Nevada Democrats see November hope in caucus turnout

LAS VEGAS - The candidates are gone. The volunteers have packed up and shipped on to places like California. The lawn signs are mementos.

But has Nevada been changed?

Thanks to Saturday's early caucus, this Republican-leaning, general election swing state has been the epicenter of Democratic activity for weeks. Democrats are hoping it sticks until November.

They point to the more than 115,000 people who turned out for the Democratic caucus, a contest that had never drawn more than 9,000. Their turnout was more than 21Ú2 times the number of Republicans who showed up.

Much of the credit for what party officials are calling an "enthusiasm gap" goes to the campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. The candidates battled aggressively in Nevada, built strong organizations and visited regularly.

By contrast, most in the Republican field stayed away, choosing instead to campaign in Michigan and South Carolina.

The dynamic allowed Democrats to dominate television time, the phone lines and newspaper coverage. As people poured into the caucuses Saturday, the state party, long a foundering organization, was buzzing with new activity and expanding voter lists.

"We're turning Nevada blue," Democratic Party chairwoman Jill Derby said as she watched the turnout number climb. "We've gone from a Republican majority statewide in '06. We now have a Democratic majority statewide. We really hope the momentum will continue to influence '08 and 2010 and on into the future."

It's a hope shared by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the driving force behind Nevada's early placement on the presidential nomination calendar. The Nevada senator argued that by giving a Western state a greater say in picking the nominee, the winning candidate would be more likely to win the growing and increasingly politically powerful West in the general election.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor David Damore said Democrats made significant organizational strides in the party's caucuses, which required hundreds of volunteers and "caucus chairs" who ran the series of more than 1,700 meetings.

"They mobilized someone in every single precinct to run these things," he said and noted that included conservative rural parts of the state long abandoned by the party. "They've got to be feeling good about that."

Democrats here like to tout the state's history of picking winners. Nevadans have voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1952, with one exception. In 1976, the state voted for Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter won. George Bush won here twice, so did Bill Clinton.

As part of the caucus preparation, a rigorous voter registration drive has turn around the Democrats' 5,000 voter registration deficit in November 2006 to a 5,000 vote advantage in December. Many more new Democrats registered Saturday at caucus sites, though no numbers were immediately available.

Still, voter registration doesn't tell the whole story of Nevada politics.

Republicans had a mere 1 percent registration advantage when they handily won an open race for governor and re-elected incumbent Republicans Sen. John Ensign and Rep. Jon Porter in November 2006.

It's the 141,000 registered nonpartisans in Nevada who have historically been the key to winning. For these voters, who don't identify with a party, the candidate is more important than the label. Nonpartisans tend to be fiscally conservative and libertarian. In recent years they've trended Republican.

They helped give Ross Perot 26 percent of the overall vote in 1992 and nearly 10 percent four years later. Despite Bill Clinton's two victories, he never won 50 percent of the vote in Nevada.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment