Nevada: The loneliest road for Democrats

Story highlights

  • Rural voters could decide Nevada contest
  • An organized Clinton has learned from mistakes of 2008
  • Both Sanders and Clinton are well-organized in rural Nevada

Eureka, Nevada (CNN)Eureka, Nevada -- Nevada Democrats live few and far between on the loneliest road in America.

But these rural voters may once again be the pivotal force in this fierce contest for the Democratic nomination.
Polling doesn't tell you much in Nevada, because it is so difficult to predict who will turn out to caucus. So we set out to gauge the strength and energy of the operations for Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders by finding Democratic voters in these sparsely populated counties over a three-day journey along the loneliest road.
    Life Magazine gave U.S. Route 50 that designation in 1986, warning travelers that Nevada's stretch of the transcontinental highway (once the route of the Pony Express) offered travelers "neither services nor anything to do along the way."
    But Nevada legislators saw an opportunity to bring tourists to this spectacular two-lane highway that traverses salt flats and sand dunes, high desert plains covered with spiny hopsage and sage brush, piñon forests and half-abandoned mining towns. It covers the vast expanse of the Great Basin and snow-capped peaks seem to tower above the road at every turn.
    Officially designating the loneliest road in 1987, tourism officials even created a passport for travelers to gather stamps along the way -- the reward being a "Highway 50 Survivors Certificate" for those who traveled the desolate 257 miles of the route between Fallon and Ely.
    Republicans far outnumber Democrats in the counties along the route: There are just 2,747 Democrats to 7,360 Republicans in Churchill County, for example, and a mere 112 Democrats compared to 620 Republicans in Eureka County.
    But in this election year, these few Democrats are anything but forgotten.

    Reaching out to rural voters

    Clinton learned her lesson in the rural counties eight years ago when Barack Obama swept in to the Silver State with a superior ground game. Though she won the popular vote, Obama bested her by claiming more nominating delegates to the Democratic National Convention, largely on the strength of his performance in Nevada's rural counties.
    In an echo of 2008, Clinton is running into a wall of momentum from another upstart challenger, Sanders.
    And this time, Clinton's campaign took no chances. Though they are relying on a sizable turnout of her supporters in the Latino-heavy precincts of Clark County around Las Vegas, they began getting to know the voters in the rural areas of Nevada as early as last summer.
    "They had their organizers come through here and they hosted every Democrat they could find for lunch downtown at one of our local restaurants," said Sam Hanson, the Democratic Party Chairman of White Pine County, which has 1,376 Democrats, according to January figures from the Nevada Secretary of State. "They are very well-organized here."
    But Sanders' volunteers and organizers have fanned out across the state, demonstrating a forceful presence even in the farthest reaches of Nevada on the eve of the caucuses.
    The two candidates were effectively tied in the latest CNN/ORC poll of likely caucus-goers.
    Precinct captains and Democratic voters along the way predicted a higher-than-expected turnout—which would favor the Vermont senator—in part because they say many students and first-time caucus-goers in their towns are showing up at organizing meetings on behalf of Sanders.
    Tim Stevenson, who has been canvassing for Sanders as many as five days a week around Carson City—near the starting point of Nevada's stretch of the "loneliest road" heading east—described the 2016 Democratic contest as "a real watershed moment" as he stood at the doorstep of a potential caucus-goer in Jacks Valley earlier this week.
    "It is so important that we start this change," he said as he made his pitch for Sanders.
    Stevenson, a 62-year-old artist who said he has never canvassed for another presidential candidate, said he got involved this year "because this is the first time in my life when there's an actual progressive candidate that has ideas that are going to change our government that has been functioning for the corporate elite."
    He added that it's the first time that a candidate like that "has ever really had a real probable chance of gaining the presidency." If Sanders becomes president, Stevenson said, "It will be because voters will come out who have not been voting. There's a whole bunch of people who have lost their credence that government is doing anything for them."

    Focusing on gun control

    Beyond Sanders' mantle as a movement candidate, Clinton is also is facing a backlash from rural Democratic voters who view her as too liberal on guns. During the debates, Clinton has hammered Sanders as too moderate on gun control, but that has worked against her here.
    Ree Taylor, a fourth-generation Nevadan from Eureka who caucused for Obama in 2008, said she favors Sanders because she worries about Clinton's advocacy for more stringent gun control measures — a common refrain among Democrats in Nevada's rural areas.
    "Hillary would be O.K.," Taylor said during an interview this week at the Eureka Sentinel Museum, where she works. She said she likes Clinton's stance on abortion issues, "but her gun control (stance) — it's just a little more than I would like."
    "It seems like they just want everyone to register their guns and whatnot — and nobody to have a gun except law enforcement," said Taylor, who said she worries about being able to give her daughters the guns that belonged to their grandfathers and great grandfathers.
    Taylor said she believes Sanders' more moderate record on gun control will help him in Nevada.
    But Clinton's supporters in these rural counties have been working hard to correct what they view as the mistaken impression that she wants to take away guns.
    In Elko earlier this week, a supporter who has been canvassing for Clinton told the candidate that she was continually encountering questions about whether Clinton supports the Second Amendment.
    "I want you tell your friends and neighbors, I believe with all my heart we can have common-sense gun reform measures that are consistent with the Second Amendment. It's important for people to understand that and hear that," Clinton told her supporter during the event in Elko. "We've had the Brady Bill since '94. I want you to find one person who's had their gun taken away. Just find one for me. ... There is a difference between respecting gun owners and gun owners' constitutional rights to hunt, to collect, to shoot, and going along with the agenda of the gun lobby which represents the gun makers more than they represent the gun owners. And what we have seen in the last few years is a concerted effort to mislead, misinform gun owners by the gun lobby."
    Hanson, a 61-year-old high school teacher from Ely, Nevada, who will caucus for Clinton Saturday, said her backers have been driving her argument that Sanders' proposals are unfeasible and expensive.
    "Hillary is rallying right now throughout the state," said Hanson. "I think one of the demographics that's driving her popularity here are people of my age group.... We are looking at stability. Period."
    "We're looking at somebody who has the experience to be able to work, to reach across the aisle," he said. "Bernie has done a few things with Republicans over the years, but you look at all the things that Hillary has done over the years -- and Bill."
    "We have some serious problems in this country, and I see Hillary offering real solutions to those problems," Hanson said. Sanders' agenda, he said, is "beautiful to look at. It's wonderful. But it's just not going to happen in the present political climate, or even probably in my life time—and I'm going to live to be 100."
    Most of the people that we met along the loneliest road were backers of Donald Trump -- in a state George W. Bush won twice before Obama notched two victories.
    Despite the Silver State's increasingly blue tinge, with its burgeoning Latino population in the South, Trump clearly has a powerful hold on the voters who live in these far reaches of Nevada.
    They want their voices heard, and that could foreshadow a tougher-than-expected fight in November.