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Nevada’s Struggling Economy Could Hold a Key to 2024

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Nevada’s Struggling Economy Could Hold a Key to 2024

Nevada has the worst unemployment rate in the country, gas and grocery prices are still among the nation’s highest, and the cost of housing here has soared. President Biden’s policies are squarely to blame, Republicans argue, and former President Donald J. Trump will fix it if voters return him to the White House.

Nevada’s unemployment rate has been cut in half since Mr. Biden took office, gas prices have dropped by nearly $2 a gallon since mid-2022, and more than 200,000 jobs have already been created as the state is receiving $3.3 billion in infrastructure investments. Democrats here say that the economy is finally on the upswing after Mr. Trump and the coronavirus pandemic drove it into the ground, and that re-electing Mr. Biden is critical to keeping it that way.

Which of these disparate economic pictures resonates most strongly with voters could make a difference come November in the critical battleground state. Even though Nevada’s presidential nominating contests this week are largely anti-climactic — in part because Mr. Trump and his remaining Republican primary rival, Nikki Haley, are on separate ballots — Mr. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Mr. Trump all recently made stops in Las Vegas, setting the stakes for the likely general election matchup.

The messaging war heating up mirrors a larger political fight playing out nationwide over which perception of the economy — the optimistic one pushed by Democrats or the dreary one described by Republicans — hits home for voters. Traditional metrics indicate that the economy is, indeed, strong, and Americans are spending like it is, according to a New York Times analysis, but consumer confidence remains low.

Republicans believe they have a particularly potent economic argument to make in Nevada, which relies heavily on tourism and hospitality, and was hit harder during the pandemic than most of the country and recovered more sluggishly.

“Certainly, Republicans will make hay about that: the cost of living, groceries, some of those issues,” said David Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Democrats, he said, could make the case that they were improving the local economy through job growth and climate investments. But that argument is “a little more abstract than going to the grocery store and seeing your prices,” he added, so Democrats will most likely also try to focus voters on other issues, like abortion rights and prescription drug prices.

Republicans have not won Nevada in a presidential election since 2004. The state’s Democrats are famously well prepared, with the political operation of former Senator Harry Reid combining with the organizational heft of the Culinary Workers Union, in particular, to turn out Democratic voters and independents reliably. Still, recent statewide elections have been won by razor-thin margins, and Republicans flipped the governor’s mansion in 2022. Last fall, a poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College found Mr. Biden trailing Mr. Trump by 10 percentage points in Nevada.

In the Las Vegas metro area, where the population has swelled by more than 300,000 in the past decade, according to population estimates, and housing prices have climbed 6 percent in just the past year, people are feeling particularly squeezed.

“What made Vegas attractive for working-class people was you could come here, work in construction, work on the Strip, make white-collar wages doing blue-collar jobs. And that’s because the cost of living here was much less expensive than, say, Southern California,” Mr. Damore said. “Well, that’s evaporated.”

Republican groups here are hammering Mr. Biden. They argue that his signature pieces of legislation, including the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package and the $740 billion clean energy, tax and health care law, are to blame for the higher prices — something experts say is part of the picture but not the full story. (As president, Mr. Trump signed a $900 billion Covid relief bill.)

Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group whose super PAC is backing Ms. Haley, has held a series of events in the state as part of a national campaign called “The True Cost of Washington,” aimed at highlighting inflation and rising costs. The group has partnered with gas stations in Nevada to offer drivers gas at just over $2 per gallon — its price when Mr. Biden took office — to drive home how much more expensive things are now. (Americans for Prosperity pays the difference.)

It has held similar events at grocery stores, offering gift cards to make up the difference in food prices.

“The issues real Nevadans care about economically are not being addressed, and I think that’s caused a lack of enthusiasm for voting or believing Joe Biden can get us out of this economic crisis,” said Ronnie Najarro, the Nevada state director for Americans for Prosperity.

How voters perceive life in Nevada may ultimately fall somewhere in between the pictures painted by the opposing political parties. The state’s governor, Joe Lombardo, a Republican who has endorsed Mr. Trump, tried to thread the needle, suggesting that he was responsible for the state’s positive numbers while blaming Mr. Biden for the bad ones.

“Governor Lombardo’s policies have positioned Nevada to lead the nation in annual job growth and new economic development,” Elizabeth Ray, a spokeswoman Mr. Lombardo, said in a statement. “Despite the generation of $5 billion in new private sector economic investment and the creation of thousands of new jobs, Nevadans still suffer from high gas, grocery and energy prices due to Joe Biden’s failed national policies.”

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said Democrats’ economic arguments amounted to “gaslighting.”

“Americans are sick and tired of the last four years of destructive policies that have brought nothing but pain and misery,” he said in a statement.

Democrats, meanwhile, have stressed signs of improvement. Nationally, inflation continued to slow late last year, price increases have tailed off in Nevada, and the state leads the nation in job growth. Apartment rental prices in Las Vegas have dipped after a decade of increases. Mr. Biden’s campaign has argued that the president inherited a struggling Covid-era economy from Mr. Trump and has slowly but surely turned it around. The campaign says local jobs created by infrastructure and green energy projects, and the 7,000 Nevadans who had their student debt canceled, are proof that Mr. Biden is tangibly helping the state.

The president’s campaign also noted that a majority of the state’s voters agree with Mr. Biden’s priorities on abortion. The issue of abortion access could be on the Nevada ballot alongside Mr. Biden this November.

Shelby Wiltz, the president’s Nevada campaign manager, said in a statement that Mr. Trump “left the heart of our economy reeling with sky-high unemployment,” while Mr. Biden “immediately got to work creating tens of thousands of good-paying Nevada jobs” and lowered prescription drug prices.

“We’re happy to contrast those records any day of the week,” she added.

Compared with the pandemic, “the economy’s back now, and it’s back in a big way,” said Ted Pappageorge, the secretary-treasurer of the state’s Culinary Workers Union, which met with Mr. Biden on Monday. The union represents 60,000 casino and food service workers and is part of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., which has endorsed Mr. Biden.

Mr. Pappageorge acknowledged that high prices continued to bedevil residents, especially in Las Vegas. But he said voters should lay the blame at the feet of corporate entities like oil companies and Wall Street landlords, not the president.

“It’s all about price gouging and these massive companies taking advantage,” he said.

Mr. Pappageorge and other state Democrats argued that economic indicators, even if they pointed downward, would not push voters away from the Democratic Party, because Democrats have “produced” for working-class and union voters.

Still, many voters headed to the polls in Tuesday’s primary election said the state’s economy was a concern. Fred Parvin, a 73-year-old Democrat, voted for Mr. Biden in the primary, but he said he was struggling to pay his steeper utility bills and has started growing vegetables in his yard to save on groceries.

“I don’t have tons of money for retirement,” Mr. Parvin said.

Frank Li, a 65-year-old Trump supporter, said he had also faced rising utility bills. He added that he had seen more people who appeared to be living on the street — which aligns with an apparent uptick in an annual homelessness count.

Mr. Trump, he said, “could possibly get it turned around.”

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