A decade ago, Democrats and Republicans seeking to break up the Iowa-New Hampshire duopoly of the early presidential nominating process hit upon a solution: By allowing Nevada to move near the front of the calendar, both parties would encourage their candidates to appeal to a different kind of voter in the same small-venue setting voters in those other two states enjoyed.
For Democrats, advancing Nevada meant an opportunity to bring Hispanics, a growing power within the party’s coalition, to the fore. It also meant giving union voters, still a founding pillar of the Democratic ranks, a bigger role. For Republicans, looking west was supposed to encourage candidates to think beyond conservative early-state voters.
But by 2016, the third presidential nominating contest in which Nevada will play a prime role, Silver State voters have not demonstrated the zeal for presidential politics that state politicians might have hoped. Instead, supporters of an early Nevada caucus fear they may be in for another contest marred by low turnout — and they worry both parties could give another state the chance to influence the next round of presidential voting.
“The biggest thing I’m hopeful for … is that there be a good turnout. Right now, it doesn’t seem like there will be,” Nevada’s Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval said in an interview Saturday. “That’s going to be a problem.”
In 2008, when Nevada got its first chance to caucus early, about 117,000 Democrats showed up to vote, compared with just 43,000 Republicans. Democrats used the enthusiasm edge that year to recruit volunteers, who helped Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid win re-election two years later. By 2012, only 12,000 Democrats showed up to caucus — President Obama, seeking a second term, had no opposition. Incredibly, Republican turnout fell that year too, to 33,000.
This year, only about 80,000 Nevada voters showed up to vote in Saturday’s Democratic caucuses, one-third fewer than showed up in 2008, despite the hard-fought battle between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). There are 488,000 registered Republicans in Nevada, but observers expect fewer than one in 10 of those voters to show up on Tuesday.
“We are still relatively new to the early-state game,” Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston said.
Ralston blamed some of the lack of organization on a relatively weak state Republican Party, which has been riven by a multi-year feud between mainstream conservatives and backers of former Rep. Ron Paul. Republican candidates spent much more on television advertising in South Carolina than they have in Nevada.
Still, with the GOP field wide open, contenders have made a point to build a presence in Nevada. Sandoval said several campaigns — notably Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida — have spent money building ground-game operations.
But strategists in both parties are already scheming to rob Nevada of its early-state status. One member of the Republican National Committee has introduced a measure that would take away a carve-out set aside for all four early states, including South Carolina. A similar effort is likely to emerge within the Democratic National Committee; both parties have worked together behind the scenes to ensure some modicum of control over the presidential nominating calendar.
Officials in both parties from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have all worked hand in glove for years to ensure they maintain their prime position; Nevada, several sources said, has been an afterthought in that alliance. Some speculated that disenchantment with the early-state carve-out could be mollified if Nevada gets the boot.
Reid, the driving force that pushed Nevada to the front of the pack, is retiring. The lack of a strong Nevada presence inside the RNC, too, means it may not have allies to defend its position. Without those allies, Nevada’s status as an early state is in serious jeopardy.
One former RNC member, a veteran of the early-state debate, observed: “Based on Saturday’s [Democratic] results and Tuesday’s anticipated GOP results, the best friend Nevada may have in maintaining early-state status is a President Clinton or a President Trump.”