The parking lots at Shaw Middle School in the Spanish Springs Valley were nearly full, and drivers would soon start filling up dirt lots and desert. Linda Carson, a first-time caucus-goer, was startled by the number of people at the event. As she headed from her car to the school, she asked another arrival, “Are all these people for the caucuses?” Assured that they were, she asked, “Are they both Democrats and Republicans?” No, just Democrats, she was told. She absorbed that, then said, “Good job, Democrats.”
Carson works at a Spanish Springs pharmacy.
“I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “From everything I’ve heard, they’re unsure about who’s going to show up.”
Her candidate? Hillary Clinton.
“I’ve followed her for my whole life, pretty much. She’s the strongest person running.”
She signed a Planned Parenthood petition on her way into the building. While she did, an unidentified woman tore down Clinton signs taped to the brick posts at the front door of the school, something that has not happened in earlier caucus years, when signage was left in place until the end of the caucus. Once inside, Carson was faced with several lines. She got in one and began waiting. Seventeen precincts were meeting at Shaw.
Trish Swain was already registered and was working on other matters. She’s caucused before, and has been a precinct chair before, so she knows the routine. The retired school counselor was wearing a Bernie Sanders t-shirt. Her reason for supporting Sanders is one heard a lot from Berners—authenticity.
“Number one, Bernie is not changing his position just to appear to be whatever he is not,” she said. “He is genuine. He has been consistent throughout a long career of being a progressive.”
Back in the Truckee Meadows, meanwhile, Native American Lydia Perez, who works as a trainer, was trying to learn her way around the process at Booth Elementary School, where five precincts were meeting. It was her first time at a caucus. In earlier years she had to work on caucus day. She’s supporting Clinton.
“I had to vote for somebody that could really help us, basically the middle class people. …Because I guess she has enough experience to help us people.”
At Booth, Sanders signs were stuck in the lawn, and they were left undisturbed. Turnout was everything the Democrats could have hoped for—maybe too much. Supplies ran low, the process dragged.
When the vote counting began, the Democratic Party lagged well behind media reports. Just before 3 p.m., for instance, CBS was reporting the results of 76 percent of precincts. The party’s website was at 32 percent—and this was half an hour after Clinton had claimed victory and thanked Nevadans. (“The feeling is mutual, Nevada.”) It was also easier to tell where the votes were coming from on the commercial sites. On the other hand, CBS stopped posting results once it called the race. Several days later Carson City and Clark results are still incomplete. The Democratic Party may have been slower, but it finished the job: Clinton 52.65 percent (6,316), Sanders 47.34 (5,678).
Sanders carried Washoe (54 to 46 percent) and the small counties (52 to 48), but he could not overcome Clinton’s showing in vote-rich Clark (55 to 45), which contains most of the state’s population.
In 2008, after Obama lost Nevada to Clinton, his campaign fuzzed the issue by claiming that Obama had won more delegates to the national convention even while losing the caucuses vote. It wasn’t true, and the party denied it, but journalists reported it as fact, so it took the edge off Obama’s defeat. This year, Clinton’s campaign tried the same thing. Jarred to learn from entrance/exit polls that Sanders took the Latino vote away from Clinton 53 to 45 percent, Clintonites put out the word that the polls are flawed and that precincts with Latino majorities were more reliable—and that she carried them.
Some things in the exits could not be obscured, however. They show some weaknesses in winner Clinton that could be exploited in the general election. Among voters to whom trustworthiness and honesty is important, Clinton got only 11 percent—and this is among Democrats. And Sanders has cut heavily into Democratic women, getting a whopping 73 to 22 percent among women under age 45.
There had been those who, earlier in the year, trivialized the importance of the Nevada caucuses. But by the time they were held, they had taken on considerable importance. The Los Angeles Times called the stakes in the Nevada race “exceedingly high.” Politico: “It’s the most representative early state, and offers the first real test of whether the two parties can capture new voters.”
Of course, those described the Democratic caucuses in Nevada.
Five hours before the Nevada GOP caucuses began, the Washington Post threw up a story headlined, “The Nevada caucuses are still Trump’s to lose—and he still could.”
Well, not so much.
To be sure, Republicans in the state troubled by Donald Trump had begun closing around Rubio as the best alternative to Trump. Ken Lax, a car sales manager, is a veteran caucus-goer, and he was on hand again this year, supporting Rubio at Traner Middle School. He calls the caucuses “trying” but also values them as an important democratic process.
“I believe in our entire system and what it accomplishes. … I think sometimes it becomes mundane, but the end result is much more appreciated than any other form of voting or caucusing I have come across.”
Today’s politics fosters cynicism, but somehow, some people avoid falling prey to it. When asked questions, Lax takes his time answering, thinking before he speaks. That makes him a perfect caucus participant, because caucuses demand deliberation. It also contrasts sharply with Trump, who speaks without thought a good deal of the time. In the last rally of his Nevada campaign, Trump responded to a Nevada heckler—“I’d like to punch him in the face” and hinted that the man should be carried out of the hall on a stretcher—a hint the crowd fortunately did not follow.
Trump ended up with 46 percent of the vote, his third win. That was expected. As a result, the attention was on second place. That went to Rubio at 24 percent. That may help firm up Rubio’s role as the alternative to Trump, but he is still 22 percentage points behind Trump, who got his highest percentage so far in the campaign.
The entrance/exit polls offered information on Republicans’ thoughts about the candidates, but also revealed some things about the party itself. NBC exits indicated that only eight percent of those attending the GOP caucuses came from the group that Ronald Reagan once hoped would become a regular source of GOP strength—Latinos. Respondents to an ABC exit poll said they value being outside the system over experience by about two to one.
There were problems in the GOP caucuses, as in the Democratic caucuses, but they loomed larger in news coverage than in the settings themselves. The Democrats were more festive in the face of whatever glitches came to pass.
Washington Post: “Why aren’t the Nevada Republican caucuses a bigger deal?”
The Nevada GOP leadership did it to themselves. Last year, they tried to kill the early caucuses in favor of a primary that would help them control the party better than caucuses, which had allowed supporters of Ron Paul to twice take a majority at the state convention. But personal intervention by Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid prevented the Republican-dominated legislature from making the switch to a presidential primary.
The GOP then pushed the date of their caucuses back three days so it would not be on the same day as the Democrats. The move reduced the clout of the state and of state Republicans, making the Nevada GOP caucuses the fifth presidential nominating event in the nation instead of the third. It also sharply reduced the amount of money the candidates spent in the state. Trump, Rubio and company spent millions more in the Republican contest in South Carolina than in Nevada.