Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Four years ago, Nevada launched into the national electoral elite, becoming one of the first four states that vote in the quadrennial presidential nominating contests, and the first state to vote in the West.
Nevada sought that national spotlight in 2008 — mostly at the Democrats’ urging — and has since fought to protect it, as it did this year when Florida muscled its way into the early-state schedule. (Nevada ended up dropping back to No. 5.)
Nevada won that presumably influential early place in the process of winnowing presidential candidates because it was a caucus state, which the Democratic Party wanted.
But after last weekend’s error-filled, extended-count Republican caucuses, some are wondering if Nevada has ruined its chances of remaining early and influential in future election cycles.
“The turnout dropped dramatically. That in itself is a tremendous embarrassment,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Then the differing (start) hours, that was ridiculous. And the Saturday evening caucus? Really, the entire political community in the country was laughing. That is not the way you want to leave the country.”
Problems with the way Republicans conducted the caucus — severely delayed results, differing rules across the state, last-minute changes to the hours — were embarrassing, but the Nevada Republican Party’s initial decision to cede its top four spot to Florida was probably the most damaging to the GOP’s ability to keep Nevada an early caucus state, Sabato said.
“By not fighting hard, Nevada ended up yielding its very special No. 4 position — and I don’t think they’ll get it back,” Sabato said.
Over the decades, Iowa and New Hampshire have been relentless in protecting their early state status, with New Hampshire going so far as to write protections into state law.
That law was part of what complicated matters for Nevada last October — the Republican National Committee (RNC), buckling under pressure from New Hampshire state officials and the Republican presidential candidates, urged Nevada to fall back to fifth place.
When Nevada eventually conceded, agreeing to move aside for Florida in October, former Gov. Bob List said he had been “assured early status going forward.” But few are confident that will happen after the spectacle of the caucuses invited national ridicule.
Statewide, almost 28 percent fewer Republicans turned out for the highly-publicized 2012 caucuses than had come out for the then-new, relatively underpublicized party caucuses of 2008.
Romney was declared the winner early on, but a tense and contested counting process in Clark County — where almost 80 percent of the state’s Republicans are registered to vote — dragged on through Sunday night, revealing several unintentional discrepancies in the vote count. By the time final, unofficial results were available, it was already the wee hours of Monday morning on the East Coast, where the GOP party heads reside.
National Republicans watching Nevada from afar were conferring in a constant flurry of frustration all weekend, forming the distinct negative impression, in the words of one Republican official, that “this did not go well.”
Officially, the RNC is refusing to even render an impression on the caucuses.
“Honestly, the only thing we’re focused on right now is making sure that folks in Nevada don’t have to suffer under President Obama’s failed policies any more,” RNC spokesman Darren Littell said when asked about the caucuses.
Not all Republicans believe the early status is worth fighting for, saying big national events such as a caucus or a national convention are full of glitz but distract from the party’s real purpose — winning elections.
“It doesn’t matter if we don’t get the early caucus,” said David Gallagher, executive director of the Nevada Republican Party. “We don’t need it to win, and it can actually hurt us. Those events suck up money that otherwise the party would take. It put us in the hole last time, and we’ll barely be in the black this time.”
But Nevada’s ultimate electoral fate does not rest just in the hands of the RNC.
This weekend’s events sparked several complaints that the caucus process isn’t right for Nevada and calls to switch to primaries instead.
If momentum builds behind that effort, the 2012 Republican caucuses could become the wrecking ball that destroys the powerhouse that Sen. Harry Reid built. Among other reasons, Nevada Democrats used the caucuses as party-building affairs.
Republicans were dragged — some of them kicking and screaming — into the early slot by Democrats four years ago. Republicans had debated foregoing the third-in-the-nation spot but ultimately decided it could be good for the party to follow in the Democrats’ footsteps.
Because the parties run their election contests, the Republicans’ caucus performance technically shouldn’t affect the Democrats’ proceedings, especially since that party’s most recent competitive caucus in 2008 had a high turnout and results were reported in a timely fashion.
But while the parties make the decisions about the time, place and protocols within the caucuses, the state legislature makes the call about whether Nevada will run caucuses at all — and that could complicate matters across parties.
When Nevada received its early-state status in 2008, it was because the state fit all the necessary requirements for a newly-opened election calendar: Democratic National Committee (DNC) officials decided in 2006 to open the early state slate to one Southern state and one Western state to share top billing with Iowa and New Hampshire. To keep things balanced, the DNC decided one of the new states could be a primary, while the other would have to be a caucus.
South Carolina, a conservative Southern state that likes to brag about its reputation for picking presidents (though its choice of Gingrich may break that streak), was a natural choice to fill the primary slot.
Likewise, Nevada’s newly adopted caucuses — with a little help from Reid’s national influence — made the Silver State the obvious choice to step into the spotlight.
If Nevada’s legislature decides to dispense with the caucus process in favor of primaries, it could jeopardize the Silver State’s early standing simply because it no longer complies with the set rules.
“I’m sure that conversation would come up” as the DNC decides its 2016 primary calendar, said one source who works closely with Democrats. He said he doubts they would ultimately yank Nevada’s early-state status just because of Republicans.
But some state-based Democrats are worried that public uproar in response to the caucus fiasco will drive a movement to switch Nevada from a caucus to a primary state.
“What could hurt our positioning is the reactionary move to a primary system,” said one Democratic official. “We’ll have to watch that effort closely.”
But for now, officially, Democrats are putting on a brave face — and pointing an accusing finger.
“There’s only one state party whose ineptitude will give their national committee pause to once again allow them a prominent role in choosing the leader of the free world: the Nevada Republican Party,” said Nevada Democratic Party spokesman Zac Petkanas.