed most of the New Deal legislation after he got to Washington. But he also took on FDR on some key issues and, gaining power, eventually became Judiciary Committee chair. McCarran became a force to be reckoned with, and Roosevelt and his successors had to do the reckoning—to Nevada’s advantage in federal spending.

1960

In early 1960, Oceans 11 stars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford appeared in the Copa Room at the Sands. The Rat Pack had hit its height, and stars came in from Hollywood to be part of the the fun. And so did a senator from Massachusetts.

John Kennedy’s campaign had targeted Nevada in 1958, supporting another reform-minded young Democrat, Grant Sawyer, for governor. When JFK came to Las Vegas in 1960, he became associated with the “cool” the Rat Pack exuded. He received campaign contributions from Las Vegas casinos and, with Sinatra supposedly making the introduction, also reportedly began an affair with Judith Campbell, who also became the mistress of Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. For her part, Campbell later claimed she was really just a go-between, carrying money and messages for Kennedy and Giancana.

Kennedy went on to win the presidency. Sinatra and Martin recorded a campaign song, and Sinatra was in charge of the entertainment for the inaugural ball. But, in 1963, Sinatra found himself in trouble with Nevada gaming regulators. He had hosted Giancana at his hotel-casino, the Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe, but Giancana was in the state’s Black Book of people not allowed to set foot in a casino. Sinatra wound up surrendering his license.

Soon after the incident with Giancana, Kennedy visited Las Vegas. Gov. Sawyer greeted him and, after a few pleasantries, the president said, “What are you guys doing to my friend Frank Sinatra?” Sawyer replied, “Mr. President, I’ll try to take care of things here in Nevada, and I wish you luck at the national level.”

1980 and 1984

President Ronald Reagan won two landslide elections, and the man closest to him each time was Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada. The two became friends while governing their neighboring states in the late 1960s. When Reagan tried to defeat President Gerald Ford in the Republican primaries in 1976, he asked Laxalt to head his campaign. That bid failed, but Laxalt chaired his campaign again in 1980. And when Reagan won the nomination, Laxalt was a contender for the vice presidential slot. “I implored him not to do it,” Laxalt recalled. “First, I preferred to stay in the Senate. Secondly, it didn’t make political sense to have the ticket composed of candidates from adjoining states and having the same political philosophies” — although, as Laxalt pointed out, it worked for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. After Reagan chose George Bush, Nancy Reagan said to Laxalt, “I’m so sorry, Paul. I wish it had been you.” Laxalt replied, “Nancy, it’s probably for the best.”

Laxalt remained in the Senate but became known as “the first friend,” with access to the president and a role in the Senate’s Republican leadership. Laxalt chaired Reagan’s campaign in 1984 before retiring from the Senate in 1986. He then examined the possibility of running for president in 1988 but decided against it.

2008

Nevada moved to the front of the line — or close to it in 2008. The Democratic and Republican National Committees made Nevada one of the first states in the country to vote in the presidential election process. First, of course, was Iowa with its caucus. Then it depended on the party — Republicans in Wyoming held a caucus, then both Democrats and Republicans had the New Hampshire and Michigan primaries — followed by the caucuses in Nevada.

One of the main reasons for Nevada’s caucus being held so early in the process involved the state’s diversity. Historically, its population always has had a significant percentage of recent immigrants, from the Chinese and Irish on the Comstock to southern and eastern Europeans in the early 20th century, to the recent influx of Hispanic and Asian people. That distinguished the Silver State from the demographics of the traditional starters and gave Nevadans more of a voice in the presidential nominating process — and they have indeed had an impact on the choices the two main parties have made in the past and this year.

2016? 

It’s hard to say. But with the exception of the 1976 election, Nevada has given its electoral votes to the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1912. Nevada may not decide who will be the next president, but you may be able to figure out who will prevail according to how Nevada votes. And the winner will be … oh, that’s right. A history professor is writing this. In history, we deal with the past, not the future.