When the Democratic National Committee decided, in July 2006, to allow the state of Nevada to hold its 2008 presidential caucuses in January, it promised to shake up the nominating process. In some ways, the move is a success already. With Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire rendering a split decision for the first time since 1992, Nevada's caucuses tomorrow are being treated as significant by candidates and media alike. Contrary to early fears, all three major Democratic candidates are seriously contesting the state--each held more than 25 campaign events there over the past year. But as to whether the caucuses are serving the purpose Democrats intended in promoting Nevada to the front of the line, the answer, at best, is mixed--and serves as a cautionary tale to those contemplating more radical overhauls of the primary system.
Though Nevada has traditionally held presidential caucuses, it's never attempted anything resembling the current effort. Past "caucuses" were essentially meetings of party loyalists held at one site in each of the state's seventeen counties--mass participation was neither solicited nor expected, with only 8,500 Democrats turning out in 2004. This year, Nevada fancies itself Iowa west. It's made plans for more than 1,700 voting locations and adopted Iowa's standard of fifteen percent support for a candidate to be "viable" in a precinct (though the standard is higher in precincts electing fewer than four delegates). The state Democratic Party hired seasoned Iowa organizer Jean Hessburg to help oversee the process.
What Nevada lacks, of course, is Iowa's caucus tradition. Some analysts have speculated (in keeping with the state's proud history of low-turnout elections, especially in Clark County) that not many voters will show up on Saturday. The reality is that no one has much of a clue. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he hopes for turnout in the neighborhood of 100,000. Others expect a lower figure, but Hessburg thinks Reid's estimate is well within the realm of possibility. "There's been an exponential leap in the level of interest among Democrats. I think the turnout is going to be impressive," she predicts.But increasing the state's caucus turnout from abysmal to mediocre was not one of the rationales cited by the DNC when it chose the state. Nevada was a swing state in 2004 despite John Kerry's repeated failure to pronounce the state's name correctly. (It's "va" like in "vat", not "vodka." Said Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman of Kerry's pronunciation, "By the time I got him straightened out, the election was over.") It offered a chance to dilute the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire. It's a fast-growing part of a region--the interior West--that seems open to taking a fresh look at the Democratic Party. It's a bastion of organized labor and a quarter of its population is Latino.
One by one, though, these rationales have been called into question. The DNC's original plan, inspired in part by John Kerry's 2004 performance, was to insert Nevada between Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping to dilute the influence of those two states. That strategy was thwarted when Iowa and New Hampshire leapfrogged to the front of the process once again--and, as it happened, the states did a fine job this time around of canceling each other out. Nor is the early caucus, on its own, likely to bolster Democratic prospects in November: Nevada Republicans followed suit in moving up their own nominating contest, diminishing any advantage the Democrats might have received.Nevada's early caucuses were also supposed to lift Western issues--water rights, public land management, mining law--to the forefront of the debate. "That particular rationale hasn't panned out, for the most part," says Eric Herzik, a political scientist at the University of Nevada–Reno. "They all come here and talk about health care." On the few occasions when the conversation has focused on the West, it's been largely an opportunity for pandering to special interests--the Nevada equivalent of Iowans and ethanol. Barack Obama, for instance, has pledged his opposition to amending the General Mining Act of 1872, which allows companies to extract metals from federal land and pay little or no royalties. (Uncle Sam owns almost 90 percent of Nevada's land.)Equally counterproductive has been the seeming certainty among out-of-state reporters covering the caucuses that "Western issues" might as well be synonymous with "Yucca Mountain," the proposed nuclear-waste repository 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, opposed by all of the Democratic candidates. Each of the two televised debates in Nevada has featured one perfunctory question on Yucca Mountain and nothing more on more pressing state or regional issues. No mention, for instance, of what to do in the wake of the drought that has left the state's Lake Mead at 46 percent of its capacity; not a word about whether to make more federal land available for private development as Las Vegas sprawls ever further into the desert.
The short shrift given to genuinely crucial Western issues like these may help explain why Bill Richardson's "Nevada strategy" never got off the ground. The caucuses were supposed to give a leg up to candidates, like Richardson, who understood the region's problems. Last July Richardson called the state "critically important" to his campaign plans--but he ended up gaining so little traction in the state that he dropped out before contesting it.
What about the other main rationale the DNC offered for selecting Nevada--its large concentration of Latinos and unionized voters? Here there are at least a few promising indications. The state party has gone to great lengths to reach out to Latino voters, including sponsoring a soccer team called "Los Democratas," captained by state Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, in one of Las Vegas's Latino-heavy adult leagues. But less than a third of voting-age Latinos in the state are even registered to vote, and many of those who are registered are likely to be reluctant to participate in a complex, public process conducted in a language with which many of them are not familiar. (There is no word for "caucus" in Spanish.) "Energizing the Latino vote here is much, much harder than people think," says Herzik. "It gets talked about every year, but it's never really happened."
Unions, for their part, have been energized--just not quite in the way the DNC had hoped. The state's most powerful union, the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, endorsed Obama, but only after his strong showing in Iowa and surge in support nationally. Since then, the biggest news in the state pitted organized labor against itself. The state teachers' union--widely considered an ally of the Clinton campaign--sued unsuccessfully to prevent Culinary members from caucusing at specially organized at-large sites near their workplaces on the Strip. (Neither the union nor the Clinton campaign had objected to the rules before the culinary workers endorsed Obama.) The Clark County affiliate of the teachers' union declined to support the state union's lawsuit, however, and the state Democratic Party, which devised the at-large system for Strip employees, was lukewarm in defending its own caucus rules for fear of offending the teachers. More than bringing labor to prominence, holding caucuses in Nevada seems mostly to have exposed the long-simmering rivalries among the state's unions--along with, for better or worse, some of the more unsavory aspects of the Clinton campaign.
None of which is to suggest that the DNC erred in granting the Silver State its moment to shine. It has genuinely ramped up political enthusiasm in Nevada, and its early role is no less arbitrary than granting a pole position to Iowa, or New Hampshire, or any other state. But as the parties contemplate changes to the nominating process for 2012 and beyond, though, it's worth keeping in mind the lessons of Nevada: Each election cycle will play out in its own unpredictable way. There's much to recommend a system of rotating regional primaries, which seems intrinsically fairer and more logical than the current morass. But designing a process in order to empower specific groups or address the defects of the last election cycle will usually amount to a roll of the dice.
Josh Patashnik is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.