As an elections analyst, I always try to find interesting electoral dynamics that shape the voter landscape and move the needle on Election Day. So when I look at Nevada’s GOP presidential caucus on February 23rd, I’m surprised I see the conditions for a “primary pivot” emerging there, possibly shifting a Trump-dominated race to a more competitive contest for party nominee.
Depending on which political pundit you ask, Nevada’s presidential caucuses are either inconsequential or a speed bump between South Carolina’s February 20th primary and Super Tuesday on March 1st. Most candidates don’t spend much time or money there. The caucuses aren’t scrutinized by the media and pollsters in the way other early primary states are, and they lack the storied tradition of an electoral bellwether. However, as the “first in the West” primary in a swing state, the Nevada caucuses are worthy of more attention, and so I’ve taken a growing interest in them. I have my reasons.
As of the publishing of this post, businessman Donald Trump leads the GOP pack in New Hampshire by a wide margin, and is neck-and-neck with Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa. I find it interesting that the public reception to Trump’s candidacy has evolved from ridicule to plausibility and now seemingly to acceptance. Lots of the political pundits dismissed Trump early on as a publicity stunt or leverage play for political favors. He’s masterfully sucked the oxygen out of the primary, and kept most eyes and cameras on him for months. Still, what we do know from the deluge of polling data is that 1) a large number of GOP primary voters refuse to cast their ballots for him, and 2) that he likely wins only crowded GOP contests.
Enter Nevada. What I find most fascinating about the state is that we know so little about Republican caucus-goers there, but what we do know about them is different than Republicans in other early voting states.
We are limited in drawing conclusions, as we have only a small sample (2008, 2012) of state party caucuses to analyze. In those contests, the voter turnout rate was abysmally low (11.1% in 2008 and 8.2% in 2012) compared to other early states (20-21% in Iowa and 39% in New Hampshire). Despite the land mass of Nevada, the state GOP electorate that showed up to the caucuses in 2012 was tiny – about 33,000 caucus-goers, compared to 122,200 in Iowa, and 248,000 casting ballots in the New Hampshire open GOP primary.
Curiously, CNN’s 2012 exit polls found that unlike Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, most (54%) Nevada caucus-goers live in urban communities (Las Vegas and Reno). They’re also geographically clustered; according to the latest figures from the Nevada Secretary of State, 60% of active registered Nevada Republican voters live in Las Vegas’s Clark County. In 2012, a little more than half (51.5%) of all state GOP caucus-goers cast their ballots from Clark County.
Nevada GOP caucus-goers are also more diverse than other primary state voters. About 90% of 2012 caucus-goers were White, compared to 98-99% for those in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Nevada also has the second-fewest White evangelicals (24%) among its primary voter ranks (compare to 21% in New Hampshire, 56% in Iowa, and 64% in South Carolina).
With a small, concentrated voting electorate, retail politics and modest spending could seem to build real traction for a Republican campaign. In the last two GOP presidential caucuses held in Nevada, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won handedly; this has been widely attributed to a mix of frequent state visits and a favorable electorate. Despite only comprising about 4% of the state population, Mormons are a quarter of GOP primary voters, 88% of which supported Romney in 2012.
Dismissive pundits will say that Nevada GOP caucus-goers will simply be “falling dominoes,” sharing the same attitudes and choices of other early primary voters. However, it’s not a stretch to imagine that in the next few weeks, some key factors will emerge to impact the race, making Nevada more pivotal:
- Narratives will change. So much of the media fixation on Trump has been gawking at his campaign momentum and electoral viability – but we still don’t know if his supporters will even turn out to the polls for him. Iowa and New Hampshire will be a crucial test for his campaign. If he does win both, or even one state, the narrative will likely turn from “is this really happening?” to “who can stop Trump?” Campaign reporters and pundits will begin to draw contrasts between Trump and perhaps one or two other candidates max (likely Cruz and Rubio). The perceived “choice,” for better or worse, will be whittled down. This is likely to draw more undecided voters off the fence, as well as donors looking to back a viable champion.
- GOP presidential contenders drop out. After three rounds of losses, we can expect at least one or two candidates to drop out of the race. There will be intense pressure from supporters and donors to do so. It’s unclear who is likely to pick up the votes of which candidates, or who will receive the endorsements of the drop-outs; however, it is likely that at least one candidate will emerge to match Trump’s electoral support. This may happen in time for the Nevada caucus, and if a candidate beats Trump in Nevada, it is likely to be the first state Trump loses, and a sure bet the candidate will be instantly perceived as the main “Trump alternative” in the race.
- Rubio or Cruz win the “Adelson Primary.” Media reports have suggested that Vegas billionaire and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson may endorse either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz in the Republican primary. Adelson’s financial support may be critical for a campaign in Nevada, particularly as most are reserving their resources for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday. His recent purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal suggests he may want to extend his political influence in the Nevada media market. A Review-Journal presidential endorsement could provide a candidate a local boost in support. Negative, scathing editorials towards an unfavorable candidate could damage voter approval.
- Campaign dividends will emerge. There’s not much data on the campaigning happening below the radar in Nevada, but it has been happening. Candidates have been holding events, organizing volunteers, and targeting voters. Only a few polls have been taken in the past year, and polls of GOP caucus-goers have been found to be unreliable in the past. On Election Day, we may learn that one campaign quietly targeted just enough caucus-goers to win. It wouldn’t be the first time.
- Rubio draws support among Catholic and Mormon voters. It has been speculated that many 2008 and 2012 Romney voters may caucus in support of Senator Marco Rubio, who spent six childhood years in Nevada and briefly converted to Mormonism before converting back to Catholicism, but he is unlikely to generate the same level of enthusiasm as Romney. Still, influential Mormon and Catholic political groups may stake their ground in Nevada, making endorsements and spending resources in an effort to stop Trump’s momentum. If so, Rubio stands to gain.
The Republican race will undoubtedly shake-up, it’s just a matter of when. I’m fascinated by the idea that Nevada, a state with no history as a presidential kingmaker, may be where it happens. Candidates will drop out, exogenous events will occur, and undecided voters will have to finally make a choice. Developments will occur quickly, and campaigns and voters will react. Perhaps the First in the West will emerge as a home for a different type of high noon.
Vince Vasquez is the Senior Policy Analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a think-tank based in San Diego. Vince analyzes economic, demographic and political trends in California (and now, Nevada).