Nation

In Nevada, high stakes for Clinton and Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke with students at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas Friday.
John Locher/Associated Press
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke with students at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas Friday.

LAS VEGAS — This state is known for gambling, Celine Dion, brothels, sinful secrets, and quickie weddings. Presidential politics? Not so much.

When Nevada Democrats gather at 250 caucus locations around the state Saturday, it will be only the second time they’ve weighed in on presidential candidates so early in the calendar.

So unlike the first two states, which are steeped in presidential traditions, even the most sophisticated political operations have scant idea what might happen, and the potential for problems at the caucus sites is high.

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Adding to the drama: The stakes for the caucuses this time are incredibly high and could either restore Hillary Clinton to her comfortable path to the nomination or cast major questions about her campaign’s trajectory.

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“There’s no tradition of getting out the vote,” said Eric Herzik, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada in Reno. “What’s the joke in Iowa? You have to meet the candidate five times before you know him? If the candidate makes five visits out here, that’s a lot.”

Even finding volunteers to phone bank or build out a crowd can be tricky since there isn’t an ingrained political volunteer class like there is in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“There’s always something else to do here,” said Andres Ramirez, a Democratic political consultant and activist in Nevada. “There is always a concert. There is always a show or a celebrity coming to town. You are competing with all of this for attention and everyone is looking for volunteers.”

The candidates themselves can get caught up in the glitzy culture: Hillary Clinton stepped out of presidential mode for a few moments Thursday and posed for photos with Britney Spears, who is in Vegas for her “Piece of Me” tour.

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Her caucus-day party will be at the lavish Caesars Palace — hours before singer Mariah Carey preforms there.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, too, latched onto the celebrity culture and planned events in the state Friday with actress Susan Sarandon and entertainer Dick Van Dyke.

His caucus-day party is in the Henderson neighborhood of Vegas, which was smashed by the 2008 housing crisis.

Nevada clocked the highest number of home foreclosures for five years in a row, which has had ripple effects on political organizing. The voter lists became scrambled since whole neighborhoods of people were forced to move elsewhere.

Clinton has been working the state for far longer than Sanders, and garnered support from some of the union shock troops used to reliably get voters to polls in Senate and gubernatorial elections.

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That includes the Nevada State Education Association, a powerful presence here, which endorsed Clinton and sent teachers out walking door to door to get voters interested in participating Saturday’s caucuses. Members of the Nevada local of the Service Employees International Union also have been making calls for Clinton.

‘There’s always some-thing else to do here. You are compet-ing with all of this.’

Clinton won the state’s establishment support, as she did in Iowa and New Hampshire. Catherine Cortez Masto, the leading Democrat to take over Senate minority leader Harry Reid’s seat and heir to his formidable political organization, has been stumping for Clinton.

Bernie Sanders paused for a selfie as he greeted hotel workers at Caesars Palace hotel and casino on Friday in Las Vegas.
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Bernie Sanders paused for a selfie as he greeted hotel workers at Caesars Palace hotel and casino on Friday in Las Vegas.

Not all the support on the ground here is sanctioned by the Clinton campaign. One new organization called “Hookers 4 Hillary” includes sex workers who’ve endorsed Clinton. One woman, known as Hollywood, is donating extra time to anyone willing to review the group’s pro-Clinton website.

Supporters of the Vermont senator are telegraphing some concern about the caucus process. On Friday they urged one another to videotape caucus proceedings as a way to guard against fraud or incompetence.

As of last week, many of the state party volunteers who will be charged with running the caucus meetings showed they had much to learn. Some weren’t clear on even who was allowed to participate in the caucuses.

“I have a question,” asked one woman at a Democratic Party caucus training in Las Vegas on Wednesday. “Do people just come to the door and you let them in? Or are they invited? Who are we going to get the caucus votes from, is what I’m asking.”

A party official patiently explained that the caucus is open to all Democrats in the state. The party allows same-day registration, a move that helps it boost numbers.

The complex formulas to determine whether a candidate is viable proved to be confusing.

At one point a Democratic party worker asked the volunteers to figure out how many supporters each candidate needed to be viable under the confounding rules of the caucus. The right answer: 2.7.

And party rules stipulate that in case of a tie at individual caucus meeting places, the winner is determined by a high card drawn from a pack of playing cards.

Anticipating some shenanigans, the Nevada Democratic Party fired off a letter to both campaigns Friday urging them not to spread misinformation about how the caucuses and delegate allocation works.

Nevada Republicans will not hold their party caucuses until Tuesday. That’s led some to believe Republican voters might try take advantage of the same-day registration and show up for the Democratic caucuses to cast votes against Clinton.

Polling for Saturday’s caucus shows a dead heat.

But pollsters have trouble with accuracy here. In 2008, CNN published a poll two days before the Republican contest showing that Senator John McCain was leading with 29 percent and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was in third place with 19 percent.

When the results came in, Romney got 51 percent and McCain finished third with 13 percent of the vote.

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.