In Nevada, Obama must overcome miserable economy

Ashley Smith waits for service at the Nevada JobConnect office in Las Vegas.
CBS News/Brian Montopoli

(CBS News) LAS VEGAS - The Nevada JobConnect office here on Maryland Parkway, a ten-minute drive from the bright lights of the strip, doesn't open until 8 a.m., but by 7:30 there's usually a line of five or ten people waiting to get in. Arriving after opening can mean waiting for an hour or more to get service, joining the other down-on-their-luck job seekers in the rows of chairs where the unemployed stare blankly forward and wait for their number to be called.

Among them is Yvonne Sandoval, who lost her job in accounts receivable in February after four years and four months of a steady paycheck. She says that, since then, she's sent out 52 resumes and gotten zero interviews; she's here to apply for placement in a computer training course paid for by the state, which she hopes will allow her to start providing for her two daughters again.

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Sitting a few seats away is Ashley Smith, who lost her job in loan processing in March. She was making $12.50 per hour - a good wage in Las Vegas, even for a college graduate like her - but now she's living off $250 per month in unemployment benefits. She doesn't have a computer, so when she's home she uses her smart phone to look for jobs, which, she says, "takes a long time." Smith comes down here a couple times a week by bus, since, she says, she usually can't afford to put gas in the car.

"Over here if you're rich, you're rich, and if you're poor, you're poor," Smith says of life in Las Vegas. She found out she's pregnant a month ago but she can't let it slow her down. "I still have to find a job," she says.

Smith, who is African-American, says she regrets her vote for President Obama in 2008. She plans to sit this election out, having lost faith in the federal government to do anything to improve her situation.

"I don't trust it," she says. "I don't trust it at all."

The president will speak at the University of Nevada Las Vegas later today in an effort to win over - or win back - voters like Smith who assign him at least some of the blame for the sad state of the economy. It's not an easy task: The unemployment rate here is nearly 12 percent, the highest in the nation. The Las Vegas area, where almost three quarters of the state's population lives, was hit as hard as anywhere by the great recession, in large part because casinos dominate the economy; when times got tough around the nation and casino revenues plummeted, the unemployed had nowhere else to turn.

There have been signs of light: Visitor numbers have started to creep back up in recent months, and the sidewalks outside the Bellagio casino on the strip are crammed in the evenings with tourists, who wedge their way in for a better view of the fountain show. But room rates in the casino hotels remain low, signaling a desperation to fill empty rooms, and people aren't gambling to the degree that they did in better economic times. They're choosing to spend more time at the pool, and maybe take in a show, instead of pouring their money into the slots and roulette tables the way they used to.

"The restaurants are full, but people are spending less per head," says David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Exacerbating the problem, a number of states have legalized gambling in hopes that the taxes new casinos generate will help make up for budget shortfalls, which has reduced the incentive for people to come to Nevada in the first place.

More than anywhere else in the country, the Silver State is where perhaps the two most crucial factors in the 2012 presidential race come into direct conflict. The first is the lack of a full economic recovery, which presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is using as his primary argument for why Mr. Obama does not deserve a second term. The second is demographic shifts here and throughout the Mountain West that have brought a rise in the influence of Latinos and urban voters, a phenomenon that has helped keep Mr. Obama competitive in Nevada despite the grim economic picture. Who takes the state will ultimately come down to whether the candidates can overcome the factors working against them: Romney must at least somewhat close the gap among the Latino voters who are largely rejecting him, while the president must convince voters like Smith that the poor economy is not a reason to elect someone new to try to turn things around.

Back at the JobConnect office, Yvonne Sandoval, the woman hoping for placement in a computer class, pauses when she is asked if she'll support Mr. Obama in November. Behind her, a few people peruse the job listings posted on the back wall, eyeing openings for heavy equipment mechanics and boiler maintenance technicians. The line at the front of the room, maybe 20 deep, is moving slowly, as the jobless wait patiently for their turn to check in and maybe get some help - anything - to improve their lot.

"I would like to," she says. "But I know he made a lot of promises he couldn't keep."

A Boom and a Bust

Between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. census data, Nevada was the fastest growing state in the nation, with the population exploding by more than 35 percent. People were drawn to the city by the fact that they could live upper middle class lives here without much of an education - it wasn't uncommon for construction workers and bartenders to make $100,000 per year, enough to buy a nice house and maybe splurge on a motorcycle and big screen TV.

"People were flocking to Vegas in droves," said Mae Worthy, public information officer for Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. The real estate market and gaming industry were booming, providing thousands of new construction and other jobs. "People were essentially telling their friends to come," she says.

That's over now. The construction industry has lost 90,000 jobs since its peak in 2006, and for the most part, they aren't coming back. There are no major casino projects currently underway - the action has shifted both to other states and to China - and the construction workers who came here during the boom are being encouraged to figure out what else they might be able to do.