PAHRUMP, Nev. — Iowa Democrats’ disastrous delay in announcing results from the Feb. 3 caucuses could turn out to be an opportunity for Nevada — but only if the more diverse Silver State can smoothly count its own votes this weekend.
Ask Democrats from Las Vegas and its suburbs all the way out to unincorporated Nye County if it’s time to replace caucuses with a primary, and you’ll quickly be reminded that the reason presidential candidates are flying into the state this week is because conducting a caucus allowed Nevada to jump to third in line, behind Iowa and New Hampshire.
Thanks in large part to the advocacy of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democratic National Committee authorized the state to conduct a First in the West caucus, ahead of South Carolina’s important primary a week later.
“There’s some talk about getting rid of caucuses and going to primaries. I think a better consideration is our hybrid form, the early vote and the caucus,” Rep. Dina Titus said. “I think we should be first, not third, instead of Iowa.”
Reid, now 80 years old and battling pancreatic cancer, remains an outsize force in state politics.
“I think the future is, as many pundits have said, that we’ll become the first state to have a primary,” he told reporters Saturday after participating in early caucusing. The choice of the word“"primary” seemed deliberate.
By the time six Democratic presidential candidates take the debate stage Wednesday evening in Las Vegas, tens of thousands of Nevadans will have already registered their preferences on paper ballots that also asked them to pick backup choices.
There was brisk business at early caucus sites across the state during the four-day early voting period that ended Tuesday, starting at sites like the union hall of the powerful Culinary Workers, which held early caucuses throughout the weekend of early voting.
One question that worries state Democrats now is who is left to vote in person on caucus day this Saturday.
There’s a real sense among Democrats, from the party bosses to the rank and file, that their state party must do better than Iowa in tabulating and reporting reliable results, in a timely fashion.
Yet the system here is, in some regards, more complicated than in Iowa. In a state where voters have a track record of loving to vote early, the early caucusing has been a new phenomenon, and it featured what was functionally ranked-choice voting, where voters were asked to pick up to five candidates in order of preference.
Under the rules, the early caucusgoers needed to make at least three selections in order to avoid having their ballots thrown out.
James Eads, a longtime Nevada resident and African American supporter of businessman Tom Steyer, seemed to speak for many when he expressed support for the decision by the state party to abandon an app for tabulating results from the same vendor that designed the failed system in Iowa.
“That’s the system that Nevada has. I have no problem with it. It worked in the last presidential election, it worked, and it still works," Eads said.
Iowa, he said, showed that new technology is not always better.
“Here it’s that old-fashioned, you sign up,” Eads said. “There’s a paper ballot that exists, and we work from those paper ballots. I’ve got no problem with them.”
Eye on the prize
Gov. Steve Sisolak is among the many Democrats watching how the new process develops.
“They’re going to be down a little bit because so many people voted early, but we’re going to see good numbers on caucus day. Some people like that format better than the early voting format, some like the early voting format,” the governor said Saturday. “I think you’re going to see a lot of people at the end of the week that say, ‘Jeez, I didn’t vote early.’ Same like Election Day.”
According to both state party officials and precinct captains for the Saturday caucus, if all goes according to plan, the captains will have the early vote preferences of the voters who won’t be attending their caucus site in person.
“We have 3,000 volunteers in the state party, and we’re going to have a good strong caucus,” Reid said. “I feel very comfortable that we’re going to be a showplace for how you should have an early vote.”
Julián Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development who ended his own White House bid last month before quickly endorsing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has spent the week visiting Nevada communities on Warren’s behalf.
Castro generated controversy in early December when, following an event for his own campaign in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he dared to suggest that Iowa and New Hampshire should not go first and second.
“Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people,” he said Dec. 11, according to The Des Moines Register. “But they’re also not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.”
That message draws a much better reception even in the most remote parts of Nevada, like here in Pahrump, which is near the California border and a good place to refill the gas tank on the route to Death Valley.
“One of the great things about Nevada is that it has it all. It has this large, bustling urban center in Las Vegas, in Clark County, and it also has a lot of rural areas — midsize towns, smaller towns and very rural — and tribal communities,” Castro said in an interview with CQ Roll Call after an event at the home of a Warren caucus captain here. “I had a chance to visit all of those, and it’s important that rural voices be heard in a presidential campaign.”
Presidential candidate Tom Steyer, a billionaire businessman, has long organized in Nevada through his self-funded political groups NextGen America and For Our Future.
“I think Nevada politically is a template for what has to happen in the rest of the United states, and that’s diversity, grassroots organizing, strong unions, standing up, turning everything blue,” Steyer said.
Apart from the more diverse population and a strong state-party apparatus, Nevada has one selling point when its leaders make the case to the Democratic National Committee for 2024: the weather.
“We are here today, 70 degrees,” Sen. Jacky Rosen said Monday. “I’ll give a tourism ad: ‘Everyone come to Las Vegas and visit right now. The weather is fine and the lines are around the block everywhere we go.’”