Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 | 2 a.m.
At about 10 p.m. on the evening of Feb. 4, all of the GOP presidential campaigns agreed to release unofficial results of the Republican presidential caucus to a ravenous Fourth Estate.
All but one, that is. Carl Bunce, the head of Ron Paul’s operation in Nevada, objected.
All around him at the small county headquarters near downtown Las Vegas were open boxes of ballots, folders strewn about on tables where mostly elderly vote-counters were sitting, and sign-in sheets from caucus locations were missing.
“It was chaos in there,” Bunce recalled. “It was a rat’s nest.”
Indeed, the scene was more reminiscent of a Marx Brothers movie than the supposedly serious execution of counting votes to help determine the next leader of the free world. But because of the objections of the Paul folks, who had threatened lawsuits in the weeks leading up to the caucus if unofficial results were released, Clark County Chairman Dave Gibbs declined to send tallies, readily available from each caucus site, to the state to release. Those results would have closely mirrored the actual numbers, which would not be released until more than 24 hours later — a day and a half after most caucus results had been tallied on site. By then, the winner already was obvious — Mitt Romney — and so was the loser — the Nevada Republican Party.
Whatever you have heard, whatever you have read about the GOP caucus disaster, it was worse. I come to that conclusion after talking to some folks who were eyewitnesses to this embarrassing bit of history. Despite Republican National Committeeman Bob List’s game efforts to put a good face to the world — we released certified results sooner than Iowa! — this was a comedy without a laugh track, one that makes the Keystone Cops look like the Mossad.
And while much of the blame is now going to the Paul campaign for raising roadblocks, and while some of the Texas congressman’s supporters live in an alternate universe, that is not even close to a fair assessment of why this all went awry. “This is a huge fumble on behalf of the Republican Party,” said one high-ranking official who saw what happened.
The seeds for the weekend nightmare were sown weeks before the Feb. 4 event. The Paul campaign, which had skillfully infiltrated the executive board and other levels of GOP hierarchy, was already threatening to sue over what Bunce later told me were “chain of custody (of ballots)” issues.
“So the decision was made that they would just do a hand count (on Caucus Day) rather than release anything,” one insider confided.
Said another about why Gibbs kowtowed to the Paul folks on caucus night: “No wonder Gibbs was so nervous about (releasing unofficial returns) caucus night. He had already been threatened with this lawsuit. I still think they were bluffing and he should have stood against this nonsense.”
Gibbs, who seems like a well-intentioned fellow to me, has consistently maintained that he wanted to get the results right. But what people may not realize is that all the site managers had been trained before the caucus to call in numbers before bringing the ballots for certification, a process that typically takes place weeks after an election, just so unofficial results could be released. Indeed, most were being released in real time as folks at the caucuses were putting them out on Twitter and several people were tallying them. Nate Silver, the statistics whiz who blogs for The New York Times, early on extrapolated from what I put out on Twitter that Romney would get 60 percent in Clark County – he got 58 percent.
The point is: They had the results to release and didn’t because the party officials were frightened of lawsuits. If they had released unofficial results early Saturday evening after the so-called Adelson caucus had begun and, as they had promised, they would have closely matched the actual, certified results.
As the day progressed, state party officials, national folks who were in town or the caucus and others thought everything was going swimmingly. The rural results were streaming in on Twitter and on a slick Google map the party had erected. Everyone was all smiles at the de facto state headquarters, a k a The Venetian.
Until early evening, when they realized something was wrong. Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian dispatched people down to the Charleston Boulevard headquarters, including her husband, Danny, the congressional hopeful, to see what was going on.
What they came upon was the scene Bunce described and validated by others. Gibbs had left to go to the Adelson caucus, which had now threatened to become – and did become – a similar spectacle.
The Paul folks had done not one, but two robocalls, including one from the congressman’s granddaughter, to urge his supporters to flood the caucus, which they thought could not be restricted to those who had religious reasons for not voting earlier. (The party’s so-called “declaration” is laughable and bereft of any legal force – I have posted it on my blog — and couldn’t even spell declaration correctly.)
Inside the county headquarters, Woody Stroupe, Gibbs’ lieutenant who had already made a name for himself saying voting “is a privilege not a right” and had assailed the secretary of state for stacking the deck against the GOP in the state, was … in charge.
Bunce, who is a reasonable and smart guy, not one of the Paul crazies, described what he saw that evening.
“They (the counters) were like zombies,” he told me, and others echoed that description of earnest volunteers, many of them military vets, but long in the tooth and already sitting there too long. “There was a complete lack of process. I asked, ‘Why don’t we get new volunteers in there?’”
Bunce said he objected to releasing unofficial results because of the zoo-like atmosphere, but Gibbs could have overruled him. It wasn’t just about a media starved for results and already ridiculing the count on Twitter. The party’s credibility, after hyping the event, was at stake.
But, Bunce insisted, “I just didn’t see the rush to get out into the Twitterverse.”
I think he’s wrong about that and unofficial results should have been released. But you can see why he was wary.
Gibbs eventually decided somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 a.m. to stop the count as his minions were exhausted. Bunce, worried about that chain of custody, insisted on a security guard to revere the integrity of the ballots. By the next morning, they were still counting relatively slowly, but a committee eventually resolved ballots in a “Trouble Box” (there’s a metaphor for the caucus) and only 20 ballots were discarded.
Eventually, the Paul folks relented and let the count progress. It still took until late Sunday evening and final numbers were not posted, which showed the remarkably low turnout of 33,000 voters (8 percent), until early Monday morning.
Bunce, who had been hoping for a low turnout, said his people “just didn’t turn out,” and added, “There were no real signs of voters fraud, only a lack of process.”
But the Paul folks are not done. Delegates to the state convention “are the real game,” Bunce told me, and he claims to have twice the numbers the campaign did in 2008 when the Paul army forced the shutdown of the state convention. (Mark your calendars for May 5.)
“We run the party,” Bunce told me, adding, wryly, “unfortunately.”