Trying to figure out the Nevada caucuses

Been checking in sporadically on the Nevada caucus predictions, and it was neck and neck a few days ago and now Hillary is edging out Bernie again, but who knows, it’s a caucus. It’s really impossible to tell who will show up to a caucus and where and with both sides as fired up as they are and the Culinary Union sitting this one out (membership being so split) it’s all quite up in the air. I know that for the Democratic Party in Nevada (looking at the Nevada’s Secretary of States voter data here) you have the initial caucuses which selects about ten thousand delegates (out of about 600,000 Democrats in the state, though how many are expected to attend the caucuses on Saturday I have no idea), then over the next three months those delegates meet at their respective county Democratic conventions (there are 17 counties in Nevada) and are whittled down to maybe three or four thousand delegates who go on to state Democratic Party convention in May which manages to pick the 24 delegates who will go on to the Democratic national convention. And kind of like how the electoral college is weighted in favor of small states and against big states (so that a Californian’s presidential vote is worth about one-third of what a North Dakotan’s vote is worth*) residents of rural counties (a couple of which have in Nevada are disproportionately represented in the state convention. Thus a candidate can do really well in the biggest county–Clark (450K Democrats)–and win the popular vote count yet lose in the delegate count by not having enough delegates Washoe (95K Democrats) and in the small counties (none of which come close to 10K registered Democrats and six of which have less than a thousand, Esmeralda County has 120 registered Democrats, Eureka County has 112). This is what happened in 2008 (using date from here) when Hillary won over 50% in the caucuses but wound up losing the final delegate vote at the state convention because the Obama campaign had worked the small counties and thus had more delegates on hand because Hillary had majorities in less counties. The initial vote in the Caucuses of 50% Hillary to 45% Obama (due to Hillary’s high turn out in Clark County) in January became 55% Obama to 45% Hillary at the convention in May, because Obama had managed to get more caucus goers to attend the precinct caucuses in Washoe County (Reno) and the small counties back in January than had Hillary (who won in hugely populated Clark County), even though Hillary had more total caucus goers state wide. Basically it’s not so much how many supporters you have, but where you have those supporters. Obama had more in the right places, even though he had less overall, and wound up with fourteen delegates to the national convention to Hillary’s eleven. If California selected its delegates in the same manner, a candidate could win most of the big counties in the Bay Area and Southern California yet still lose the delegate total because the other candidate won all the small rural counties, and there are many more small rural counties in California than big urban ones. Same goes for Nevada. It’s not whether you win or lose in the Nevada caucuses, so much, but how you play the game. Obama’s team in Nevada outplayed Hillary’s in 2008. It was not that far different from how the more popular Al Gore was defeated by George W Bush in 2000. Gore got a half million more votes, but Bush got his smaller number of votes in the right places. Of course, the results of the Nevada caucuses, skewed as they were, did not affect the outcome of the nomination race at all. Indeed, they had little significance in the overall picture. It’s just that the Nevada Caucuses were the fourth contest that year (preceded by Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan) and as such get a lot of media attention. Which, at the time, gave Hillary a “win”, since the actual delegates weren’t to be selected for months, long after Obama has already racked up the delegates he needed.

According to media reports, both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns this year are furiously working Nevada’s small, rural counties (and that is the last time these counties will likely see a Democratic presidential candidate this year, as those counties are overwhelmingly conservative and Republican). I haven’t seen any itineraries, but there’s a good chance that most of Eureka County’s 112 voters have shook the hands of both candidates, while most Democrats in Clark County will see them only on TV. As usual in a caucus state, there’s no real way to poll effectively, being that there is no certain way to figure on who and how many registered Democrats will go to the caucuses. Primaries are easier to prognosticate, and you can get a good idea by now of which way South Carolina will end up. But Nevada is still anybody’s guess, and in any case, unless the result is a blow out one way or another, which seems highly unlikely, there will probably be no way of telling on Feb 20 who will wind up with the most delegates, since the caucuses are only the first of a three step process that will not be completed until May. (Unlike Iowa, at least, campaigns can’t “raid” each other caucus attendees, which makes predictions nearly impossible in Iowa, as caucus goers can switch sides with abandon.) Still, as in 2008, the campaign that manages the highest vote total on Saturday will declare victory and the media will follow suit, simply because it’s a number to crow about. In the early days of a campaign it’s all about momentum and little about actual delegate counts. If Bernie wins the popular vote count (that is, gets the most votes of those who attend the caucuses) it’ll will be spun as a great victory, his revolution on its way. If Hillary wins, it’ll prove that she is the from runner. There will be little, if any, discussion of delegate totals. But after March 1, aka Super Tuesday, it’s all about delegate count.

