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Nevada’s very messy caucuses

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a town meeting at the Elko High School gymnasium in Nevada on Friday.Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Less than a day before Nevada’s Democratic caucuses, the campaigns and the state party are bracing for problems. Again.

Nearly a decade ago, national Democrats moved Nevada toward the front of the presidential nominating calendar along with Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. They wanted to add a western and diverse state to the mix of early contests, and Republicans eventually followed suit.

But since its first run in 2008, the Nevada caucuses have been riddled with controversy, strife and turnout problems.

In the hours before Saturday’s Democratic caucuses, supporters of US Senator Bernie Sanders circulated messages asking each other to record caucus proceedings whenever possible. The Nevada Democratic Party also sent a letter to the campaigns, urging them not to spread misinformation about how the caucuses and delegate allocation works.


Also on Friday, the Nevada Secretary of State, Barbara Cegavske, expressed “concern” over Republicans who may attempt to participate in the Democratic caucuses by changing party affiliation. In theory, a Republican can register and caucus as a Democrat on Saturday, and the state’s system would not update before the person could participate GOP caucuses on Tuesday.

“It is a concern that a registered voter in Nevada might participate in both caucuses,” she said in a statement, adding dual caucus participants “may be subject” to a ban from further participation in the nominating process this year.

Finally, in the rare case of a tied caucus, Nevada Democrats have directed organizers to determine a winner by high-card draw.

For Democrats, the headache started with the party’s only other attempt to caucus in Nevada. In 2008, Hillary Clinton received more votes, but President Obama secured more delegates toward the nomination under party rules.

Nevada Republicans have previously been apathetic and disorganized in their caucus attempts. In 2012, 33,000 Republicans participated in the caucuses — a turnout of about 8 percent. It nonetheless took the state party three days to compile and release results.

In the years that followed, the state Republican party became increasingly torn between libertarian supporters of former presidential candidate Ron Paul and more mainstream, pro-business Republicans led by the state’s governor.


Last year, Republicans came close to converting their caucus into a primary, which is usually more accessible to voters. But those efforts failed in the Legislature.

This year, only US Senator Ted Cruz, US Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have a large enough campaign organization to compete in the Nevada GOP caucuses. New York businessman Donald Trump has held rallies there and is expected to do well there.

But until recently, the candidates from both parties largely avoided the state compared to the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Presidential candidates made 380 trips to New Hampshire since the beginning of 2015, 367 trips to Iowa, 219 trips to South Carolina and just 80 trips to Nevada, according to National Journal.

The Nevada caucus have been so problematic that both national parties have begun conversations about replacing Nevada with another state in 2020. Arizona Republican National Committeeman Bruce Ash, who chairs the party’s Rules Committee, said members of his committee will be watching closely to see how smoothly the Nevada caucuses are run this year.

“There has been a lot of concern,” Ash said.

Turnout on caucus day can be a gamble, and as a result, polling has been scarce — and often wrong.

In 2008, CNN released a poll two days before Republican contest showing that US Senator John McCain with 29 percent and Mitt Romney with 19 percent. When the caucus results came in, Romney got 51 percent, McCain finished third with 13 percent of the vote.


A recent poll showed a tied contest among the two Democrats in Nevada, and there’s a growing belief that Saturday’s contest will be pivotal to the nomination fight. A Sanders victory would continue his momentum, and a Clinton win would signal her ship is moving in the right direction on the path to win three of the first four early contests.

But all of this presumes the Nevada caucuses will be run smoothly.

Given its brief history, what are the odds of that happening?

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame

An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the potential penalty for voters participating in both parties’ caucuses.