Close call

Nevada's early presidential year spot is saved

Republicans crowded into Dilworth Middle School in Sparks for the 2012 presidential caucuses.

Republicans crowded into Dilworth Middle School in Sparks for the 2012 presidential caucuses.


The Nevada Legislature’s decision not to step into the issue of how the state’s delegates to national presidential nominating conventions are selected has some Republicans concerned.

The lawmakers chose not to enact a bill creating a Nevada presidential primary election. That bill threatened to end Nevada’s early place in the nominating calendar. The state got a lot of publicity in 2008 and 2012 when it was given a starring second-round role.

The Legislature’s action left Nevada presidential caucuses in place, which was key to the state keeping its early date.

The way the early calendar has shaken down over the years is that Iowa and New Hampshire go first—the first caucuses in Iowa, the first primary in New Hampshire.

Then they are followed by Nevada and South Carolina—the second caucuses in Nevada, the second primary in South Carolina.

Those are all in February. All other caucuses and primaries follow starting in March.

The fact that Nevada has caucuses instead of a primary got it the early slot in the first place. In 2008, coaxed by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic National Committee awarded the early position in the presidential nominating race to Nevada, elevating the state’s visibility and possibly its issues. Though they were suspicious of anything associated with Reid, Nevada Republicans went along with holding their caucuses on the same day as the Democrats, drawing additional attention to the state. The GOP caucuses attracted more than 40,000 participants in 2008, and more than 30,000 in 2012—still more than turned out before Nevada got the early berth.

Changing Nevada to a primary election instead of caucuses would throw a monkey wrench in both political parties’ calendars and likely would have prompted the national parties to revoke Nevada’s early status. Other caucus states would have been lining up to displace Nevada as the second caucus state. There had already been some talk of Nevada losing the slot, with Colorado—a caucus state—a prime candidate to replace Nevada.

“When Nevada was moved up in the process as an early state it was contingent on Nevada as a caucus state, not a primary,” Reid aide Kristen Orthman told the New York Times in an email.

The Republicans have had more anxiety over the caucuses than just their association with Reid. There is ongoing tension between established Republicans and insurgents who are often highly motivated and out-organize the traditionalists.

Nevada political parties have used caucuses virtually through the state’s entire history, though the term “caucus” to describe them is relatively new. They were usually called mass meetings or precinct meetings—the correct term under state law. They are held not just in presidential years but in all election years, because they are not just used for nominating convention delegate selection, but for regular party business as well. And even when the state has used presidential primaries, the precinct meetings were still held for selection of delegates.

Caucuses are basically neighborhood meetings, in which registered voters in a precinct choose one or more of their neighbors to go to the party’s county convention, setting in motion the process that leads to a handful of Nevadans going to a national convention.

Nevada Republican traditionalists have had difficulty getting along with new groups coming into the party—particularly libertarian supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012. Mitt Romney won Nevada both years, but his supporters did not get to the county and state conventions, when national convention delegates are selected, in as big numbers as the Paulists, prompting rough tactics against Paul’s forces.

In 2008, established party leaders adjourned the GOP state convention when Paulists were about to win the delegate count and elect their candidates for national convention seats. In 2012, the Nevada Paulists won the national convention delegation and were intending to vote for Romney at the convention in accordance with the outcome of the Nevada caucuses. But then the national convention changed the rules at the last minute to prevent Paul from addressing the convention in prime time and the Nevada Paulists revolted. The ill treatment of the Paulists led to the state party machinery—now in their hands—being unavailable to Romney during the fall campaign, forcing the traditionalists to set up a sort of party-in-exile to support the Massachusetts governor.

With Ron Paul’s son Rand planning to run for president in 2016—and likely to command a similar level of enthusiasm in Nevada—the traditionalists turned to state law to try to create a national convention process they could control better, akin to the way the Democrats created “superdelegate” seats for party elected officials and other big shots to be able to override the results of caucuses and primaries. “The Republican legislators were trying to completely diaper the libertarian wing of the party,” said political analyst Fred Lokken. He said established GOP leaders were willing to do anything to control the libertarians, “up to and including removing Nevada from the frontloaded calendar,” which he called foolish.

The legislation would have bound delegates “to vote [for the winners of primaries] at each stage of the presidential nomination process at the national convention.”

If similar rules had been in place in earlier years, they could have bound Democratic national convention delegates to John Edwards after his adultery became known, or could have bound Republican delegates to vote for candidates like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum who suspended their faltering campaigns but did not actually drop out of the race. Presidential nominating delegates need—both during state contests and during national conventions—to be able to adjust to rapidly changing conditions and fields of candidates. Binding them undercuts their ability to do that. Moreover, some legislators considered it a topic for party rules, not state law.

In addition, instead of slating the presidential primary as a single event, the regular primary election for state offices was moved back under one presidential primary bill, meaning the state would be subjected to an eight-month general election campaign instead of the current five-month campaign, which many Nevadans already consider too long.

It’s useful to remember that the political parties are private organizations. The Democratic Party of Nevada is incorporated with the Secretary of State’s office as a “domestic non-profit cooperative association.” The Republican Party of Nevada is not currently incorporated, which may be a product of the 2012 party split. Several county Republican parties are incorporated as “domestic non-profit corporations.”

Because the parties are private groups, the Clark County Registrar of Voters office tries to head off inquiries about the caucuses by posting this on its website: “The Clark County Election Department is not involved in the conduct of caucuses and you should contact the Democratic or Republican party for information.”

As private groups, the political parties normally resist state laws to dictate their operations. For instance, they oppose requiring open primaries in order to prevent mischief like members of the Democratic Party crossing over to help choose weak Republican candidates in primary elections, and vice versa.

So the decision by some Republican leaders to try to use state law to settle an intraparty feud was a departure from normal party policy.