Notes from a messy caucus in Carson City

I came face-to-face with my fellow Democrats on Saturday the 19th, and it was an uneasy encounter for all concerned because I haven't been active in party politics since I worked for former Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer, a Democrat, in the 1960s.

Nevertheless, I showed up at Carson Middle School ready to experience my first political caucus. There we were, between 200 and 300 mostly middle-aged Democrats, awaiting instructions, which were being shouted out by party officials who were doing their best to be heard over cheers for the leading candidates for the party's presidential nomination, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. The absence of a sound system was a major problem.

Everyone milled around for a while before bunching up in groups favoring one candidate or the other as young cheerleaders did their best to whip up enthusiasm. I felt sorry for the supporters of the also-rans, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. I was one of two uncommitted caucus participants because my preferred candidates, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, dropped out of the race after the New Hampshire primary earlier this month. Too bad about that; I thought Richardson would do well in the West, but he ran out of money, as did Biden.

"Who are you voting for?" the organizers asked. "No one," I replied. "Thanks for asking but I'm just an observer." So I sat alone in the Middle School bleachers until a friendly Kucinich supporter joined me before going off to join the Edwards contingent, which barely achieved the 15 percent support necessary to remain in contention. Overall, Edwards and Kucinich each received less than 5 percent of the statewide caucus vote, a pathetic showing by any measure.

Eventually, the organizers made themselves understood and caucus participants sat or stood in groups favoring their chosen candidates. A rather disorganized head-count ensued and results were duly announced and recorded. And then, after a few more half-hearted cheers, everyone went home and lived happily ever after. Truth be told, it wasn't a very exciting experience, but it was grassroots democracy in action.

Apparently, local Republican caucuses were even messier, with only two locations for hundreds of participants. Lines stretched around the block at the Senior Center and a few caucus-goers complained about the cold and long lines while others made the best of a trying situation. "I'm fine out here," one lady told the Appeal. "We're bundled up and having fun," but not everyone agreed. Grassroots democracy isn't always pretty to watch. As fellow columnist Kirk Caraway opined, it's like observing the sausage-making process. It's ugly until a tasty sausage comes out of the other end of the machine.STATEWIDE RESULTS

Although the Clinton Machine prevailed in Las Vegas and throughout populous Southern Nevada, Obama won the rest of the state, including Carson City, and he also earned 13 national convention delegates to Hillary's 12. Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton won the statewide Democratic caucuses by a comfortable 51-45 margin while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney rode a wave of support from his fellow Mormons to swamp his nearest GOP rivals, Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Arizona Sen. John McCain, by more than 35 percentage points.

TV anchors and political pundits who couldn't pronounce "Nevada" made some misleading and/or stupid statements as they analyzed the caucus results. They overestimated the importance of the Hispanic vote by asserting that Hispanics and women carried Mrs. Clinton to victory. It's true that women voters preferred the former First Lady, but Hispanics had a marginal impact on the final result. Even though more than 20 percent of Nevada residents are Hispanics, they account for less than 10 percent of the state's voters; immigrants, legal and illegal, can't vote because they aren't American citizens. Duh! That's why those Vegas casino caucuses weren't dominated by Spanish-speaking dishwashers and busboys, and why Obama didn't win down south despite being endorsed by the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union.

With a record turnout approaching 160,000 voters - 116,000 Democrats and 44,000 Republicans - Nevadans showed intense interest in this year's wide-open presidential election. The turnout far exceeded the "experts'" predictions, and that's why the parties weren't better prepared. "The deluge of unexpected caucus-goers overwhelmed organizers for both parties and resulted in frustrating chaos for participants," wrote a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter. In fact, the caucuses were so poorly organized that some state lawmakers are calling for a return to a presidential preference primary.

And finally, I'm pleased to report that the pollsters were wrong again. A frequently cited Maryland-based poll published by the RGJ had predicted Nevada victories for Obama and McCain, but that didn't happen. Anyone who thought that McCain could beat a strong Mormon candidate here was semi-delusional. In fact, McCain finished third behind libertarian Ron Paul in our maverick state.

An important lesson learned from the caucuses was that the presidential nomination races are wide open in both parties and for the first time in years, one or both of the nomination battles may not be settled until next summer's party conventions. Now that would be fun for us political junkies. Let the games begin.

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a semi-retired journalist who has observed Nevada and national politics for more than 40 years.


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