LAS VEGAS — Choosing "none of the above," the default option on quizzes, is looming as a potential factor in the dead-heat Nevada Senate race for voters who don't like either Democrat Harry Reid or Republican Sharron Angle.
Voters in the Silver State have nine choices on the ballot next week — eight are candidates, including Reid and Angle.
The number of voters who choose "None of these candidates" is expected to be small, but in a close race those who decide to boycott the ballot could make the difference.
Reid knows the risk: A dozen years ago, he pulled off a 428-vote re-election victory over then-Republican Rep. John Ensign, while "none" received 8,125 votes, far more than his winning margin.
"A very small part of the electorate is lingering out there because they don't like either choice," said Republican consultant Ryan Erwin. But "every vote that goes for someone other than Sharron Angle is a vote for Harry Reid."
The choice that is no choice has been on statewide Nevada ballots since 1976, added as a way to entice greater turnout by providing a protest vote. This year, it's clearly a lure for voters fed up with everything — Washington, the sour economy and a corrosive campaign between two candidates prone to cringe-inducing gaffes.
The campaigns are making calculations about how it will play into the tally on Nov. 2, but there is some dispute over which candidate suffers more if a voter chooses to stiff-arm the field. Recent polls have shown the choice is favored by a small slice of voters, 2 percent to 4 percent.
Reid is unlikely to get more than 47 percent or 48 percent of the vote, so he needs to keep Angle below that level to win, say campaign analysts. A relentless TV ad campaign depicting the tea party favorite as a fringe conservative appears aimed at convincing voters that even if they can't stomach him, don't pull the lever for her.
Reid spokesman Kelly Steele said the crowded ballot, including the option to vote for no one, is "a reality that exists in this race and is simply beyond anyone's control." He said the campaign will continue to draw contrasts between Reid and what he called Angle's "extreme agenda."
In the June Democratic primary, nearly 11 percent of voters chose "none" over Reid, reflecting unrest within his own party. It's not clear how many of those 12,335 Democrats might want to punish Reid again next week. In the GOP primary, "none" fared better than seven of the 11 candidates, pulling 3,090 votes, or 1.8 percent.
Carla Cervantes, 30, a sales associate from Henderson, says she is offended by Angle's harsh denunciations of illegal immigrants and has been going door to door urging voters to give the Democratic leader a fifth term.
"Please don't vote for none of the above," Cervantes says she tells voters. "It's a wasted vote."
Reid is almost universally recognized, and voters have firm views about him, good or bad. But Angle is in her first statewide race, and her public persona is less established. That makes some conclude Angle has the most at risk from the "none" line, and moderates could be struggling to come to terms with her conservative views on abortion and social programs.
"You have two candidates who aren't particularly likable and are running very negative campaigns — it's the type of election that turns off voters," says University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political scientist David Damore. But Reid "is a known quantity. ... She has soft support."
There's another wrinkle on the ballot: Scott Ashjian is the nominee of the Tea Party of Nevada, a group that has been denounced by local activists. It's not clear how much support he might draw from Angle, who has the backing of state and national tea party organizations.
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A shadowy Baton Rouge, La.-based group, America's Future Fund, is sending postcards to homes in the Reno area urging voters to choose no one. The group's website give no information about its location or membership but includes a video that blames Washington Democrats for higher taxes and corporate bailouts.
"Washington is a mess and our choices are a joke," says the postcard, which includes photos of Reid and Angle. "By voting 'none of these candidates' you can send a message that you are sick of the politicians and want your country back. ... Choose it!"