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October 20, 2014

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‘None of the above’ vote could be deciding factor in Senate race

Unpopularity of Reid and Angle may push more voters to choose a Nevada-only option of no candidate, potentially helping the incumbent

Image

Chris Morris / Special to the Sun

Sharron Angle

Sharron Angle

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Only in Nevada

  • Nevada is the only state that allow voters to pick “none of these candidates” in statewide races. The option was instituted in 1975 amid the mistrust of government brought on by the Watergate scandal. Research shows it is used more when voters are not familiar with candidates.

Ross Perot effect

  • None of the above draws votes away from candidates, much like Ross Perot did in 1992, when he got 26 percent of the vote in Nevada against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
Click to enlarge photo

In Sen. Harry Reid's close election against John Ensign, 8,000 none of the above votes were cast, 20 times his 428-vote victory margin.

If the polls are any indication, Nevada voters aren’t happy with either the Democrat or the Republican in the U.S. Senate race.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 55 percent unfavorable rating is matched by the 56 percent unfavorable rating of his GOP rival, Sharron Angle.

The most popular ballot option might not be for a person at all. “None of these candidates” is expected to draw a significant portion of the vote in November because of the candidates’ unpopularity and the pessimistic mood of the electorate.

More than merely a gauge of Nevada’s ennui, “none of the above” could determine the outcome of the election and will almost guarantee that the Senate race victor emerges with less than 50 percent of the vote.

While it may not have the handy pie charts, Texas twang or oversized ears, none of these candidates could have a Ross Perot-like effect on the Senate race. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton won Nevada, defeating Republican George Bush with just 38 percent of the vote thanks to Perot, the independent candidate, drawing 26 percent.

“Given this is going to be a highly negative and nasty campaign, I would suspect you’d see some chunk of that going to none of the above,” said David Damore, a political scientist at UNLV who recently completed a study of what propels voters to choose none of the above. “It does make it quirky. It means that almost every officeholder of note comes into office with more people voting against them than for them.”

Nevada is the only state to allow voters a none-of-the-above option in statewide races. The Legislature instituted it in 1975 amid the mistrust of government brought on by the Watergate scandal.

In researching its effect, Damore found voters rely on it more in primary elections, nonpartisan races and down-ticket races. Generally, the less information a voter has about the candidates in a given race, the more that voter is inclined to vote none of the above. It can draw from 15 percent to 18 percent in statewide judicial races, for example.

However, in high-profile, hotly contested races, such as Nevada’s U.S. Senate contest, the none-of-the-above option is a way for the electorate to register a protest vote. The draw in these races is smaller, perhaps 1.5 percent to 3 percent, depending on how unpopular the two major candidates are.

“It’s just sort of an argument that voters think these are the people who are the most responsible for our problems and we don’t trust or like any of them,” Damore said.

The last time Reid had a close race — his 1998 battle against Republican John Ensign — more than 8,000 voters chose “none of these candidates.” That is nearly 20 times the 428-vote margin that delivered Reid the victory.

In this year’s Senate race, most political analysts say, a sizable none-of-the-above vote would benefit Reid, who is universally known in Nevada and has a solid base of support that can be counted on.

At this point, Angle is still introducing herself to voters and their opinions of her are in flux. (Note her dramatic drop from clear front-runner the day after the primary to 7 points behind in the most recent polls.)

With such a high disapproval rating, it’s unlikely Reid could draw anywhere near 50 percent of the vote. But with none of the above and the bevy of minor party and independent candidates on the ballot, Reid could win with a share of the vote somewhere in the 40s.

“In a situation where the incumbent is locked into a mid-40s approval rating and is having an incredibly difficult time getting to 50 percent, I think it helps the incumbent to have none of the above,” said Ryan Erwin, a Republican political consultant. “Anything on the ballot that drives Sharron Angle’s numbers down is a benefit to Harry Reid.”

It’s unlikely that Reid’s campaign, which has had six years to prepare for this race, has ignored that point, meaning cultivating the none-of-the-above vote is likely part of its strategy.

How would a candidate motivate voters to check none of the above?

“If you did it, you’d have to do it extremely carefully,” one Democratic operative said.

One way would be to identify anti-Reid voters and shift them from Angle’s column to none of these candidates — either through gentle persuasion on their key issues or an overt call to check the none of the above box, Erwin said. He expects an independent expenditure group to surface near the end of the campaign to do just that.

“I would not be surprised at all to see it be very, very explicit,” Erwin said. “There is a credible message to be had from the right messenger: ‘If you don’t like your choices, send a message to Washington that both major parties stink.’ ”

It would be a dangerous game for a Reid supporter to play, however, with the potential for voter backlash. It would be difficult for a pro-Reid group to be caught making an argument to vote against Reid, even if it that vote were also against Angle.

Kelly Steele, a Reid spokesman, acknowledged voters might be inclined to select none of the above because of the dire state of the economy. But he said the campaign is not actively trying to push voters into that column.

“Ultimately, the choice in this election is between Sen. Reid and his unique ability to fight and deliver for struggling Nevadans, and Sharron Angle — a candidate with an extreme and dangerous agenda,” Steele said. “Our campaign’s focus will continue to be on fighting to earn every single vote possible for Sen. Reid until the polls close on Nov. 2.”

Angle’s campaign spokesman, Jerry Stacy, said the none-of-the-above vote is more likely to work against Reid. He noted the high percentage of none-of-the-above voters — 11 percent — in Reid’s Democratic primary.

Stacy also argued that anti-Reid voters are more motivated to vote this year than in years past.

“Voters in Nevada are tired of Harry Reid’s failed policies,” Stacy said. “Harry Reid knows he has become unpopular and he knows that isn’t going to change.”

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