The party starts early

Democratic caucuses in February may be great for party leaders, but does the move serve voters?

In 2004, Storey County Democrats held their presidential caucus in a saloon meeting room in Virginia City and voted 36 for John Kerry, seven for John Edwards, two for Dennis Kucinich, and one for Howard Dean.

In 2004, Storey County Democrats held their presidential caucus in a saloon meeting room in Virginia City and voted 36 for John Kerry, seven for John Edwards, two for Dennis Kucinich, and one for Howard Dean.

Photo By Dennis Myers

A Democratic National Committee rules panel has recommended that Nevada’s presidential nominating caucuses and South Carolina’s presidential primary election be inserted into the ranking of early states in the process of choosing a Democratic presidential nominee.

The change is a setback for party reformers who have long argued that the national presidential nominating delegate selection process begins too early and thus favors establishment candidates. But it is a boost for those who believe the Iowa and New Hampshire contests made presidential races too white. Iowa’s populace is about 93 percent white and New Hampshire about 95 percent.

“I am pleased that the members of the Democratic National Committee recognized our state and its people, who are as diverse as our country itself and reflect the attitudes and values of working America,” said U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic floor leader in the Senate. The caucuses will probably be held in Nevada on Jan. 19, 2008.

Caucuses are basically neighborhood meetings. Once held in private homes in Nevada, they are now usually held in public places to encourage turnout. Residents of neighborhood voting districts called precincts gather around and choose presidential candidates from their precincts. This is the beginning of the delegate selection process for the national presidential nominating conventions.

If the change is accepted by the Democratic National Committee at a meeting in Chicago on Aug. 19, Iowa’s caucuses would be followed by the Nevada caucuses, then the New Hampshire primary followed by the South Carolina primary.

Eleven states lobbied the DNC rules committee to be added to the list, with Nevada and South Carolina winning.

According to census figures, Nevada is 17.5 percent non-white. However, Latinos are included in the white population in the census numbers. When Latinos are counted as people of color, Nevada’s minority population rises to 38.8 percent.

In addition, Nevada is one of the five most urban states—nearly everyone lives in the Washoe and Clark metro areas—a sharp change from rural Iowa and New Hampshire. About a fourth of the state’s households include labor union members, most of them in Las Vegas, which may have been a factor in the state’s selection.

States tend to treat their caucuses and primaries as economic development or ways to gain publicity or clout. They seldom talk about such events as ways to let the party’s voters be heard. One occasion when they did was at the Nevada Legislature in 1975, when a presidential primary was enacted by lawmakers. Backers said they were not looking for gimmicks like an early primary; they just wanted to empower voters. The next year Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown won the Nevada primary over Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. (The primary law was later repealed to save tax dollars. Caucuses are paid for by the parties.)

While Reid and other Nevada party leaders lobbied for the new arrangement, others say the rule committee’s recommendations make longstanding problems with the delegate-selection process worse.

In 1972, the Democratic Party began an effort to make delegate selection take place later, not earlier in the year. This followed the 1968 experience, when many of the party’s delegates were selected long before the Vietnam War had emerged as the issue it became and before the eventual candidates were even known. But after that effort to move delegate selection forward, party leaders started pushing it back and frontloading the primaries to help frontrunners. This robbed later primaries and caucuses—and their voters—of any ability to influence the selection of candidates.

Ken Bode of DePauw University, former host of Washington Week in Review and one of the nation’s leading experts on delegate selection, says the new frontloading makes the problem worse. He points out that at one time, presidential nominating contests stretched into the summer with many states being heard from. But now, because of the tinkering and manipulation of the process, New Hampshire is lucky to be heard from.

“Look, we at the present time have got a system where the last time around, it was over after Iowa. Dean was beaten in Iowa, Kerry won Iowa and New Hampshire. There was no contest after that. The important thing about the nominating contest is that 99 percent of Americans are paying no attention at the time the Iowa caucuses happen.”

Instead, the campaign events often occur before the year’s issues have emerged.

“It’s a terrible idea,” he said of the advancement of the Nevada and South Carolina dates. He says the dates of contests should be moved forward, not back.

For a long time, New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status inflated its influence. But the primacy of the New Hampshire primary has been slowly whittled away over the years. New Hampshire fended off threats by other states to precede its primary, but it didn’t bother competing with Iowa’s caucuses, which in 1972 became a major factor. In 2004, New Hampshire merely confirmed Kerry’s Iowa victory. Iowa essentially named the Democratic nominee.

“It used to be that we had California and Ohio and New Jersey in June, so you really had an opportunity for the voters to look these candidates over, find out who’s got the staying power, who’s got the issues. It gives journalists time to pay more and more attention to the candidates who are emerging as the leaders of the pack as you go forward. And therefore, you have a more intelligent, a more thoughtful outcome to your nominating process.”

In 1969, the Nevada Legislature enacted a Nevada primary that preceded New Hampshire’s. New Hampshire officials notified Nevada officials that they would move their date up to retain their traditional primacy, so Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt vetoed the Nevada bill to prevent a bidding war over dates.

Since then, the New Hampshire Legislature has empowered that state’s secretary of state with broad powers to move the date without legislative action.

Last weekend’s recommendation raises the question of how Iowa and New Hampshire will react.

Iowa’s governor, Tom Vilsack, told the Des Moines Register, “There was a serious challenge—a serious challenge—to the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire in this process. … At this point we continue to preserve our first-in-the-nation status, and that’s important.” Vilsack supported the concept of inserting another state between Iowa and New Hampshire.

New Hampshire state legislator Peter Sullivan said last week that he would ask his state’s secretary of state to move the date ahead if it appeared that presidential candidates were turning their efforts from New Hampshire to Nevada. “It depends on if the candidates take the bait,” he said. The New Hampshire law says the secretary of state can move the date to combat a “similar election.” Whether New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner would interpret this to mean another caucus state as well as another primary election is not known.

“It’s all about keeping the dream alive, that anyone’s son or daughter can grow up to be president,” Gardner said vaguely in a Boston Globe interview.

New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan said the Nevada caucuses could be a more serious threat to New Hampshire than Iowa, but she also said New Hamphire’s ability to deal with that problem is not what it once was, because the Democratic convention could unseat New Hampshire’s delegates. Court rulings have held that national political parties can override state laws in the selection of its national convention delegates.

Nevada has not supported a Democrat in a two-person presidential race since 1964 and has not done so in a seriously contested two-person race since 1960. In three-way races in 1992 and 1998, Bill Clinton eked out narrow victories (with pluralities, not majorities), but as soon as presidential races went back to two candidates, the state returned to voting GOP. But terrific growth in the state’s Latino population could make the Democrats more competitive if the party is successful in luring such voters.