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The Biggest Little City in This Election

Gun scares, extreme vetting, and the starkly contrasting scenes in a district that could decide the presidency

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you stand in line for something long enough, the wait becomes part of the show. An hour before Donald Trump was scheduled to speak at a rally in Reno, Nevada, on Saturday night, the line to get into the city’s convention center snaked around the building and doubled back on itself, giving everyone plenty of time to check out everyone else.

Katie Baker
Katie Baker

A passing Reagan-Bush tank top earned appreciative thumbs up. A girl of roughly 10 held a sign that said “REMEMBER LEWINSKY: Proof That Even Bill Didn’t Want Hillary in the Oval Office” and smiled for photos. People grew restless as the stated start time of 5 p.m. came and went.

“We might be one of the 10,000 who don’t get in,” grumbled someone behind me. A more optimistic couple found the crowds to be a good sign for Trump. “I think he’s golden here,” said a man with a shining silver mustache to his companion, “but not down in Clark County. The issue there is too many people on the dole.”

As we approached a line of metal detectors where security guards barked out instruction — no drinks, no food, etc. — an older man in front of me interjected: “How ’bout concealed carry?” The guard turned slowly to face him. “I know you’re kidding, he said placidly, “but wrong place and wrong time.” The man chuckled and resumed chatting with a big dude in a vest about permits and guns. A woman nearby who had overheard only half of the conversation turned to the security guard in a rage. “What happened to free speech?” she said.

For a moment things got tense, and there was genuine confusion; I got worried that with one sweep of a uniformed arm a whole bunch of us might just get thrown out en masse. The roar from the cavernous room just beyond the metal detectors indicated that Trump was taking the stage. The ranting woman finally admitted she hadn’t heard the joke about concealed carry; she thought the security guard was scolding someone for saying the word “liberal.” Amazingly, this would not be the last misunderstanding of the night involving a nonexistent weapon.

We were allowed to proceed until the man in the vest just ahead of me set off the metal detector and held up the line. It didn’t appear that anyone waiting to enter saw what triggered the alarm, and eventually he just turned and left.

Trump’s visit to Nevada had been announced just days prior, part of his ambitious, if scattershot, series of weekend appearances and rallies around the country. His Saturday-night presence in Reno — the self-proclaimed Biggest Little City in the World, which sounds like something Trump himself might have made up — made sense. Located in Washoe County, Reno is at the heart of one of the “swingiest” counties in the election, and the political activity in the area in the week leading up to Election Day made that clear.

Last Wednesday, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren held an event at the University of Nevada–Reno to push Hillary Clinton and Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto. But that had been relatively small potatoes compared with the scene on Saturday night inside the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, where Trump’s stump speech was delighting the buzzing crowd.

Trump hit on all his favorite talking points: making America great again, having the best and most loyal people, ending Obamacare immediately, distrusting the lying media. He said that unlike Hillary Clinton, he didn’t need celebrities to draw crowds. He had just accused a heckler of being paid by the Clinton campaign when he was abruptly bear-hug-bum-rushed by a pair of Secret Service agents and pulled off the stage.

Considering this set of circumstances, the thousands inside the cavernous convention center were pretty calm. Rumors of a gun spread immediately, and plenty of people hustled toward exits. Some of those who stayed put got pushy with a cameraman. But the majority of the Trump supporters mostly just milled around, sharing rumors and eavesdropping on others doing the same, everyone united in curiosity and chaos.

When various cops and troops made their way through the crowd with a suspect in tow, people angled for a glimpse or a ’gram, and chanted “U! S! A!” once the procession had gone by. When Trump returned to the podium eight minutes later, it was to thrilled applause. “Nobody said it was going to be easy for us,” he said, “but we will never be stopped. Never, ever be stopped.”

It would eventually turn out that there had never been a gun, just a “REPUBLICANS AGAINST TRUMP” sign.

Nevada is a stubborn place, mostly sparsely populated and rural, with endless hills looming over its desert valleys and slot machines lighting up its airport terminals. There is no state income tax. Gun owners can open-carry and apply for concealed-carry permits. According to a real estate industry report about 2008, Nevada was one of three states hit hardest by foreclosures during that year’s financial crisis. (Florida and Arizona were the others.) Now, however, places like Reno have seen housing prices recover and even “boomerang.” The progressive Patagonia and the innovative Tesla both have major facilities in Nevada.

Between the 2000 and the 2010 censuses, Nevada was the fastest-growing U.S. state, with a 35 percent increase in population. (The state had four electoral college votes in 2000, and now has six.) Nevada’s residents are largely concentrated in two counties: Clark, which contains Las Vegas; and Washoe, which encompasses Reno. In the last presidential election, every county in the state voted for Mitt Romney except for those two, and that was enough to tip Nevada to Obama, who also won the state in 2008.

Getty Images
Getty Images

With its booming Hispanic population, ongoing urban development, shifting demographics, and neck-and-neck polling, Nevada has not only become a compelling focal point in the presidential election, but has also garnered attention for its hotly contested Senate race for the seat Harry Reid will vacate. (That contest pits Republican Joe Heck, who has been mocked for his flip-flopping Trump stance, against Cortez Masto, the former state attorney general who would be the first Latina senator.) Clinton has maintained a consistent presence in the state. (Both Clinton and Trump won their respective Nevada caucuses. “I love the poorly educated,” Trump said in victory.) The Democratic nominee gave her controversial “alt-right” speech in Reno in August, and President Obama visited in late October. Last Wednesday, Senator Warren came to Carson City and Reno to rile up support for Clinton, Cortez Masto, and the rest of the Democrats on the ticket.

