In 1984, Reno speech/hearing therapist Terry Ann Stone became interested in the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat. She worked as a volunteer for his Nevada campaign. She went to her neighborhood precinct meeting—also called a caucus—and was elected by her neighbors to attend the Washoe County Democratic Convention. After doing a lot of phone calling for Hart, she knew lots of local political activists.
At the county convention, she was elected to the Nevada Democratic Convention, where she was elected an alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
“I didn’t even know about the process of precinct meetings, that it was the start of how delegates were selected to go to national,” she says now.
Her candidate did not win—the nomination went to Walter Mondale—but when the vote for vice president was approaching, one of Nevada’s delegates had to leave the hall. Stone went down on the floor to take her place and participated in the historic voice vote nominating Geraldine Ferraro for vice president.
She stayed involved and was elected state Democratic Party vice chair in 1988. At one point her photo appeared on the front page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal alongside vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen.
It all started at her caucus.
The nature of the beast
News coverage describes presidential primary and caucus states as though they are mutually exclusive. But while some states have presidential primaries, most if not all states—including the ones with presidential primaries—have caucuses, in both presidential and non-presidential election years. And it’s good not to think of caucuses as a way to choose candidates for president. It’s the start of the process of selecting the people who do choose the candidates for president.
Nevada has toyed with presidential primaries (see sidebar), but it has been hit-and-miss and has often foundered on the state’s traditional strait-laced budgeting or matters that have nothing to do with democracy. In 1969, for instance, Gov. Paul Laxalt vetoed presidential primary legislation when it threatened to set off a competition with New Hampshire for first place.
At one point, the state sort of threw up its hands on primaries or caucuses and passed a law making primaries optional. In 1996 the GOP went for a primary that was conducted by mail. One factor affecting the decision that other state parties do not face is that if a Nevada state party chooses a primary over a caucus, it will have to add one line to the ballot that is not required in other states—“None of these candidates.” In that 1996 race, NOTC outpolled several leading Republican candidates, including Lamar Alexander and Richard Lugar. In 1980, NOTC outpolled Edward Kennedy.
For the state, the cost of primaries was usually higher than expected and the state’s chronic budget crises took their toll. So the state almost always fell back to precinct meetings. Government pays for elections. The political parties pay for caucuses.
Precinct meetings, as they are called in Nevada statutes, are basically neighborhood meetings. In the early days of Nevada after statehood, they appear to have been mass meetings. But eventually they evolved into meetings in the precincts themselves, held in private homes. Now they have evolved back to mass meetings, usually held in schools.
Caucuses are what primaries are not—deliberative. Primaries are hit and run. Caucuses are sit and talk. People discuss issues and candidates, electability and money, and try to sway their neighbors to their side. They meet their elected officials, sign up for campaigns. It is here that the first versions of the party’s platform can appear, with residents proposing their own planks on everything from street paving to warmaking. During the caucus, as the field of presidential candidates narrows after successive votes, some residents switch candidates.
A benchmark in Nevada history was reached in 2006 when the Democratic National Committee (DNC) named South Carolina and Nevada as the second-in-the-nation primary and caucus states.
Since 1952, when supporters of Dwight Eisenhower used the New Hampshire primary to elevate their candidate over party favorite Robert Taft, New Hampshire has served a screening function for candidates and Hampshirites cling tightly to their first-in-the-nation status. In 1972, George McGovern used the Iowa caucuses to score a better-than-expected showing. Because it was a caucus state, New Hampshire did not strenuously object to Iowa going first, and that state managed to gain a pre-New Hampshire foothold that it has held ever since.
Concern over these two starting berths in the presidential sweepstakes has often been expressed, particularly in the Democratic Party—usually a concern over lack of diversity in the Hampshire and Iowa electorates. Paul Kirk, himself a New Englander, spent his entire term as Democratic national chair (1985-19890) trying to dislodge New Hampshire as the first primary, with no luck. Today, the DNC essentially guarantees both states their first-caucus and first-primary status. About the only way to do something about them now is if the candidates start skipping them.
Issues and unanswers
That made the second place in line highly sought-after. Nevada became the second caucus state, South Carolina the second primary state. South Carolina already had a short but storied history as a Republican primary. Nevada, however, was new to the early game. It was chosen in part because of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s influence, but that was not the only reason. The West wanted a berth and so did the South. The party wanted states with more diverse populations. The Boston Globe reported that the party wanted “to bring more diversity to the early nominating process, highlighting states and regions with large populations of Hispanics, African-Americans, and union members critical to the Democrats’ base.” South Carolina brought African Americans, Nevada brought Latinos. And Las Vegas was a union bastion.
