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The Voice of Nevada Politics
Like many a Las Vegas transplant, David Damore figured his time in the desert would be brief when he arrived here from Sacramento, California, in the summer of 2000. Then he settled into his job as a UNLV political science professor, his then-girlfriend followed him, they married, had two sons, and his father eventually joined them here.
Sixteen years later, Damore is now entrenched in Las Vegas and has become somewhat of an institution as a go-to source for local, national, and international media seeking comment on Nevada’s hot-button political issues.
Whether it’s a local television reporter wanting someone to analyze policy discussions in Carson City or a scribe from The New York Times looking to gauge which way the Silver State is leaning in a presidential race, Damore has become a Nevada political expert of record.
Damore — who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in American Politics and Research Methods, and also serves as graduate coordinator for the political science department — said reporters began lighting up his phone prior to the 2004 presidential election, and he estimates he’s fielded a couple of thousand media calls since then. With each interview, Damore and other professors like him help UNLV gain positive publicity and raise its profile both here and abroad.
As UNLV prepares to host the final presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on Oct. 19, Damore is in particularly high demand. But he recently carved out some time to share his thoughts on his experiences with the media, the 21st century political process, and the one question he would ask this year’s candidates if given the opportunity.
The media inquiries ebb and flow depending on what’s going on. There are some days — like a campaign visit or a debate or the caucuses — when it seems like talking to the media is what I do all day. And then sometimes I’ll go a week or two when I don’t hear from any reporters.
I’ve always spoken with the local media. But then as Nevada got more important nationally, I received a lot of national and international inquiries, and it just kind of snowballed from there. One of the things I quickly learned is, once you give reporters your cellphone number, they keep it forever. And they share it with their friends.
I’ve had a few reporters and producers tell me that they come to me because I can condense a lot of information into succinct sound bites. Conciseness — that’s really what they’re looking for.
There’s obviously variation across the different mediums. Television interviews take lots of time; you have to get dressed up and they typically cut you down to like a five-second sound bite.
What I enjoy the most is radio, because it’s unedited. I can say what I want to say. It’s usually live, and I get the time to develop my thoughts.
I didn’t have any formal training in media relations. It was really learn-as-you-go. And I learned some hard lessons.
There have been times when I’ve given an interview where you give a writer essentially the whole story and all the research, but they don’t credit you with the information. I’ve had times when I’ve been paraphrased or my words are presented without the context and nuance around it so the bottom-line meaning is lost. I used to let those things bother me, not anymore.
It’s exciting to see the journalists who have moved on, like [former Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas Sun reporter] Molly Ball going to The Atlantic and some other folks going to national papers. But it’s also meant having to develop new relationships with their replacements — and their replacements’ replacements. These days it seems the reporters are even younger. They get thrown into it and often need help navigating the terrain.
Some of my most memorable interactions with the media were during the Sharron Angle-Harry Reid U.S. Senate race in 2010. It was pretty clear early on that Reid was going to win, but a lot of reporters wouldn’t believe me. Even up to the final day, I had people telling me, “No, you’re wrong!” I was like, “You’re calling me as an expert.”
According to the polling, the race was close or Angle was ahead, but I suspected otherwise. So I got criticized for being a homer for the Democrats. I’m registered as non-partisan. I’m just telling you what I think.
People assume polls are accurate. But Nevada is a really difficult place to poll, mostly because of the changing demography. The electorate here always churns. And the parts of the electorate that are growing the fastest are the most difficult to poll: those with just cell phones, non-English speakers, and lower socio-economic status. Then you have the fact that people work crazy hours, so if you’re not calling around the clock, then you’re missing a significant segment of the population here.
But the media loves polling. Because a poll, any poll, is a story.
It’s cliché, but Nevada really does have an incestuous political environment. There are very few people who have a lot of influence, not just in local and state politics, but nationally.
That’s one thing I took from that Reid-Angle race. It was amazing to see how the establishment from both sides coalesced behind Reid. We saw something similar during the last legislative session, when you had a Republican governor in Brian Sandoval and establishment Republican and Democratic legislators working together to move policy.
