Democratic candidates tread lightly in Nevada
LAS VEGAS – If Iowa and New Hampshire are the favorite sons, then Nevada may be the presidential primary’s awkward stepchild.
Nine months into the race, few know what to make of the Nevada caucus, which is sandwiched between historical trendsetters Iowa and New Hampshire but falling far behind both states in media and candidate attention.
Nevada was picked, first by Democrats, to host an early caucus in hope of giving a more diverse electorate a say in choosing the nominee. States that pick their candidates early typically set the pace for the rest of the country.
But while candidates are visiting Nevada, they are campaigning amid much uncertainty about turnout, labor support and public interest. An evolving primary calendar also threatens to bump the state from its No. 2 spot.
“It’s hard to judge right now how significant Nevada is going to be,” said political consultant Jenny Backus, a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “They’re very much a victim of calendar confusion right now.”
It is most evident on the Democratic side.
Last month, John Edwards’ campaign reacted to Nevada’s tenuous position by pulling some of his staff out of the state and sending them to Iowa and New Hampshire, two states deemed more critical. His campaign said it was a matter of resources and has suggested that it will make up for the losses with union forces.
Long-shot candidate Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., pulled his state director and another organizer out of Nevada last Friday, cutting his total staff to two, the campaign said. Both were headed to Iowa.
Nevada Democrats, led by Reid, insist the caucus will be an arbiter of key demographic groups -Hispanics, labor and urban voters – and a test of the candidates’ viability in the West.
Losing the state “is going to hurt,” Reid said.
“It’s just like you lose Iowa. It’s just like you lose New Hampshire,” he said. “Now people are talking about what happens if you win or lose Nevada, it’s part of the mix now.”
But it’s a bigger mix than Nevada Democrats would like.
States have been rushing to move their contests earlier, some in defiance of party rules. Michigan moved ahead of Nevada; New Hampshire may leapfrog both.
What was a second-in-the-nation position for Nevada has become increasingly likely to turn into fourth, behind Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan. Faced with that prospect, Nevada Democrats haven’t ruled out the possibility of moving their caucus earlier on the calendar.
On the Republican side, the South Carolina GOP has moved its presidential primary to the same day as Nevada’s caucuses, adding more competition for candidates’ attention. Nevada’s early contest has generated even less campaigning by Republican contenders than by their Democratic counterparts.
If Democratic candidates keep their promise not to campaign in Michigan because that primary violates party rules, Nevada could be in position to break an Iowa-New Hampshire tie.
“Third actually may be better than second,” said Dan Hart, a Democratic political consultant in Nevada.
Other variables remain in play, however.
Nevada is an odd choice to host a caucus, the type of contest that tests organization and grass-roots activism. It isn’t known to have much of either.
State parties and activist groups have been historically weak. A transient population with large numbers that work odd hours in the casino industry leads to a spotty record of political involvement. Despite a two-week early voting period, Nevada regularly has some of the lowest voter turnout in the country.
It’s also difficult to gauge which interest groups will hold the most sway. Unions have a strong presence and have just begun endorsing. But the labor group most courted by Democrats, the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union, has said it may not endorse until as late as December.
Privately, campaigns argue they can win without Culinary support, partly because of another X factor: Hispanics.
The union represents large numbers of Hispanics, but they are far less politically active and organized in Nevada than in other Western states.
A recent survey also found participation in the caucus by self-identified Hispanics dropping by more than half when it was explained that the contest was a caucus. They prefer a traditional election.
All the unknowns have campaigns treading lightly.
Rather than camping out in the state for days at a time, top-tier candidates prefer to swoop in for large public rallies and private meetings.
Aides say turnout is unpredictable and some candidates have been reluctant to risk scheduling several events on the same day, fearing they won’t attract a crowd at each. A recent town hall meeting with Obama drew more than 1,000 people, but nearly half walked out while the senator was still speaking. The campaign blamed the awkward exodus on hotel and casino workers leaving for the evening shift.
Lucky for campaigns, few potential caucus-goers in Nevada have Iowa-size expectations for candidate attention. Many voters, even those describing themselves as interested in the presidential race, seem only vaguely aware of why their state is wielding this new political power.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” said Chris Lee, a 27-year-old executive with the Boy Scouts of America, as he waited in line to see Obama last week. “I just got a flier about it. Looks interesting.”
The state party is working to boost visibility and participation in the caucus with practice “mockuses” and other outreach efforts. Reid swore to protect the caucus’ position with “whatever is necessary.”
“I thought it was so un-American to have a presidential election determined by Iowa and New Hampshire, which are not representative of our country,” he said. “Nevada is at least representative of our country. We’re what America is all about.”