There was also hope that Nevada would advance Western issues. Democratic consultant Andres Ramirez told the Associated Press, “Water and energy aren’t just Democrats’ issues. They affect everybody in our state and around the West.”
But that hope has been only marginally realized. The candidates usually state their positions on Yucca Mountain and otherwise campaign on the same issues they prefer to emphasize in other states. Occasionally individual candidates will dip into local issues, as Ben Carson and Jeb Bush have done with public lands, but there is no engagement of entire fields of candidates on issues like grazing fees, climate change and the Western drought, or the mining law of 1872. And journalists have done a poor job of bringing Western issues into the campaign. In the end, candidates talk about what they want to talk about—and fuzz other issues.
This year, breaking news thrust a new local issue into the campaign when the Nevada Public Utilities Commission issued a decision undercutting rooftop solar generation net metering. The three leading Democrats addressed the issue in various degrees of specifics, but Republicans ignored it, even when it showed up on financial pages across the nation.
There are other issues where Republican silence is surprising. Libertarian columnist Brendan Trainor asked in these pages last week, “Where are the calls from the Cruz, Trump and Paul camps for hearings on the public land grabs?” GOP candidate Rand Paul met secretly with rancher Cliven Bundy, who staged a 1984 standoff with federal public lands officials, but Rand has not been particularly voluble or specific on the issue.
If candidate stands on issues have not emerged as hoped, the visits of the candidates themselves have. It was not that long ago that presidential candidates avoided visiting what they considered an outlaw state. Now, Nevada voters are being spoiled by repeat visits.
Caucuses sometimes engender confusion. Nevada’s Legislative Counsel Bureau, in a paper posted on the secretary of state’s website, somehow conflates the onetime direct November balloting for presidential electors with presidential primaries and caucuses. (Electors are nominated at state party conventions, not in primaries or caucuses, and nomination of electors is different from election of electors.)
So to the public at large, they are even less intelligible. The political parties are aware of this and hold classes in advance of the caucuses. In addition, there is considerable build-up in publicity as the caucuses near. In 2000, the Democratic caucuses in Nevada gathered a massive turnout, aided partly by Reid’s organization and partly by the exciting Clinton vs. Obama contest.
Nevada Republicans have been ambivalent about the early caucuses ever since that first year. Because they were a Harry Reid project, the state GOP initially wanted no part of them. Some Republicans were also unnerved by the thought of lots of new people coming into the party. In February 2007, the state GOP decided not to follow the Democrats into the early date. An online petition and complaints to Republican offices caused the party to change that decision and join the Democrats, but it was a grudging acceptance.
Four years later, the Democrats had no race (Obama was running for reelection), and the Republicans had the early caucuses all to themselves. They still were lukewarm. Participation declined, though that was to be expected after the novelty of the first early caucuses in 2000 wore off. Worse was the listless administration of the event and a long delay in delivering results.
This contrast in attitudes, together with a sort of pride of ownership by the Democrats, has led to very different approaches. The Democrats are sometimes arrogant about the caucuses. At one training session at Washoe Democratic headquarters this month, there was discussion of closing the doors of the caucuses a half-hour before the announced starting time. The notion was shot down fast, but the fact that it was floated at all was telling.
Republicans, lacking that sense of primacy, often are less formal and easier to approach when people are trying to find out what’s going on. It does, after all, take some nerve to enter this process without knowing it, and the GOP’s less institutional approach can be more welcoming.
This year, the two parties have split the Nevada caucuses onto two different dates for the first time since the early caucuses started. The Democrats will caucus on Feb. 20, the Republicans on Feb. 23. One consequence of this split is that Nevada’s Democratic caucuses—together with the South Carolina Republican primary the same day—will be the third presidential nominating event of the year, while the Nevada Republican caucuses will be the fifth.
At a Jan. 12 meeting of the Republican National Committee rules committee in South Carolina (one of the first four), Texas GOP chair Tom Mechler had planned to float an idea for pushing back the date of the first four contests, starting in 2020. It’s not a bad idea, but bringing it up as the first four are about to start voting was sanity-challenged. It’s the kind of thing that is generally discussed in non-presidential years. Mechler dropped the proposal after getting a call from Republican candidate and fellow Texan Ted Cruz.
There has been talk in political circles that Nevada could lose its early berth—on the Democratic side because of Reid’s impending retirement, on the Republican side because of the lethargy that accompanied the 2012 caucuses.
