In Nevada All Bets Are Off

| Thu Jan. 17, 2008 12:38 PM EST

It's cold as hell here in Reno, Nevada, the snowy Sierras just to the West, the neon lights of the city crisp against the winter night air.

A nice place for the caucus-circus to park itself.

If you've read most of the big newspapers over the past couple months, you could be forgiven for not realizing that Nevada has a caucus on January 19th. The New York Times has routinely referred to the contests in Iowa, followed by New Hampshire, followed by South Carolina. In fact, for a year now Nevadans have been preparing for their own caucus, to be held on the same day as the South Carolina primary. And, for my money, at least for the Democrats it's the western contest that's by far the most interesting.

Why?

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Well, not least because of the novelty value. In the past, the state held a half-assed caucus late in the season that mattered to nobody and attracted hardly any voters. In fact, for many people it was almost impossible to vote: there were caucus sites only at the county level, meaning a mere seventeen places to vote in state over 110,000 miles square. That translates into an awfully long way to drive for voters not living in the urban hubs of Las Vegas and Reno. Especially for an election already decided, to all practical purposes, by voters in other, earlier-voting states.

This time around, the caucuses are being held at a precinct level. The Democrats are offering 1,700 voting places. So… it's easier to vote and, because it's an early caucus, there's more to vote for.

Making it more exciting is the fact that Hillary Clinton's poll numbers have dropped recently, meaning all three leading candidates, along with Bill Clinton, are now swarming Reno, Carson City and Las Vegas, as well as more rural parts of the state, with a viable claim that they have a shot at winning. Somewhat bizarrely, gambling on election results is illegal in Nevada, but online bookies have been placing odds on the candidates for months now. The last couple weeks, Hillary's frontrunner odds have shifted somewhat toward Obama. But Nevada?? Well, it's looking like a pretty tight race at this point.

Las Vegas's assertive trade unions are in play; but so, too, are the rural, conservative, hinterlands. After Tuesday's candidates' debate in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton used her appearances in the state on Wednesday to push for a ninety-day moratorium on home foreclosures – a modern-day echo of FDR's closing of the banks for a day in order to reestablish confidence in the banking system three quarters of a century ago. Edwards is stumping in Reno later today, making a play for union votes in the northern part of the state. Obama, who has the biggest statewide infrastructure of any of the candidates, is heading east to gold mining and ranching country on Friday. It's traditional GOP territory, but Obama clearly feels there are enough votes up for grabs there to make the long trip.

Over the past week all the candidates have been feverishly courting the big trade unions. For although Nevada is a "right to work" state, thus in theory making it hostile terrain for unions, largely because of organizing activity in the casinos of Las Vegas and Reno it is now one of the more heavily unionized states in America, and the unions representing service employees and culinary workers have tremendous political clout. In one of the biggest coups of the campaign, a week ago Obama, who has lagged behind Clinton and Edwards in national union support, secured the endorsement of the culinary workers. Then, yesterday, his campaign got another boost when the Las Vegas Review Journal endorsed him.

Thirty one percent of Nevada's population is non-white. It's a far more polyglot state than Iowa or New Hampshire. If Obama can win here, he will have shown he is a credible national candidate. If Clinton wins here, it could propel her into a strong showing throughout the West – realizing her front runner status after the Iowa wobble -- which could wrap up the primary season after Super-Tuesday voting ends on February 5th. If Edwards ekes out a victory, it could keep the contest alive into the straggler state elections in March.

For the Democrats, there's a lot to play for in Nevada. Surprisingly, given it's been a toss-up state in the last two presidential elections, the G.O.P. candidates have largely ignored Nevada. That says something: the libertarian desert West, once such an eager ally of the fundamentalist conservative South in the Reagan-coalition, is beginning to break off from the Republican Party. There's been a lot of talk that the region's now winnable for the Democrats come November.

A confident GOP wouldn't have abandoned Nevada during caucus-season. That the party's put on such a meager effort for this caucus says volumes about its prospects in Nevada and the broader interior West. And that could augur badly for the party not just this coming election but for many elections to follow.

—Sasha Abramsky

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