Whatever happened to the Nevada presidential caucuses?
In 1976, Nevada was holding its first presidential primary since 1912, and candidate Jerry Brown was hoping to use a Nevada win as a fulcrum to stop the bandwagon that seemed to be underway for Jimmy Carter. In the New Republic, analyst Ken Bode wrote, “Brown’s problem may not be winning Nevada, but rather making it seem that he has accomplished something if he does.” Bode was right—Brown won the primary and it was treated as an essentially meaningless victory.
Sometimes history repeats itself. The early 2008 caucuses in Nevada that are generating excitement among state Democrats are doing no such thing among candidates, party operatives or the national media. Everywhere are signs that the Nevada caucuses are getting little from the campaigns except candidate appearances. Staffers, advertising and the spotlight are going elsewhere.
Last month, Nielsen Monitor Plus, an arm of the giant television ratings service, reported that Democratic and Republican presidential campaign advertising was going principally to New Hampshire and Iowa, with lesser amounts in Vermont, South Carolina, Michigan, Georgia, Florida, the District of Columbia and California. None was reported in Nevada. (A small amount of Nevada advertising has begun since the Nielsen survey.)
And Federal Elections Commission figures show the bulk of presidential campaign staff payrolls going to New Hampshire and Iowa. Barack Obama’s Iowa payroll is eight times larger than his Nevada payroll. In other campaigns, the disparity is less, but only one candidate—Bill Richardson—has invested more staff in Nevada than New Hampshire or Iowa, and most candidates have no Nevada staff at all. John Edwards tried to move staff members from Nevada to Iowa quietly but word got out.
The declining stature of Nevada as an early caucus over the past year has been inexorable and has begun to attract comment in the national press.
An article in the New York Times this month asked, “Anyone remember that Nevada has a caucus now smack in the middle of all this primary confusion in January?”
Chris Weigant at the Huffington Post wrote, “Nevada is the forgotten state. … On Meet The Press a week ago, there was a lively discussion of all the primaries and their importance, complete with predictions for both parties’ candidates—and Nevada wasn’t mentioned once.”
That kind of omission has become common. In an appearance on The View last month, CNN host Anderson Cooper said, “This [presidential campaign] is really about Iowa and New Hampshire and to a lesser extent South Carolina.”
Even Nevada reporters encounter the problem. During a conference call by John McCain strategist John Weaver with political reporters, Weaver mentioned other states with greater emphasis and Nevada only in passing, prompting Las Vegas Sun reporter Molly Ball to ask him, “You kept saying Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. Are you aware that Nevada has presidential caucuses scheduled in between Iowa and New Hampshire, and do you consider that part of your early state strategy?”
What appears to have happened since Nevada was selected as an early caucus state by the Democratic National Committee a year ago is that once the novelty wore off, the traditional stature of the Iowa caucuses and especially the New Hampshire primary reasserted themselves. The Iowa caucuses as a first-in-the-nation event date back only to 1972, but the New Hampshire primary has been a major factor in most elections since 1952. Nevada political leaders seem to have underestimated the resilience of New Hampshire and Iowa in the face of competition.
Political columnist Jules Witcover has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns and written books on most of them. He said, “Well, I think part of it is a long tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire. The political community has kind of accepted the dynastic course that has to be run by candidates who want to have an early impact, and it’s been such a tradition that I think it’s very hard for that mindset to be disturbed.”
Witcover said Nevada simply is not a well known state in presidential politics. “Political opportunities in Nevada are not that well known in the political community outside the state. … I’m talking about the people who put together the campaigns. They don’t quite know what to make of it. They don’t know quite what the opportunities are, or the pitfalls.”
That doesn’t mean Nevada can’t become an important early caucus state, only that it probably can’t be done in one year.
Witcover points out that the South Carolina primary, begun in 1980, has in recent years become a significant benchmark in several campaigns, notably with a crucial 2000 George Bush victory over John McCain. In effect, South Carolina paid its dues over a period of years until political circles became familiar with its vagaries, and it now promotes itself as the “first in the South” event. Nevada may be able to achieve something similar in the West, but it is likely to take time.
In addition, Nevada may be suffering from a stigma as the state whose elevation to an early caucus state triggered the rush of other states to schedule their events on the first allowable date, Feb. 5. As a result, the campaign has been saddled with a quasi-national superprimary election day that is a major obstacle for all but the most moneyed candidates. In addition, some large-population states-Florida and Michigan-are intruding into the January “retail window” that until 2008 had been reserved for small states Iowa and New Hampshire, further burdening second-tier candidates. This state of affairs is considered a fiasco for the presidential campaign and particularly the Democratic Party, whose leaders have been harshly criticized by analysts and editorial writers. Terms like “runaway primaries” and “train wreck” have been freely used.
A rules panel of the Democratic National Committee last weekend tried to restore some weight to small states that are supposed to dominate January. It voted to bar any Florida delegation to the national convention in Denver if the state holds its primary in January, but whether the national convention would affirm that decision is uncertain.
One political writer, Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic Monthly, has argued that the Nevada caucuses still contain some relevance: “The Nevada Democratic Caucuses have been the all-but-designated runt of the Democratic primary calendar reconfiguration, and with all the recent shifting, it’s arguably less relevant than it was. But many of the Democrats, in particular, have demonstrated that even with its downgraded status, Nevada is worth the effort and expense. The real reason Nevada remains relevant to the primaries is its status as a general election swing state.” But the concept that Nevada is a swing state took a beating in 2004, and it’s the candidates—including the Democrats—who have downgraded Nevada’s role.
Former Nevada GOP leader Paul Laxalt used to say that if people think someone has power, then he has power. What’s operating in Nevada is the other side of that maxim—because people think the state’s caucuses are toothless, they are becoming so.
Meanwhile, candidates who have staked their claim on doing well in Nevada may find their investments in the state paying fewer dividends than they hoped. Mitt Romney and especially Bill Richardson hope to do well in the state and use it as a springboard—Romney because Nevada has a greater number of his co-religionists than any other state except Utah and Idaho, Richardson because he is a Western Latino in a state where both adjectives are Democratic strengths. But even Richardson has said that New Hampshire and Iowa are the most important early events.
Richardson has called Nevada a must-win state for him. “This is a state where I must do well,” Richardson said in June. “I’ve got to show some strength here.” But it is no longer clear that a victory in Nevada will give him the kind of boost he once expected. If the state’s caucuses continue to be treated as trivial by political operatives and the press, winning them will mean little. To paraphrase Bode’s analysis three decades ago, Richardson’s problem may be less winning Nevada than making it seem that a win means something.