What You Need To Know About Nevada's Democratic Caucuses

Feb 18, 2016
Originally published on February 18, 2016 11:39 am

While much attention has been focused on Republicans competing in this weekend's South Carolina primary, Democrats will face off in Nevada on Saturday during the "First in the West" caucuses.

The race between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is tighter than anyone anticipated even a month ago. If you're watching from a distance or even if you live in the Silver State, here's what you need to know.

How does Democratic caucusing work in Nevada?

The caucuses take place on Saturday and the doors open at 11 a.m. PT. There are caucus sites at firehouses and schools, and also in a handful of casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, so shift workers can take part.

Caucusgoers move to different sides of the room to indicate which candidate they support. It's actually a lot like Iowa (so if you understood that confusing system, you're in luck). There can be a couple of rounds of forming "preference groups," though with only two candidates this time, there may not be a lot of reshuffling. Then the votes (or really voters) are tallied up, and delegates to county conventions are assigned.

Still confused? Luckily the state Democratic Party created a video to help:

Or if you need your dose of cute for the day, the Bernie Sanders campaign created an explainer using stuffed animals and a little girl who pronounces it cow-cus.

One important thing to note is that there is same-day registration, so people who aren't registered to vote or who are Republicans or independents can show up on Saturday, register as Democrats and caucus. All of this makes predicting an outcome incredibly hard.

How close is this race?

Nevada was supposed to be Hillary Clinton country. With its diverse population, the state was supposed to be the start of Clinton's firewall to stop Sanders. Based on what the campaigns are saying now, it's clear that firewall isn't as strong as originally thought.

"I think Nevada could be close. I sure do," said Clinton senior strategist Joel Benenson. "I think any of these states could be close. We'll see. I mean it's coming up pretty quickly."

That is not a campaign with swagger, exuding confidence. Public polls, which are admittedly pretty unreliable (because it is a caucus state with same-day registration and a transient population) show the race is well within the margin of error.

Meanwhile, Sanders, in an interview on the Nevada PBS show Ralston Live, could barely contain his optimism.

"We were way down here," Sanders said. "Who thought that we could win Nevada? If we get a decent turnout here I think we've got a real shot."

He was saying the same thing before Iowa, where Clinton wound up winning by the narrowest margin in history — so narrow, it was basically a tie. For some time, Sanders was spending more money on ads in Nevada than Clinton. NBC is reporting that is reversed and Clinton is spending more.

How diverse is Nevada's electorate?

You could say Nevada is what America would look like in the future. According to 2014 Census estimates, the population is 28 percent Hispanic, 9 percent black and 8 percent Asian. And those populations are growing quickly.

Dig down into the Democratic electorate and it is even more diverse than the general population. In 2008, Democratic caucusgoers were 65 percent white, 15 percent black and 15 percent Latino.

People like Nevada Sen. and Minority Leader Harry Reid argue Nevada's electorate is a much better reflection of the nation than Iowa or New Hampshire, the states that vote first. That's why he pushed to get Nevada moved up early in the calendar.

In 2008, the Culinary Union was a big factor. What about 2016?

The Culinary Workers Union endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and worked hard to get its members out to caucus. This year, that very influential union is staying neutral. It still worked to make sure its members could vote from their workplaces in casinos.

In 2008, 117,000 Democrats turned out to caucus. Experts in the state don't expect it to be nearly that high this year, in part because of the Culinary Union's neutrality.

Another thing about the caucuses in Nevada: 2008 was the first year they came early in the primary cycle. Before that, caucuses were sleepy affairs. So there's not a strong caucus history in Nevada like there is in Iowa. It's unfamiliar, and the population in Nevada is so transient there's been massive turnover since then. This is an added challenge for campaigns trying to get their supporters out to caucus.

What about Republicans?

They caucus on Tuesday, and much like in Iowa, they gather together and vote using paper ballots. None of this standing next to your neighbors publicly showing who you support stuff like the Democrats do. Turnout is expected to be even lower for the Republicans.

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And while much attention has been focused on Republicans competing in the South Carolina primary, in Nevada Saturday, Democrats will compete in the state's first-in-the-West caucuses.

NPR's Tamara Keith joined us from Las Vegas, where she's following the race. Welcome.


MONTAGNE: And we know from Iowa that the rules for caucuses can be complicated. How about Nevada?

KEITH: The doors will open at 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and there are caucus sites in firehouses and schools. But there are also several in places you might not expect - like casinos on the Las Vegas Strip so that shift workers can go to caucus. And then it is really like Iowa. Caucus goers will move to different sides of the room to indicate which candidate they support. And the other thing that's like Iowa is that there's same-day voter registration. What that means is that an independent or a Republican or somebody who simply isn't registered to vote can show up on caucus day, register as a Democrat and caucus that very same day, which makes it incredibly hard to predict how this is all going to turn out.

MONTAGNE: OK. So hard to predict but how do things look on the ground there for you?

KEITH: Well, Nevada was supposed to be Hillary Clinton country. It was supposed to be the start of her firewall to stop Vermont senator Bernie Sanders because the state's diverse voters were supposed to give her a strong edge. But now, listen to what the campaign is saying. Here's what senior strategist Joel Benenson from the Clinton campaign said when we asked about him about expectations in the state.

JOEL BENENSON: I think Nevada could be close, I sure do. I mean, I think any of these states could be close. We'll see, probably - I mean, it's coming up pretty quickly.

KEITH: This is not a campaign with swagger - that's exuding confidence. And meanwhile, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders does have some confidence (laughter). He was on the Nevada PBS "Ralston Live."


BERNIE SANDERS: We were way downhill. Who thought that we can win Nevada? I think we've got - if there's a decent turnout here, I think we got a real shot.

MONTAGNE: OK. Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton - what about the makeup in Nevada? You suggested it earlier - it was pretty diverse.

KEITH: Absolutely - and especially the Democratic electorate - and especially in big cities - Las Vegas, Henderson, to a lesser extent, Reno. There's a large Latino population here, but there's also a strong African-American and Asian population. You could say that Nevada is what America will look like in the future. And people like Senator Harry Reid of Nevada really pushed to get this state early in the process because of that diversity because it, he says, is a better reflection of the nation than Iowa or New Hampshire, which are of overwhelmingly white.

MONTAGNE: And unions have a bigger role to play in Nevada for Democrats.

KEITH: Absolutely - and one union, in particular, which is the Culinary Union, which represents casino workers. In 2008, they endorsed President Obama late in the game and really drove turnout to caucuses. Well, this time, they're staying neutral. They aren't endorsing anyone, and it's not clear what that will mean for turnout in this caucus.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Tamara Keith covering the Democratic side of the presidential race and joining us from Las Vegas. Thanks very much.

KEITH: You're welcome.


MONTAGNE: High pay for corporate bosses has been a big theme on the campaign trail this year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.