There are fifty states, five territories and the District of Columbia (plus overseas Democrats, aka “Democrats Abroad”), and each has their own way of picking delegates to the national convention. You can get a feeling for the complexity just looking at the schedule, which still doesn’t fully explain exactly how delegates are allocated. There are primaries and caucuses. There are conventions. Some delegates are awarded according to the primary vote, some according to caucus results, some at conventions, and nearly all states (and the five territories, the District of Colombia and “Democrats Abroad”) use a mix of processes which makes figuring out who has what infinitely harder. If there is an overwhelming favorite the tiny details matter little. In a tight race these micro-details become all important. In 1976 (see story here, though I also wrote a college thesis on the 1976 race) Ronald Reagan missed being the Republican nominee when one delegate in one delegation voted to seat a handful of Gerald Ford delegates instead of Reagan delegates. That poor delegate, a woman from Mississippi, with people from both campaigns promising her anything (including a ride on Air Force One), decided the fate of the Republican Party in 1976. If you let loose with the possibilities, Reagan in all likelihood would have lost to a Democrat that year, which might have weakened his popularity in 1980, if he even ran again, and he might never have become president, Reaganomics never happened and you and I would be making more money in a much happier country now. Maybe, maybe not….but sometimes, on rare occasions, the dull, tiny details of each of these delegate selection processes can be important. In 2000 we spent weeks worrying over hanging chads. No one even knew there was such a thing until the presidential race came down to a handful of ballots in a couple precincts in one county in Florida. It went to the Supreme Court, the voted strictly by party preference, and half the country has been angry and even poorer since then.

Yes, America’s system of nominating and electing a president in uniquely, and sometimes bizarrely, complicated. The bewildered and angry response by Bernie Sanders voters after the delegate selection was made in New Hampshire was both understandable and inevitable, as the system is so arcane and counter-intuitive that one can easily mistake it for cheating. But it’s not cheating, it’s just that the rules are so complicated. Hillary benefitted from the process in New Hampshire. Hillary’s campaign people–a blend of hers and Obama’s own 2008 and 20012 campaign staff (one of the most brilliantly efficient campaign organizations in American history) are much, much hipper than Bernie’s neophytes, though Bernie’s crew are learning fast) will always be better with the intricacies of the rules than Bernie’s. Condemning Hillary’s campaign for this is like putting down the championship Los Angeles Lakers because they were so much better at winning basketball games, which people did, whining every year as their teams lost. But that’s the way games and campaigns are played. You rarely lose because the other side cheated or the referees are biased, blind or bribed, you lose because the other team is so much better at the rules and plays. Bernie ‘s campaign will find themselves winning delegates in states he loses the popular vote too, and doubtless Hillary supporters will cry foul. And then there are winner take all states where even if a candidate comes in second with 49.9% of the vote, the candidate with 50.1% wins all the delegates. Bernie will win some of those, Hillary will win some. And partisans on both side will whine about cheating and elaborate conspiracies. People, especially on Facebook, seem to have an unquenchable thirst for dark fantasies and conspiracies. I ignore them.

Now about those super delegates, about whom we’re already hearing dark fantasies of conspiracy and paranoia. Those are the delegates chosen, mostly, at state conventions instead of in the primaries (though some seem to be appointed). In fact, these are leftovers from the days before primaries, which are relatively new things. Primaries–that is selecting delegates by popular vote, only began popping up after World War Two and were quite unusual for a long time, and even the legendary 1968 primary battle between Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey involved only a handful of states, and the 1960 battle between Humphrey and John F. Kennedy involved even fewer states. In fact until 1976 most Democratic delegates were chosen as are many of today’s super delegates, at state conventions, and the Republican Party took even longer to adopt primaries. Even today, every state, territory, the District of Colombia and even the Democrats Abroad have super delegates picked the old fashioned way, behind closed doors in what they used to call “smoke filled rooms”. Sometimes the numbers of superdelegates (there’s a chart here) today are insignificant–Oklahoma has four super delegates against 38 chosen in the state primary. But the District of Columbia has 25 super-delegates and twenty chosen in their primary. Overall there are 4,051 delegates selected by primary and caucus voters, and 709 super-delegates. Ordinarily the super-delegates are fairly spread out among competing candidates. But the Sanders campaign failed slipped up in 2015 and made no effort to get any pledged super-delegates, a mistake that has already cost them in New Hampshire. Some pledged super delegates could switch allegiance, though (and I believe at least one has already), so that game is far from over. This process has just begun. The Nevada caucuses are the third contest in what I believe is a 57 contest series….and most of those 57 contests are, as in Nevada with it 13 county and the state conventions to follow, are in multiple steps. Running for a presidential nomination in either major party is vastly complex and if the competition is tight, every single contest, from a statewide primary to a tiny county convention, can take on a desperate importance. And I didn’t even discuss how there can be, in some states, fractions of delegates (Obama wound up with 2,306.5 delegates in 2008, John Edwards with 4.5) because that would involved digging into the fine print of each state’s (and territory and District of Columbia and those far away Democrats Abroad) Democratic Party charter to tease out the details. But I have a life, and no one ever said nominating a presidential candidate was easy.

And it just occurred to me that even after all of this I still haven’t the vaguest idea how or when the Nevada Democratic Party will select its eight super delegates, which represent nearly a fifth of the state’s 43 delegates at the national convention in August. Damn. And I thought I had at least one state completely figured out.
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* Each state’s electoral college total is the equal to its representation in college (with District of Columbia given three electoral college votes). North Dakota has two senators and a congressmen, or three electoral votes for about 750K people which means that each electoral vote equals about 250K residents. California has 55 electoral votes for about 40 million people, or about 1 electoral vote for about 725K people. However, if adjusted by registered voters, or those eligible to vote (as the GOP is trying to do with reapportionment in Texas), that imbalance would drop to something closer to 2 to 1 instead of 3 to 1. (Incidentally, I detest the electoral college, and think the president ought to be decided by popular vote alone, but never mind.)

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