Low Turnout And A Transient Population Make The Nevada Caucuses Unpredictable

Feb 19, 2016

Iowa and New Hampshire voters look forward to the presidential nominating process with high expectations of contact with candidates and a long tradition of vetting them. And then comes … Nevada.

The Democratic presidential process takes an unpredictable turn as it heads west this weekend.

“Get out the vote” and the “get out the caucus” efforts are a staple of any political campaign. You want to make sure your people show up when it counts.

Volunteers are working the phones at a Clinton campaign office in a suburban office park in Las Vegas.

“Are you going to be supporting Hillary in the caucus on Saturday? Oh fantastic, me too! Do you know where to go?” one says. “I don’t know what your fiance’s address is, but he can plug in his address ... Would you like me to do it now? I have my computer open and ready.”

And across town in a stucco strip mall, Bernie Sanders volunteers are doing the same.

“Make sure to spread the word and bring as many people as you can to caucus for Bernie, because we really need a big showing this year,” a volunteer says.

Rania Batrice, a spokeswoman with the Sanders campaign in Nevada, says it’s equally important to teach people what a caucus is.

“The training component has been important across the board, because we’re trying to bring in so many new people who haven’t been part of the process before,” she says.

“People who haven’t been part of the process” – that’s a phrase that also describes a lot of Nevada’s eligible voters.

According to David Damore, who teaches political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the state has a high rate of migration – people moving in and out of the state.

"People don't move to Nevada to develop community. They move to Nevada to make money." - David Damore, University of Nevada, Las Vegas political scientist

“People don’t move to Nevada to develop community, they move to Nevada to make money,” he says. “You look at the predictors of political engagement – community ties, education, marital status, age, wealth – a lot of those … there’s just not the high levels that would allow you to have voter turnout that would match the population.”

That means Nevada tends to be one of the lowest voting states, and one of the lowest voter registration states, Damore says.

And that’s why so much effort is going into teaching Nevada Democrats how to caucus.

A few dozen Sanders supporters gather at his campaign office on a Tuesday night in the City of Henderson. As a group, they have the demeanor of students taking a class that they care about – which this is, kind of. It’s a how-to-caucus workshop to get these voters prepped for what will happen on Saturday morning.

A few dozen Sanders supporters gather at his campaign office on a Tuesday night in Henderson, Nevada for a how-to-caucus workshop.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

Louise Duffy will chair her own caucus precinct in Boulder City on Saturday, and she says training sessions like the one she’s leading are essential.

“The turnover of residency in Nevada is pretty high, and the only other real caucus we did was in 2008 – so a lot of people have moved. And moved in and moved out since 2008,” she says. “So I think it’s crucial.”

You can tell by her southern accent, Duffy is an example of a typical Nevadan – someone who came here from somewhere else.

So it begs the question: With low voter turnout, a population that doesn’t stick around and a voting system that’s new and unfamiliar – why is Nevada third in line to pick the Democratic presidential nominee?

The answer: Harry Reid. Former Senate Majority Leader, and arguably the most powerful politician in Nevada.

At a recent press conference, a reporter asked the senator if Nevada will hold the “First in the West” position after he retires.

“Sure hope so, if I have anything to say about it,” he said.

The results of this Saturday’s caucus will be read like tea leaves by the rest of the country, as pundits and voters alike track where the race between Sanders and Clinton is headed.

A Hillary Clinton volunteer takes refuge under a table. The results of this Saturday's caucus will be read like tea leaves by the rest of the country, as pundits and voters alike track where the race between Sanders and Clinton is headed.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

But political scientist David Damore at UNLV says that’s not really what the caucus is about:

“What you have to view these caucuses as is a party-building exercise more than anything else. The state party and Harry Reid are using these events to increase their registration numbers,” he says, and laughs. “That’s the main reason it’s organized the way it is.”

Back at the how-to-caucus training in Henderson, Louise Duffy reflects on the primary race.

“I’m going to be excited when we have a Democrat in the White House,” she says. “And I’m OK if it’s Hillary. But I’d prefer it be Bernie, I’d strongly prefer it to be Bernie, that’s why I’m devoting my time and resources to Bernie. But I’m going to vote as a Democrat.”

Whether Democrats here will line up for Clinton or Sanders will become clear on at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning, when they report to caucus precincts across Nevada.

VPR's coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.