Photo By Dennis Myers At Reed High School, Republican Rich Haffke holds the precinct marker while his wife, Jennifer (in white at right, back to camera), listens to their son, precinct captain R.J Haffke, in baseball cap.

The Nevada Republican Party was never crazy about the idea of the early 2008 caucuses. It grudgingly moved its date forward to stay competitive with the Democrats, but it was a Democratic initiative, and the GOP adopted more restrictive rules and didn’t engage in promoting the event the way the Democrats did.

So the huge turnout for the GOP caucuses was a surprise. Republicans met in six high schools around Washoe County, and they were jammed.

At Reed High in Sparks, so many Republicans crowded into the gymnasium that the noise level made it difficult to do business. Sparks is a town with a long reputation as a labor stronghold and thus a Democratic bastion, but the community’s terrific growth has changed things. Its legislative delegation is split between a Republican senator and two Democratic assemblymembers, and the City Council is noted for being cozy with corporate power.

Precinct 6300, unable to find room to meet in the bleachers, met on the gym the floor. More than a dozen people formed into a standing circle. The precinct captain was R.J. Haffke, a college student. His family is very active in this precinct—R.J.'s parents, Rich and Jennifer Haffke, were also in the circle on the gym floor listening to their son preside.

Asked why Republicans turned out in such numbers, R.J. suggested one possibility, akin to the Bush-dislike that motivated high turnout among the Democrats in 2004: “Personally, I think it’s probably because they’re so afraid of Hillary, honestly. I think the Republicans are really starting to show in numbers because they’re seeing the Democrats’re about to take control. And I’m a firm believer that they are about to take control unless Republicans unite around a candidate that stands for Republican ideals.”

R.J’s father Rich said, “I would normally vote in a primary election, so this just seemed to me to be the same kind of thing.”

Jennifer Haffke said, “I’m passionate about this election. … I like Ron Paul because he stands for getting rid of the IRS.”

At the Republican caucuses, presidential preference is a secondary concern. First, the precincts elect delegates to the county convention. Precinct 6300, a small precinct, was entitled to four delegates, and four people spoke up saying they wanted to serve—Dennis Chin, Beverly Gates, R.J. Haffke and Raina Kaller.

Then the presidential preference ballots were passed out. The voters in the precinct took them and then drifted away. There was no resolution to the precinct caucus in terms of the presidential race—the ballots were counted later. But all three of the Haffkes and several other voters in precinct 6300 said they would support Ron Paul.

Nevada’s GOP had every reason to feel pleased with the day’s results—many new people came into the party, and their names will likely be used in organizing later in the year. Mitt Romney, running virtually unopposed in Nevada among the first tier candidates, took the state with ease. And when the Republicans tuned in that evening to the network news, they found that the Republican results preceded the Democrats in Nevada coverage (both came after coverage of South Carolina).

On the other side of the valley in Reno, Democratic voters were arriving at Peavine Elementary School. The Republicans met at six high school locations around the county, the Democrats at more than 80 sites. At Peavine, four precincts met, each in a different room. It made little difference in the sound level. The 254 voters of precinct 5006, a large precinct, gathered in the Peavine cafeteria sounded very much like the dozens of precincts gathered in the Reed gymnasium. It was, however, possible to get everyone in the cafeteria to fall silent at the same time when necessary.

Joe and Tamara Reading were in attendance with their 14-year-old daughter, Shiloh. Exactly five years and one day earlier at the Manzanita Bowl, the Readings had joined a protest of Bush administration plans to attack Iraq. Forty years earlier as a high school senior, Joe Reading supported antiwar candidate Robert Kennedy during the Vietnam war. Now he was supporting antiwar candidate Barack Obama during yet another war.

“I think that the presidency is more about visionary leadership and I think Obama has the best potential to provide that leadership,” Joe said. “I think he has the right stance on the issues, although there isn’t a lot of daylight [between] any of the Democratic candidates on major issues. He reminds me in some ways of Bobby Kennedy at the end of his campaign in the spring of 1968, the way he connects with people. I think he’s the only candidate of the major candidates who has that gift.”

Tamara Reading attended local appearances of both Obama and Clinton. “I think Obama has a message of hope, whereas Clinton is more of the same stuff that we’ve been fed for the last 20 years and I think that we really need a grand change at this point in time. … Seeing Obama was exciting, thrilling, and his message was one of unity, you know, more than politics as usual.”

In contrast to the Republican caucuses, the Democrats tie delegate selection directly to presidential preference. This helps ensure delegate allegiance to candidates—each candidate is more likely to be represented in county, state, and national conventions by genuine loyalists.

With the Readings and more than a hundred other voters, Obama had a commanding lead in precinct 5006. The first count showed that Kucinich, with 13 supporters, fell short of what the party rules call “viability,” putting him out of the running for delegates to the county Democratic convention. So most of his supporters crossed over to support Edwards, which turned out to be decisive, because it pushed Edwards past the viability threshold and made him eligible for delegates.

The final count came out Obama 131 (which entitled him to 4.64 delegates), Clinton 99 (2.80 delegates), and Edwards 44 (1.56 delegates). The large precinct was entitled to 9 delegates to the Washoe County Democratic Convention in April, so the rules required that Edwards’ total had to be “rounded down,” giving him just one delegate. Obama received 5 and Clinton 3.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...