Outside the Hillary Clinton field office in Carson City last Wednesday, the chants were weak, if well meaning. “When I say stronger, you say together!” attempted a Democratic organizer, trying to fire up the people gathered in the front yard of the unassuming building behind some strip malls downtown. “When they go low, where do we go?” A few people got into the spirit, mustering a “High!”

It was a markedly different scene from the one that would be taking place at the Trump rally days later: quieter, less intense, way more female, much older. But there was a workmanlike, focused energy. As people waited for speeches from congressional candidate Chip Evans and Massachusetts’s Warren, they clustered around folding tables with lists and pens and called up potential voters while Clinton field staffers hovered. When someone asked who had voted early, nearly everyone raised their hand. Warren was a little late, and people made small talk about seeing her in action.

“I love watching her take big bankers to task,” said a local woman who was originally from Vermont. “That whole thing with Wells Fargo — I watched her take that guy to task. She’s such a fighter.” In late September, Warren excoriated Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf on the Senate floor, describing his reign as “gutless leadership”; a couple of weeks later, he resigned.

A woman named Catherine Cascade, who described herself as a “socially engaged Buddhist,” agreed. “She’s a standard-bearer for progressives,” Cascade said.

When Warren arrived, she climbed up into the bed of a waiting pickup truck to address the crowd. She sounded breathless, and her voice frequently wavered, but it gave her message urgency. She spoke about expanding Social Security and believing in climate change and sending misbehaving CEOs to jail. Afterward, she posed for selfies with the crowd and then headed to the University of Nevada–Reno for a rally.

Katie Baker
Katie Baker

Warren is a particularly effective surrogate for Clinton in large part because they aren’t always alike. Where Clinton is a polished and at times robotic career politician, Warren is a looser cannon who came to politics more circuitously. (She had been a respected bankruptcy professor at Harvard Law when she was asked by Reid to lead a financial oversight committee in 2008.) She is able to be the attack dog that, for many reasons, Clinton can’t always be.

Her Reno speech was longer, wider-ranging, and more pointed than her Carson City appearance. She talked about always wanting to be a teacher — “I used to line my dollies up and teach them” — then quickly dropped the happy memories and got mad. She called Trump, in order, a “pathetic bully,” an “oily con man,” and a “selfish cheapskate.” She spoke with disgust about how, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, he had scooped up real estate on the cheap. “His hands aren’t big enough!” yelled a man in the crowd. Later, when another heckler yelled out “abort him!” regarding Trump, Warren couldn’t help but laugh. “Talk about extreme vetting,” she joked.

Warren has not been shy about naming the things she plans to push back on in the event of a Clinton presidency — namely, having too many Cabinet members with Wall Street backgrounds. (Where Clinton’s cozy, pricey Wall Street appearances have grown infamous, Warren’s relations to the banks typically involve her yelling.) In emails released by hackers, the Clinton campaign worried that it would “antagonize” Warren into backing Bernie Sanders. But while it remains to be seen how Warren and Sanders might work together, in the present Warren does appeal to some voters who may not have supported Clinton early on. A woman in a #FeelTheBern shirt who was at Warren’s Reno event said that she considered herself a “practical Bernie supporter” who saw a utility in electing Hillary to advance many of his, and Warren’s, objectives.

With just a day to go before the election, Nevada remains a subject of discourse, disagreement, and fascination. On Friday night an early-voting location called Cardenas Market in Clark County was so deluged by voters that it stayed open until 10 p.m., two hours past close. (By law, if you’re in line at closing time, you can wait however long you need to vote; Cortez Masto showed up in person to impress this upon voters.) As local reporter Jon Ralston pointed out, this was good news for Democrats: The location was in a largely Hispanic community, and early-voting numbers suggested that Clinton supporters had turned out in greater numbers than most polls had predicted. A stirring New York Times profile on a Las Vegas union hotel employee put a specific face to this type of overlooked voter. On Saturday, both Trump and Nevada GOP head Michael McDonald suggested that Cardenas Market staying open was another example of the system being rigged.

As a result of its key battleground status, the state has become a bit of an activist tourist attraction. The socially engaged Buddhist I met at the Carson City event didn’t live in Nevada; she had come from Eugene, Oregon, seeking a place where she could make the biggest impact ahead of the election, by knocking on doors and making phone calls to get out the vote. The same was true of many who were there to see Warren in Reno: They had come from places like Berkeley, California, to volunteer in a crucial district in the final days.

Similarly, one of the biggest Trump supporters I met won’t be voting in Nevada, but has made the state his civic home base. Dane Senser drove for four hours from California to stand outside the Reno convention center before, during, and after the Trump rally with a set of giant signs he had painstakingly created.

Katie Baker
Katie Baker

Two looked like playing cards: an ace of hearts with a picture of Trump wearing a Make America Great Again hat in the center; and the joker, featuring Hillary Clinton. “Play the Trump card!” Senser shouted, pacing in front of the building and posing for photos. “Don’t let the joker in the White House!” He told me that having the signs made had cost him more than his monthly income, but that it was worth every penny.

“California has an angry soul and spirit,” he said. “The people of California are so complacent.” Reno, to him, had an upbeat attitude, and the city felt like progress. Senser first saw Trump in Las Vegas, back during the primary. “When he came down the escalator,” he said, motioning with his hand, “I went up. I mean, my spirit went up.” He said that Trump had turned his whole life around, inspiring him to finally find a job and buy a car. “A leader has to motivate,” he said. His election night plan is to watch the returns in Nevada. He’s anxious to celebrate after such a long wait.