The question I always get is, “Well, isn’t Nevada a libertarian, anti-government state?” Eh, sort of. But it’s also a state where party and ideology are often trumped by personal relationships and shared interests. One anecdote that captures this point is that in the same week Harry Reid received the endorsements of the Nevada Mining Association and the Sierra Club.
People outside the state wonder why Nevada has become so important in presidential elections — after all, we only have six Electoral College votes — but it’s a state that encapsulates a lot of what’s happening across the country.
All the issues play here: immigration, health care, wage equality, background checks, renewable energy. All these national issues are salient in Nevada. We’re in a new America. A changing America. An urban, diverse America that has a lot of policy challenges that Nevadans confront every day.
The voter disillusionment you hear a lot about during this election cycle is nothing new, sadly. Compared with other democracies, the U.S. has always had a less knowledgeable and less engaged electorate and a distrust of politics and politicians.
The rules of the game are such that, in a country of nearly 320 million people, we end up with so few choices.
Also not helping is the rise of the 24-hour partisan news outlets. We used to be able to agree on the facts; now we don’t even agree on the facts. It’s really difficult to have a debate about policy when pushing the narrative matters more than evidence.
If you don’t care for the presidential candidates, well, we do have a “none-of-the-above” option in Nevada! In fact, between “none of the above” and the minor party candidates who will be on the ballot, the chance of anyone getting 50 percent here is unlikely.
My grandfather got me into politics. He was always interested in it and he was involved locally. We always talked about it and, living in Sacramento, he was able to watch some shrewd politicians operate close-up — Pat and Jerry Brown, Ronald Reagan, and of course, Willie Brown. I remember as a kid seeing his autographed picture of JFK, which is now in my office. In high school, I read all the Watergate books and that kind of stuff. The study of politics and university life is a good fit for me. I definitely didn’t want to be a lawyer.
My pet peeve about Nevada is we operate like it’s the 1800s. We operate under institutions and governance structures that are a poor fit for a growing urban, diverse state. Most of our institutions were created for a small, homogenous, and rural state, and they haven’t changed much since.
We’re one of only four states with a part-time Legislature. We’re the only state where the governor picks road projects. We’re one of three or four states with an integrated higher education system for both community colleges and universities. And we’re still using a funding formula for K-12 that originated in the 1960s. The core of how our state runs is antiquated, and it has consequences in terms of policy. It has consequences for the people those policies serve.
It’s long past time for our Legislature to meet annually. This is the thing, though: This stuff is in the state constitution. And it’s tough to change the state’s constitution.
My opinion on the Electoral College and its usefulness in the 21st century has vacillated. I used to think it was horrible. Then I moved to a small, swing state.
The Electoral College undermines the basic notion of the equality of the vote. It also dictates that presidential candidates only compete in a handful of states. But if we didn’t have it, running for president would be even more expensive and the fights over ballot access would only intensify.
Nevada is a very accessible place to get involved in the political process, particularly at the local and state level. I’m amazed at the number of former students I encounter who are working in the Legislature and other areas of local and state government. This is a place where you can go meet your elected official and have relationships with them.
The other thing about Nevada is the influx of people from other states. A lot of people haven’t been here long enough to have learned the politics, and they’re generally more susceptible to short-term campaign effects.
I think Nevada is too small and too peculiar to ever put up a serious candidate for president. But if you look at the greats of Nevada politics, it is no surprise that they all served in the U.S. Senate. Across parties and over time, the Nevadans who have flourished on the national stage did so in a body where power accrues through longevity and political skill, where state size matters much less. As a consequence, Nevadans have put their stamp on some major pieces of federal legislation, from the mining act to the Affordable Care Act.
The fact Las Vegas and UNLV were chosen as sites for the final presidential debate validates Nevada’s arrival on the national political stage. It’s a great opportunity to have the international media here for a week looking for our stories.
If I had the chance to address the candidates at the debate, I would ask them what they see as the limitations of the office. We’re supposed to be operating in a separated system, but because of our broken politics, the presidency has become more autonomous. So I would ask: How will you remain accountable and restrain yourself from carving out even more executive authority while still meeting the demands of the office?
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