Is she losing it?

Nine weeks after she won the Nevada caucuses, Hillary Clinton scrambles to keep that victory

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, here at Hug High School, is getting a second chance to win Nevada, which has shown signs of slipping from her grasp.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, here at Hug High School, is getting a second chance to win Nevada, which has shown signs of slipping from her grasp.

Photo By David Robert

In January, Nevada was placed in the Hillary Clinton column and has remained there since. But last month, Barack Obama started staking his claim to taking the state away from Clinton, and on April 12 it will become known if he has accomplished it.

Obama had claimed 13 national convention delegates based on the caucuses—one more than Clinton—but delegates are not determined by the caucuses.

What really helped Obama in Nevada was his steady series of wins in other states after the Nevada caucuses. Most of the county conventions in the state were held on Feb. 23, before Clinton’s comeback in the Texas and Ohio primaries. Delegates to those Nevada county conventions, in other words, assumed that Obama was the nominee and many of them shifted to him—the normal process when a nominee seems to be emerging. In addition, some demoralized Clinton delegates stayed home, and Obama picked up most John Edwards delegates. All those factors helped Obama. In Washoe County, he gained about 8 percent and easy control, compared to his 1 percent lead in the January caucuses in the county.

When the county conventions were over, Obama had reversed the caucus results—winning Nevada 512 to 388 in delegates sent from the county conventions to the state convention. But there was still one county out in Nevada.

Clark’s the ball game
As it happened, one county did not hold its convention on Feb. 23. Clark County Democrats tried, but the sheer gargantuan weight of the convention overwhelmed the Bally’s Casino Hotel facilities that had been rented, and it is supposed to be held again on April 12. Clark Democratic chair John Hunt says the fiasco at the first convention was caused because the two presidential campaigns told their supporters to attend in order to fill vacant delegate seats, and 25,000 of them showed up for a convention at which the total number of delegates was less than 8,000.

Clark alone has most of the state convention delegates, so the Feb. 23 results were about equivalent to a candidate winning just the absentee ballots in an election.

At the abortive convention at Bally’s in Las Vegas, a straw poll showed Clinton and Obama in a near tie, indicating substantial slippage for Clinton since her big victory there in January. But when the convention failed to select delegates and scheduled a second convention, it gave her another bite at the apple—and then she won Ohio and Texas.

There are suspicions that the first convention was deliberately “collapsed” in order to gain time for Clinton to recover in later primaries. “It was political ‘bossism’ at its very worst and a blatant attempt to steal the Clark County convention,” wrote delegate Mike Zahara later. “Ah, how nice. Rory Reid and other Nevada Dem insiders get a second chance to force Hillary Clinton down our throats,” wrote an anonymous poster on a Las Vegas Sun blog.

Since most of the delegates to the state convention come from Clark County, Clinton still stands a mathematical chance to hold onto her caucus victory in the state.

Clinton honcho Rory Reid says he challenges the notion that his candidate has slipped. Clark County was such a mess that no conclusions can be drawn, he said, and in the rest of the state, while Clinton lost ground in Washoe, she made it up in the small counties.

“If you aggregate the 16 counties other than Clark, she actually improved her standing,” Reid said.

“My recollection is that she lost ground in Washoe. She was like 3 percent [down]. But in certain counties, you know, she did 20 percent better. I think it was Pershing she did real well, Mineral she did real well, Lincoln, Humboldt, Lander. … She didn’t have, as I recall, large slippage.”

But even if Clinton gained in the small counties in the fashion Reid describes, it’s hard to see how it makes up for what happened in Washoe. The counties named by Reid control only 38 state convention delegates, and Clinton received 22 of those. In Washoe, she received 232 out of 561. published a calculation showing Clinton gaining a percentage point since the caucuses (when it was still a multi-candidate race) and Obama gaining nine points. By that calculation, Clinton still very much needs Clark.

The “do-over” Clark convention will be held April 12 at UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center, prompting another small controversy. The Democrats invoked a state law (Nevada Revised Statute 293.134) allowing major political parties—and only major political parties—to use public property for county conventions for free. “They ought to pay the state for the things they use,” said higher education chancellor Jim Rogers, a Hillary Clinton supporter, noting that political parties aren’t part of the government.

Because of suspicions that Clintonites pulled the plug on the first convention, plans for the second convention are being handled carefully. Former state chair Terry Care, who has been named to settle questions between the two sides, says he’s aware of the suspicions.

“Let me put it this way, I read the newspapers just like everybody else,” Care said. “But again, because of my role as a neutral, objective arbitrator if need be, obviously I can’t comment on anything.”

He said he did not attend the first convention as a delegate, only as a guest, so he is not committed to either presidential candidate.

Those caucuses
As Clinton supporters pondered whether she can regain her lost ground in Nevada, some of them questioned the caucus system itself.

“This is one of the reasons I think we should have a primary,” said one Washoe County Clinton backer.

However, that would not have prevented the slippage in Clinton’s support. Even when primaries are held, delegate selection is done in a caucus process, and neither primaries nor caucuses bind national convention delegates. The assumption by some observers that a win in the caucuses determines the state’s vote at the Democratic National Convention in Denver is incorrect. For that matter, the idea that delegates must vote for their candidate is also incorrect. The caucuses are held to start the process of selecting delegates, not to select a candidate for president. The presidential votes taken in the caucuses provide guidance only.

Delegates to national nominating conventions are not supposed to act as seismographs of the state’s voters, merely registering voter preference for candidates. Rather, they are expected to evaluate the candidates through the primary and caucus season and decide which candidate best reflects party sentiment and which would be the party’s strongest against the opposition.

One of the big obstacles to the Democrats’ settling on a nominee for president this year is the creation in 1982 of the unelected delegates, also called superdelegates. If the party had never invented unelected delegates, in all likelihood it would already have its 2008 nominee. With only two candidates in the race, one of them would reach 50 percent plus one of the delegates in the primaries and caucuses well before the national convention. But the large (20 percent of the delegates, up from 14 percent originally) and amorphous cloud of unelected delegates hovering over the process, none of whom have any deadline to commit to a candidate, have kept the result in doubt, and the race could remain undecided until Denver.