Could a crowded field and California make the Nevada caucuses matter?

the two on top, if I had to pick
Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders were some of the potential 2020 presidential contenders who campaigned for Nevada candidates last year. Nevada Current file photos.

Unless you count races for mayor and city council — and almost no one does — there are no elections in Nevada in 2019.

But there won’t be any shortage of politics over the next year, and not just in Carson City.

Nevada’s presidential caucus is just a little more than a year away, which means candidates who want to win it will be spending a lot of time in the state this year.  Many of them — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Eric Holder — will be making return visits, having showed up to campaign for Nevada Democrats in 2018.

Nevada’s caucus, you’ll remember, comes after Iowa and New Hampshire and before South Carolina.  That early spot on the calendar was secured for the state by the Great and Powerful Harry Reid in the 2008 cycle, ostensibly to give the West more prominence in the process, and include more diverse voters than the overwhelmingly white snowbound farmers of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Reid’s real goal was to build and strengthen the state party to help him win reelection in the 2010 cycle. It worked, more or less (though I’ve always contended the factor that drove Democratic turnout in 2010 wasn’t party organization as much as the existence of Sharron Angle). Ever since, the parties, especially Democrats, have built organization and registration growth around the caucus.

But for whatever reason — distance, tradition, the national perception of caucuses as second-rate elections, always scheduled on a Saturday — Nevada has never captured the political imagination like the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada has never attracted much campaign ad spending in the runup to the caucus. Among the national political press, if a third state appears in the same sentence with Iowa and New Hampshire, its almost always the state that comes after Nevada, South Carolina. Iowa, New Hampshire and even South Carolina have propelled or ended candidacies. The same can’t really be said of Nevada.

Could the 2020 cycle be different? Maybe, depending on how a couple factors shake out.

First, there is The Very Large Array: The record for the most candidates in one party during a presidential primary season is 16, set by Democrats in both 1972 and 1976. As of this morning, at least 30 Democrats are mulling the 2020 presidential race. Several will start taking themselves out of consideration in short order. But by the time Iowans kick things off with their caucus next Feb. 3,  the size of the field could still easily exceed the prior record.

That crowded 1976 field is why the Iowa caucuses are a thing. Up until then, no one, including candidates, had ever paid much attention to them. Jimmy Carter did. Presidential wannabes and their press have been bundling up to withstand the Iowa winter ever since.

If there are still multiple candidates hanging around by the Nevada caucuses, and the Nevada winner is not someone who already won Iowa or New Hampshire,* Nevada may have legitimately propelled a candidate early in the process, counting as the most significant consequence of the Nevada caucuses, ever. Actually mattering to the presidential selection process would at least ameliorate some of the many reasons that caucuses are inferior to primaries.

And by the time of the Nevada caucuses, tentatively expected to happen Feb. 22, 2020, early voting will already be underway in California, which is moving it’s primary up to March 3 in what is scheduled to be a 9-state Super Tuesday that also includes Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts.

There is a chance that front-loading California into the process could suck all the energy out of the rest of the West, as candidates flock to the much bigger state, relegating poor Nevada to fly-over status.

Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, California big-footing it all over the primary calendar could enhance Nevada’s influence.

Geography alone could translate to heightened attention to Nevada. Candidates are going to be coming out West anyway. (Unless they decide to cede California to the locals — in addition to Harris, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and billionaire Tom Steyer are among other Californians who could be on the state’s ballot.)

California has 40 million people and campaigning there is really expensive and, unlike Nevada’s caucus, ad-intensive, a game reserved perhaps for only most well-funded candidates.

But nothing succeeds like success, and a win in an early state, maybe even an early state next door, could give even more lightly-funded campaigns momentum and credibility as the process moves on from Nevada to California and other more populated states.

If the crowded field and the rejiggered calendar does translate to more influence for Nevada, that raises another question: What kind of influence?

Nevada is the first state in the nation with a female majority legislature. It boasts a more broadly diverse electorate and a stronger labor movement than any of the other early states. On paper, Nevada almost looks like a progressive bastion, eager to push forward a presidential candidate with a leftist economic and social agenda.

Almost.

Nevada Democrats last year also had a chance to nominate a progressive woman as their candidate for governor. Instead, today a self-described moderate and centrist who leans toward fiscal conservatism will be taking the oath of office. Many Democratic primary voters felt Steve Sisolak was “the electable one.” Don’t be surprised if, as presidential contenders parachute into Nevada over the next 13 months, the top priority of Nevada Democratic caucus-goers is not inequality, institutional racism, a Green New Deal or Medicare for All, but electability.

 

*There is one example of this happening since Nevada became an early caucus state in 2008, and it was in 2008, when Mitt Romney won Nevada after Mike Huckabee had won Iowa and John McCain had won New Hampshire. Romney’s Nevada victory was met mostly with a collective national yawn, however, because other candidates, including McCain, all but ceded Nevada to Romney because of the state’s many LDS Republican voters.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.

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