Voters wait for an early voting site to open during the first day of early voting in Henderson, Nev. Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Democrats have kept Nevada in their column in every presidential election since 2004. In the 2018 midterm election, Democrats delivered a “blue wave,” flipping a U.S. Senate seat and bolstering their dominance of the congressional delegation and Legislature.

But this year, political strategists and organizers warn Nevada is still a swing state. And it could swing.

“I don’t know where this state goes,” said Annette Magnus-Marquart, executive director of the Nevada progressive group Battle Born Progress. “Nevada is still a purple state. Nevada is still a battleground. No matter what your party is, you have to fight when you’re running in this state.”

President Donald Trump, who narrowly lost here in 2016, scheduled a campaign rally Sunday night in Carson City, his second in the state in as many months as the first big wave of voting kicks off.

Nevada’s Democrat-controlled state government is automatically mailing ballots to all active registered voters because of the coronavirus pandemic, but in-person voting that started Saturday is typically when most people vote. It's expected to remain a popular choice this year, with long lines forming at several sites Saturday.

Democrat Leigh Natale, a 65-year-old retired paralegal, waited outside a polling place tent set up in a parking lot south of the Las Vegas Strip, She called Trump “a crazy man” and said his handling of the pandemic “just exacerbated what was already a really horrible administration.” A Joe Biden supporter, Natale said, ”It’s time we had some forward-looking policies and got back on track in this country.”

Toward the back of the line, 55-year-old Tom Johnson, a corporate trainer who says he is an unaffiliated voter, was going to vote for the president. “He’s doing better than anybody else could” in fighting the virus, Johnson said.

The pandemic has pummeled the tourism-dependent economy. The unemployment rate is the highest in the nation.

For the vaunted Democratic political machine, it's shifted in-person campaigning and knocking of voters' doors to a virtual effort for much of this year. Republicans only moved to a virtual format for a few months and have been working hard, with a staff twice as big as their 2016 effort. They're making inroads with a diverse electorate and trying to redirect economic frustrations away from the president and onto the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak.

Though Trump lost Nevada in 2016, he performed better than Mitt Romney in 2012 or John McCain in 2008. The state also has has a higher percentage of noncollege educated whites, who have made up the base of his electoral support, than in many other pivotal states, including Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Recent polls suggest that Biden is ahead in Nevada, though some show narrower margins than others. But the state has a strong independent streak and is notoriously difficult to poll. The hospitality industry, including the gambling-resort hub of Las Vegas, has a significant slice of night and shift workers and a highly transient population moving in, out and around the state.

Those same factors can make door-knocking particularly important for reaching and registering voters.

Since the spring, Republicans have consistently added more voters to their rolls than Democrats each month, narrowing their voter registration deficit in September to 5 percentage points — 1 point narrower than in 2016.

Biden’s campaign has maintained that it can effectively organize digitally, but earlier this month it resumed door-to-door canvassing. The former vice president and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, made their own visits to Las Vegas this month.

Rory McShane, a Nevada-based Republican political strategist, said the state has a strong populist presence and Republicans may benefit from voters who may be frustrated with Sisolak’s virus-related restrictions and a hobbled state unemployment system that still has tens of thousands of residents who’ve been waiting for assistance since spring.

Democrats aren’t buying that theory. They say the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, the economic fallout and the president’s disregard of his own government’s health and safety guidelines will all hurt him.

William Jordan, 57, said as he waited to vote in Las Vegas on Saturday that the president has handled the crisis “very horribly,” which added to Jordan's decision to vote for Biden.

Jordan, a Democrat who says he aligns with Republicans on economic issues, said he had recovered from COVID-19. His 82-year-old mother survived the virus but he has had two friends who have died from it.

Jordan also cited the president’s rhetoric on race as one of the big reason’s he’s voting Democratic. “The country has been pulled apart so drastically and that makes me fearful for myself as a Black man and for my kids, growing up and just people in general," he said. "It’s depressing, to be honest with you.”

Trump’s campaign has been courting the state’s diverse demographic groups, including Black voters, a fast-growing population of Asian American and Pacific Islanders and Latinos, who make up 29% of the population.

In Nevada, Latinos in particular have been disproportionally impacted by COVID-19 and make up almost half of the state’s confirmed coronavirus cases.

No group is more motivated than the 60,000-strong casino worker’s Culinary Union. About half of the heavily Latino, heavily female union is currently out of work and 50 of its members or family members have died from COVID-19.

The union has endorsed Biden and says it has turned its political organizing and canvassing program on earlier than ever and bigger than ever, with 350 people currently in the field.

Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said her members will work “until the last minute to be sure we can get the last person to go vote,” and feel “the only way we’re going to get out from this mess is to remove President Trump.”