What happened in Vegas
This year, I'm taking Georgetown students on a tour of early state nomination contests. In Nevada, we visited the first-in-the-west caucuses in Las Vegas. (We were in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier in the month.)
Are caucuses actually necessary in Nevada?
The Nevada caucuses display a mix of excitement, celebrity, and headaches. The cacuses that occur on the strip at resort/casinos, such as the one I witnessed at the Bellagio, exemplified the sports-like competition of the modern American political sphere: the competitors, observers, and media all squared-off in different corners, all vying to be a part of the action.
The Bellagio caucus was important for culinary union workers, the leadership of which did not endorse a candidate this election cycle. Sanders and Biden were the only viable candidates at this specific caucus. But about 70% of Nevada voters, as well as a majority of the culinary union, had voted early.
So, why have a caucus in Nevada at all? This election cycle the party introduced new rules which combined early voting with caucusing, in the hopes that fewer workers would have to take off their shifts to caucus and more voters would turn out. If workers are allowed two hours off to caucus anyways, why not make the delegate election process both easier and faster by changing caucuses to primary voting?
Furthermore, I witnessed the caucus organizers dash around the Bellagio looking tired and
distressed. They had probably been planning the logistics of the caucus for months, and they spent all morning talking to the media, observers, candidates and caucusgoers. All of the stress culminated into a one-hour sport-like event that ended fairly predictably. I was impressed by the organization and efficiency of the organizers, but by the looks on their faces, the caucus was too draining to be worth the time and effort.
I acknowledge the democracy-building aspects of a public caucus are beneficial for mobilizing people to enter the electoral process. However, I find the introduction of early voting to be a wrench into the caucus system. If more than 70% of participants voted early, the point of a public caucus is moot.
Although the Nevada caucuses went fairly smoothly state-wide, the disaster of Iowa shows that the efficacy of caucuses in the twenty-first century is dwindling. Caucuses are awarded too much media attention and cause the two early caucus states to read more like high-stakes gambling games, in which the “winning” candidates are paid much more attention proportional to their potential performance in larger states. Additionally, if there are more media and observers than there are caucusers at a specific caucus site, that may be a telling sign that the caucuses are now just for show. It would be in the Nevada’s interest to nix caucuses in favor of a primary with early voting. This would ensure that union workers, especially those who are Latinx, aren’t tokenized as a side-show act as voters.
Yes to the Caucus
Despite Nevada’s diligent preparation for a series of caucuses that made the Iowan ones somehow look even more chaotic, I could see what a logistical headache — from venues to result-reporting — the caucuses caused the state. It’s clear why some find caucuses distasteful and unnecessary; a primary would clearly be a simpler method of getting the state’s vote in. However, I am unable to find myself in agreement with whose who want to do away with them, though I had once staunchly taken their side.
What struck me about the caucuses in Nevada was the presence of workers from the Las Vegas Strip at the Strip’s caucuses. At the Bellagio Hotel, workers in uniform vastly outnumbered those who had arrived from white-collar jobs. Many of them spoke little English. They, along with their colleagues from the Union, expressed concerns with candidates whose policies could potentially have a destructive effect on the lives of their families. Due to the widened outreach and activity generated by the caucuses, the workers I spoke to indicated a heightened motivation to caucus rather than turn in a paper ballot alone; this way, they felt as though they had a more active role in their democracy.
I had the opportunity to speak to a Nevada delegate at the post-caucus gathering hosted by Joe Biden. She asserted that though Biden was her first choice for the Democratic nominee, Bernie Sanders would be her close second, due primarily to his policies on forgiving student loans. Ideologically, Biden and Sanders are dissimilar, but this was a stark reminder that voters are not always ideological, and a stance on a single issue can easily make or break an otherwise well-aligned candidate. Her opinion and the subsequent reminder, I realized, would not have been expressed had she not attended the caucuses and its celebration.
The same pattern appeared at every instance where I was able to speak to voters and organizers. For many, their level of engagement with the nation’s elections rested if not entirely, heavily, on their ability to participate in the caucuses. Though their effect on the election might not be significantly augmented by the caucuses, the heightened sense of purpose and participation is clear. Logistical nightmares and all, caucuses are well worth the effort; they are, after all, a critical component of our democratic process.
Candidates Can't Seem to Expand Their Bases of Support
Kwan Z. Hopkins
Both base expansion in the nomination process and the potential to expand the electorate in the general election are important. Sen. Bernie Sanders would have you believe he's shown the first condition in Nevada, making it more likely he'll meet the second if he gets the nomination. Now Sanders seems to be using use momentum he doesn't have (if you look closely at his performance so far) to make the case that the choice is between him and other candidates who don't seem to have a real shot right now.
His insurgent 2016 campaign guaranteed Sanders name recognition, a donor base, and relationships with organizers all over the country. In light of what happened then, the question is why isn't he doing better now? In Iowa, he very nearly defeated Hillary Clinton four years ago. In 2020, however, he was very nearly defeated himself by Pete Buttigieg, a small town mayor. In New Hampshire, the Senator won over 60% of the vote four years ago. In 2020, he still managed to win the state by 1.3%, with half of the vote he had previously. Some drop off can should be expected. This race has more competitors. But his biggest win thus far is still caucus state Nevada with a similar vote share to what he had in 2016.
This maintenance of support is impressive. But he's yet to prove he can get many more people to turn out for him.
All of the candidates have base expansion problems, however. Buttigieg and Warren can't get people who aren't college educated whites to look at them more closely. Biden has a core of support, similar to Sanders', who still believe he's in the best position to defeat the current president. These three early states are not having the effect they usually have on people who vote later. This is just a different race where voters everywhere are being cautious and sticking to their guns until big things happen.