Donald Trump plays a strong hand in Las Vegas

Donald Trump aims to build on his lead in the critical swing state of Nevada on Sunday with his first major rally since becoming a convicted felon.

The former president will address supporters in Las Vegas where he is expected to take aim at Joe Biden’s economic record, exploiting local grievances over the escalating cost of living.

Renowned for its bustling Strip, neon lights and whirring slot machines, Las Vegas is a tourism hotspot where employment is dominated by the hospitality industry. Many of the sector’s blue-collar workers have been squeezed hard by high levels of inflation.

“The economy is all people care about,” said Reece Bowman, 29, an entrepreneur starting up his own ecommerce business. He added that rampant inflation had pushed his politics to the right in recent years.

“Biden back in the day was just a safe option, a sweet old man. But now, after having him run the country for a while, everyone’s like, actually it was way better when Trump was in charge.”

In a state that has not backed a Republican presidential candidate since 2004, many voters agree. Trump leads Biden in an average of polls in Nevada — where six electoral college votes are up for grabs — by a margin of 5.4 points, according to FiveThirtyEight.

The current president won the state by a razor-thin margin of just over 2 per cent, or about 34,000 votes, in 2020. In the 2022 mid-term elections, Democratic incumbent US Senator Catherine Cortez Masto edged out her Republican opponent by a similarly narrow margin.

Line chart of Unemployment rate (%) showing Nevada unemployment has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels

“It’s going to be a highly competitive election,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Depending on how the other swing states go, we can be decisive in the big picture.”

“Biden is not in great shape — and it’s because of the economy. You have growing inflation, growing housing prices. For the average Nevadan, who’s voting their pocketbook, it’s not really good news for Joe Biden.”

The president’s approval ratings have for months been weighed down by voter anger over his handling of the economy amid persistent concerns about the cost of living. In the latest Financial Times-Michigan Ross poll, out on Sunday, just one in five voters nationwide said they were financially better off since Biden became president.

Rising costs are a particular problem in Nevada, where grocery bills are the second highest in the US and where a housing crisis has taken hold, driven by an influx of Californians and a lack of development.

“Outside of Nevada, people . . . always think that we’re some alien world where there are hookers and slot machines on every corner,” said Jon Ralston, editor of the Nevada Independent newspaper. “It’s actually a real place and people here have the same kinds of concerns as people elsewhere: the economy is number one.”

The tourism-dependent Las Vegas Valley — where about two-thirds of Nevadans live — was decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic, sending state-wide unemployment rocketing to more than 30 per cent in mid-2020, higher than anywhere else in the country.

Trump supporters gather outside a fundraising event in Newport Beach, California, on Saturday
Trump supporters gather outside a fundraising event in Newport Beach, California, on Saturday, part of the candidate’s tour of the western US © AFP via Getty Images

While the bustle has returned to the Strip, cost-cutting by many of its casinos’ new private equity owners mean that local employment has been slow to bounce back. State-wide unemployment remains above its pre-Covid levels and among the nation’s highest. 

“Trump would make it better,” said Jose Vides, 47, a trucker and construction worker. “He’s a very smart man. When it comes to the economy and money, he is very good at it.”

Uber driver David Gonzales Broche, 50, blames Biden for the rise in petrol prices, which sit about 50 per cent higher than when the president took office, driven in large part by the war in Ukraine and curtailed Opec supplies.

“The majority that I’ve spoken to are in favour of Trump,” he said. “People see how the economy was and how it is now.”

Local Democrats bristle at their opponents’ politicisation of factors beyond the president’s control — and urge voters to focus on issues such as abortion and the January 6 2021 political violence in Washington.

“Biden doesn’t have an influence on inflation,” said Jackie Salas, 57, a physician and Democratic party campaigner. “It’s a problem because a lot of people don’t understand and the other side is more than happy to blame that on the incumbent president.”

Democrats take solace in the knowledge that polling is notoriously unreliable in the state. Analysts warn the lack of consistent tracking, a high proportion of Spanish speakers and the prevalence of people working unusual hours in the service sector make it difficult for pollsters to monitor voter sentiment and predict turnout.

On Saturday, Susie Lee, a Democratic congresswoman whose district includes much of the area directly south of Las Vegas, urged volunteers canvassing in the suburb of Summerlin to highlight the work the president had done on abortion access, preserving democratic norms and addressing the cost of living.

While every election matters, “this one tops them all”, Lee told the FT.

“The president is the president, so they are obviously going to blame him [for inflation],” she added. “But honestly there are so many factors that go into cost. People want to know that we are working on it, that we are putting forward solutions.”

Democrats have long been better organised in the state. Local pundits still refer to the effectiveness of the “Reid machine”, established by the late US Senate majority leader Harry Reid, in getting out the vote. But Republicans — traditionally strong in rural parts of the state — are gaining ground in Las Vegas and Reno.

In a contest between two unpopular candidates, analysts say turnout and voter enthusiasm may prove decisive.

“There’s obviously people who bleed Trump red, I’m not really that,” said Bowman, the entrepreneur. “I think the majority of people, we’re just OK with him.”

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington

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