The Nevada caucus on Saturday will be the next big test in the Republican primary. All four candidates will be going all out in the Silver State, as opposed to Florida, where only Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich competed. Although Romney won Nevada by a huge margin in 2008, with 51 percent, the other candidates had largely ceded the state to him. That is not the case this year. Instead, the state is being ferociously contested, and Rick Santorum even spent the day of Florida’s primary campaigning in Nevada. But all four candidates face differing challenges in this state best known for legalized gambling and flying saucers.
Romney will come into the state with several major advantages. As in Florida, he is the only candidate who has built a strong organization. Sig Rogich, a state GOP powerbroker who worked in the George H.W. Bush White House, thinks the former Massachusetts governor will “win easily.” Romney’s advantage is not just his organization and the fact he’s been campaigning in the state over “the past 12-18 months,” but his support from fellow Mormons. Rogich characterizes the Nevada Latter Day Saints community as very enthusiastic voters who normally turn out at a “75-80 percent” clip. But, as Rogich points out, because one of their own is on the ballot, this will be no ordinary election.
While Romney did sweep the Mormon vote with a staggering 95 percent in 2008, he is facing real competition for that demographic this year. Ron Paul has been actively courting Mormons, sending out frequent press releases touting new additions to “LDS for Ron Paul.” But Romney’s strength Romney among fellow Mormons is apparent even in the language of Paul’s releases, which invariably state “no presidential candidate has a monopoly on this crucial western states voter segment.” It’s a sign that while Romney won’t win 95 percent of the Mormon vote again, even Paul concedes that he will carry his co-religionists by an overwhelming majority.
Republicans also will have to contend with the ghosts of the past. Nevada had a deeply divisive U.S. Senate in 2010 between Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle. Reid was very unpopular, and because of his leadership position, many voters blamed him for their economic woes. But Angle, who emerged after an ugly Republican primary, was fond of extreme rhetoric, such as calling for “Second Amendment remedies.” Angle alienated many moderate voters and Reid managed to eke out a victory, despite being an incumbent Democrat with low approval ratings in a Republican year.
This further sharpened the divide within the Republican Party. Many establishment Republicans felt the party had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by nominating a far-right-winger like Angle. In contrast, many Tea Partiers felt that party elites had stabbed them in the back—many backing Reid over Angle as the lesser of two evils.
As a result, electability may be a far more loaded term in Nevada than it has been in the past.
But this won’t be the only divide. Nevada is essentially split into two parts. There’s Clark County, the jurisdiction that includes all of metro Las Vegas, and there’s everything else. While Clark County contains about two-thirds of the state’s population, it has only a little more than half the Republican primary electorate. The rest live either around Reno, or in the vast rural desert that makes up the rest of the state.
While the Republicans in Clark County tend to be comparatively moderate and business oriented, Republicans elsewhere in the state are far more conservative and libertarian. This is the region where Ron Paul needs to find success. In particular, Paul will be focusing on the rural part of the state outside Reno, where, as Rogich says, people have been “fighting the federal government all their lives” over issues such as water and land management. This is where the Area 51 military base is located, and where prostitution is legal.
The challenges for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in this mix will be try to successfully appeal to the sweet spot of Nevada caucus-goers who are mainstream conservatives. Santorum has conserved resources for the state and got a head start by campaigning there while polls were still open in Florida. It is tough for the former Pennsylvania senator to chart a path to victory in a state where so many voters, either because of faith or libertarian creed, are likely off the table for him. But, it will serve as a crucial test of whether he can capture the support of the state’s core conservatives and successfully cast himself as the “anti-Mitt”. He will be aided in this by the endorsement of Sharron Angle, which should give him more credibility among undecided Nevada conservatives. Santorum hasn’t captured a single delegate since Iowa, and needs to win at least a handful in Nevada to stay in the conversation.
In contrast, Gingrich is battered and bruised after losing Florida’s winner-take-all primary. The former House speaker now has to keep Romney from racking up another big win. The Southern states voting on Super Tuesday, March 6, are almost tailor-made for Gingrich, but he must prevent Romney from being anointed as the nominee before then. Gingrich may benefit from a special caucus for observant Jews, to be held Saturday night (so they need not violate the Sabbath). It will be held at the Sheldon Adelson Education Campus, named for the casino mogul who has bankrolled Gingrich’s super PAC. This, plus Gingrich’s courtship of the Orthodox Jewish vote in Florida, could give him an edge.
Gingrich’s real ace in the hole may be his expected endorsement by Donald Trump tomorrow in Las Vegas. While the nod may not add gravitas to the Gingrich campaign, it will give him plenty of free press.
Regardless of what happens on caucus night, the one thing guaranteed is none of the candidates will win a single delegate. Since Nevada is a caucus, not a primary, no delegates actually will be allocated Saturday night. Instead, Nevada follows the same system as the Iowa Republican Caucuses. There will be a presidential preference poll, where attendees will cast a non-binding vote on their preferred candidate, and then elect delegates to a county convention. Those people will then go one to elect delegates statewide who will decide which 34 Nevada Republicans actually go to the GOP convention in Tampa to select a nominee.
This means that delegates sent to Tampa might not reflect the intent of the voters as much as the strength of the organizations—something that could greatly benefit Romney and Paul if the GOP primary comes down to a convention fight, as they are best positioned to reap the most delegates.
But that shouldn’t minimize the importance of the caucuses on Saturday. Romney, back in place as the frontrunner, will face real pressure to match his landslide 2008 win. Paul needs to seize the opportunity to pile up delegates among an electorate far more libertarian than in the average Republican primary. And Gingrich and Santorum need to make themselves relevant again. In a state that allocates delegates proportionately, every vote will count.