LAS VEGAS—For weeks, Democrats have sought to calm growing fear that the upcoming Nevada caucuses could be a repeat of the chaotic first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses earlier this month, where the combination of an untested app in the hands of untrained precinct chairs and an unprepared state party resulted in an election-night meltdown.
But at least one candidate appears unbothered by the old adage that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it: former Vice President Joe Biden, whose campaign is replicating an Iowa caucus strategy that many felt cost the former frontrunner crucial delegates in that contest.
According to campaign sources, the Biden campaign is once again enlisting out-of-state precinct captains to run the show on caucus day this Saturday. While no rule prevents the use of non-residents as a campaign’s precinct captain, the practice contributed to the chaos that blew up the strategies of multiple campaigns during the Iowa caucuses.
Precinct captains are essentially in-room organizers/cheerleaders for candidates who are tasked with encouraging unaligned caucusers to align with their chosen candidates, increasing the likelihood that their candidates reach the threshold of viability to obtain delegates. Having precinct captains with authentic local roots—particularly respected community figures like politicians, teachers, coaches and organizers—can be useful in persuading wobbly friends, neighbors and colleagues to align with a candidate.
Conversely, precinct captains from out of town are less likely to know the area well, do not have personal ties to unaligned caucus-goers, and are generally unknown by locals until recently, if at all.
An official with the Nevada Democratic Party confirmed to The Daily Beast that precinct captains “don’t have to be Nevadans” to serve in their roles, and noted that the party itself uses volunteers from out of state to serve as precinct chairs—the folks running the show during caucuses—and site leads.
“We have volunteers from all over Nevada as well as out of state volunteers who are able to serve” in those capacities, the official said.
In Iowa, the Biden campaign’s use of non-Iowan volunteers as precinct captains was a necessary stopgap to ensure that every one of the state’s roughly 1,600 precincts had a Biden advocate present—itself a sign of lackluster enthusiasm and weak ground game that was borne out in the caucus results.
“I do not recall being asked whence a group of college kids came to work such processes in Nevada, Arizona and California—key was that college-kid enthusiasm was sufficient to accept the work of volunteers,” said Dr. Robert E. Dickens, an associate professor at University of Nevada, Reno. “This cycle, with intensifying conflict, may be different… on both right and left.”
The strategy doesn’t always work in the campaign’s favor, as precinct captains unfamiliar with the local community struggled to win over supporters during realignment. Some reportedly stood by quietly as other campaigns—particularly that of former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg—stripped supporters from Biden’s corner and crossed the threshold of viability.
Businessman Andrew Yang, who until recently also sought the Democratic presidential nomination, also relied heavily on precinct captains bussed in from other states—nearly half of his precinct captains were estimated to be visitors in Iowa. The result for Yang was a similar meltdown, with the candidate emerging from caucus night with no delegates and roughly one percent of the vote in Iowa.
Beyond the difficulties that out-of-state precinct captains can face in winning over perfect strangers during realignment, captains also might struggle in understanding the caucus problem itself, particularly if they hail from states with a more traditional primary process where votes are cast quickly and in private, rather than public and often confusing proceedings that can last for hours.
“I don’t think it’s going to be very helpful for them,” said an official with a rival campaign. “Particularly in Nevada, where you have all of these affinity groups—labor Democrats, women’s groups, LGBT groups—that clump together during alignments, having some random stranger who might not know the process and almost definitely doesn’t know folks on the group is not going to do the job.”
In some precincts—although, due to the decentralized nature of the event, it’s hard to say how many—people who aren’t residents are confined to an area of the room separate from caucus-goers. For an out-of-state precinct captain, this adds an additional hurdle in the already tricky task of instructing caucus-goers what to do with their ballots and cajoling others to align with their candidate.
The Biden campaign, which publicly (and inaccurately) insisted that all of its Iowa precinct captains were from the Hawkeye State, did not respond to requests about its use of non-locals to run the most important part of their ground operation in Nevada.
Biden, who finished in an embarrassing fourth place in Iowa and fifth in the New Hampshire primary, is currently polling further and further behind Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Silver State, but has told supporters that he is confident that he will place in the top two on Saturday.
“As you all observed, we lost the first two primaries, but they make up 2 percent of the delegates needed to get elected. We’re heading south,” Biden told supporters at a fundraiser on Monday, adding that he is “confident” he will win the South Carolina primary no matter what.
But speaking to a town hall audience on Thursday evening, Biden seemed less confident in the caucus process itself.
“I’m not big on caucuses because they’re so complicated,” Biden said. “I hope you all decide to go to a primary next time.”