A member of the 2006 DNC rules committee has said privately that “most DNC members at the time agreed that Colorado or Arizona would be better choices— particularly Colorado because of its Democratic leanings. Colorado gives you Western, Hispanic, etc. Nevada has a strange economy, not indicative of any other place, so why have them in the top three?”
But Reid’s influence carried the day, and Nevada was designated.
Since then, two caucus years have given political pros a better understanding of how much of the Nevada electorate is Latino, to the point that stripping the state of its early date could be seen as a slap at that group of voters. Latinos make up about 15 percent of the state’s voters—about the same as Colorado—and the number has been growing fast. According to an analysis by David Damore at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Matt Barreto at the University of California at Los Angeles, the percent of Latinos needed by a Republican presidential candidate to win Nevada and Colorado is almost the same—44 percent in Colorado, 45 in Nevada.
And the spread of gambling to all but one other state reduces the importance of that factor.
The parties want the early states to be small enough for retail presidential campaigns to work. Of the top four states, only one is in the upper half of states:
4,625,401 South Carolina (24)
2,763,888 Iowa (31)
2,700,691 Nevada (36)
1,316,466 New Hampshire (43)
Colorado has a population of 5,029,324 and is the 22nd largest state.
On the Democratic side, the caucuses are Hillary Clinton’s to lose. She won Nevada eight years ago against a powerful Obama challenge. Her well organized and professional campaign has tracked the state precinct by precinct. And money is not a problem. The only thing that normally disrupts this kind of a blitz is an urgent level of concern at the grassroots, such as the Vietnam issue that fueled Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire in 1968.
Bernie Sanders is fueled by an enthusiastic organization that—though it started later than Clinton’s—has been dogging her heels. If there is a state where his message of economic justice and corporate accountability should resonate, it is a state with the highest foreclosure rate in the nation and, under a Republican governor, a growing reputation as the corporate welfare state.
Martin O’Malley has spent his limited time in Nevada appealing to unions and Latinos, not getting off into other issues.
In 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney was in a relatively commanding position throughout the Nevada caucus campaigns. No GOP candidate this time has that same level of certainty. In such a large field, Donald Trump has an advantage because of his name recognition, but that could be undercut by adverse results from Iowa or New Hampshire. Again, the nature of caucuses, with their discussions and debates, may not be as helpful to Trump as primaries. Does a candidate who supports a national health care plan and glorifies corporate power fit a party whose demographics now include tea partiers angry over bailouts?
Any candidate needs an early win. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are allegedly out of Marco Rubio’s reach, and that leaves him with Nevada. He and Ted Cruz have been battling for the state’s Mormon votes. Nevada has the highest number of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after Utah and Idaho, and though that number is less than 5 percent of the state’s population, they are concentrated in the GOP, so they have considerable impact in the caucuses.
Rubio’s relatively moderate immigration views would also likely be appealing in Nevada, and helpful in realizing Ronald Reagan’s notion that Latinos are Republicans who “don’t know it yet.” But like many GOP leaders—Reagan among them—who have seen their hopes of recruiting those voters for the party, Rubio is plagued by Republicans like Cruz who push a much more polarizing message that drives Latinos from the party. In Nevada, Rubio—who lived in southern Nevada as a boy—has the endorsement of some moderate Republican leaders. Cruz is backed by, among others, Washoe legislator Ira Hansen, whose now-well known newspaper columns included writings that linked Latinos to gangs (“dominated by immigrants, especially Hispanic immigrants”) and the spread of disease.
Many years of these kinds of Republican messages make Latinos more likely to participate in the Democratic instead of the Republican caucuses.
One surprise in the Republican field is Rand Paul. If there was a Republican who should have had an edge in Nevada, it was Paul. His presidential candidate father had pulled together activists on a number of issues that cut across party lines—suspicion of the Federal Reserve, opposition to the Middle East wars, public lands ownership—and the Ron Paul presidential campaign took over the Nevada Republican Party in 2012. So far, there has been little indication that Rand Paul is following in those footsteps. On the other hand, the Paulists have always operated best by stealth, so there may be something happening that is not immediately apparent.
Polls are more difficult to do in caucus than primary states, and though pollsters believe they have solved the problem, political pros remain skeptical of survey value in Nevada.
For those who think their votes don’t matter, early caucuses are an opportunity. Early presidential nominating events are more influential than later ones.
Caucuses require commitment. Spending an afternoon talking issues and candidates is not for everyone. If a voter has little interest in public affairs, caucusing is probably going to be like jury duty. For those who like to network, who enjoy chewing over politics, a caucus may be just the ticket. And like Terry Ann Stone, they might end up at the national convention.