Nevada bet to play bigger role in presidential campaign not paying off

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. greets cocktail waitresses during a campaign stop at the Mandalay Bay Hotel on caucus day in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 19, 2008.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. greets cocktail waitresses during a campaign stop at the Mandalay Bay Hotel on caucus day in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 19, 2008. AP

After trying for years to be one of the elite kingmakers in picking presidential nominees, thanks to heavy prodding from Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada is losing the bet.

The state hosted the Democrats’ first debate last week. In December, it will host the Republicans. But otherwise, candidates have been scarce, and there’s scant hope that will change.

Nevada lacks the rich political traditions that make the other early states – New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina – pivotal in picking presidential nominees. Nor does Nevada have the uniquely quaint American touches that make its rivals such attractive political settings – the lush green New Hampshire towns, Iowa’s farms, or South Carolina’s Southern charm.

“We don’t have a lot of little places where candidates can go,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev. “We have the Strip.”

Her state’s place in the American psyche? “The Godfather Part II.” “The Hangover.” Nuclear testing. Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Legal brothels.

Even without those images, Nevada’s got another big problem next year: Its Democratic caucus is scheduled for Feb. 20, the same day as South Carolina’s Republican primary.

Nevada’s been itching to be a player since 2008, in large part because Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, was promoting his state. Making it one of the four early voting states made sense, since no Western state had a say in the early going.

Nevada also boasted economic and racial differences the other states didn’t have. It’s 26 percent Hispanic, 8 percent black and 7 percent Asian. Fourteen percent are labor union members, above the 11.6 percent national average.

6.7% Nevada’s September unemployment rate, the lowest in seven years.

But as the 2016 nominating season unfolds, the races are about as lively as the streets a mile from the Strip.

Nothing surprising there. Republican Mitt Romney’s Mormon roots gave him a big edge in the 2008 and 2012 caucuses, which attracted little turnout. Democrats had a spirited battle in 2008, when Hillary Clinton edged Barack Obama, but it was largely ignored. Obama quickly crushed her in South Carolina, regarded as a more important test because of its large black voting population and status as the first Southern primary.

There’s evidence again this year that Nevada voters aren’t as engaged as those in other early states. In Nevada, 13.3 percent of people on Facebook have been engaged in political discussion in the last month, less than in the other three early states

Clinton got 50.8 percent in the 2008 Nevada caucus. Obama was next with 45.1 percent.

Reid tried again to boost his state vs. the others when the national media gathered in Las Vegas for last week’s debate.

“You go to New Hampshire. There are not any minorities there,” he told a Washington Post forum.

He turned to Iowa. “There are a few people there, but again it’s a place that does not demonstrate what America is all about.”

Reid jokingly apologized. Reid would not respond to repeated attempts Tuesday to reach him for comment on Nevada’s status.

As Reid hasn’t been able to promote his state at the expense of other states, Nevada also hasn’t proved able to coordinate and organize its caucuses to get maximum impact and attention.

Start with scheduling. Not only do Nevada Democrats hold their nominating caucuses the same day as South Carolina’s Republican primary, which could be a bigger draw for the news media, but Nevada Republicans don’t hold their caucuses until three days later.

Nevada Democratic Party Chairman Roberta Lange was confident the system will improve. “We’re a young caucus state,” she said. “We don’t have the traditions others do.”

We don’t have the traditions others do.

Nevada Democratic Chairwoman Roberta Lange, discussing her state’s presidential caucus

Both parties share a dilemma: Getting candidates to show up. Presidential candidates made 44 trips to the state this year as of Thursday, according to National Journal’s presidential trip tracker. They’ve been to New Hampshire 249 times, Iowa 240 and South Carolina 130.

Logistics are a challenge, said Titus. “In Iowa, you go 20 minutes and you’re in another city,” she said. “Here you have to drive 500 miles just to get to the state capital.”

When the candidates do visit, seeing the right places or people isn’t always easy.

Nevada is a more complicated state than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, with an expanding active Latino population, as well as a growing melting pot of other cultures.

Elaine Hurd, who writes for the “Let’s Talk Nevada” blog

Nevada also doesn’t have the other states’ well-entrenched political organizations and operatives.

“No one really knows what the pathways are here,” said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Candidates insist Nevada is important, though the numbers suggest otherwise. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination, has about 60 paid staffers in Iowa, where he’s close to Hillary Clinton in some polls, and about 40 in New Hampshire, where he’s ahead. He has seven in Nevada.

Nevada has gotten less attention so far, said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, because “We’re doing things serially.”

Voters don’t care about such nuances. They want to see the candidates up close the way Iowa people do.

Without that personal touch, “People see candidates as people slamming each other, and they seem like they (the candidates) don’t care,” said Pam Hoff, a Henderson convention foreman.

And that casts a pall over the whole caucus process, said Patricia Pavliga, a Las Vegas receptionist. “It will dampen the turnout,” she predicted.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

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