Presidential candidates vie for the Western vote

The Nevada caucus brought Western issues into the fray this political season.


Reports from last night’s Nevada Republican caucus paint a chaotic picture: a flood of voters overwhelmed the number of ballots on hand, and the ballots themselves were littered with long-gone candidates like Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul. Confused caucus volunteers donned Donald Trump pins and fielded complaints from thousands of unexpected voters, as nearly 75,000 caucus-goers showed up across the state to cast their ballots. 

This year, the Republican caucus attendance saw a huge spike. In 2008, Nevada’s first year as a caucus state, fewer than 45,000 voters participated in the GOP caucus. According to the Nevada Secretary of State, there are more than 423,000 active registered Republicans, compared to more than 470,000 active Democratic voters. Meanwhile, the Democratic caucus last week was quiet and smooth; 84,000 active voters showed up and about 12,000 delegate votes were submitted.

As the first Western primary, the Nevada caucuses set the tone for the rest of the region. Many important Western issues that have largely been absent from past campaigns — from public lands debates, extractive and renewable energy to immigration — are now front and center for presidential hopefuls and were prominent in rallies preceding the Nevada caucuses. The state's Democratic caucuses concluded Feb. 20, where Hillary Clinton won with 53 percent of the vote. Republican caucuses wrapped up Tuesday night: Donald Trump won with 46 percent of the vote, trailed by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in second with 24 percent and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in a close third with 21 percent. 

The interior West holds important swing states, like Nevada and Colorado, and they’ve become competitive battlegrounds in presidential elections. This year, Arizona and Montana, too, lean moderate, where in the past both were regarded as securely conservative. Kyle Davis, policy consultant for the Nevada Conservation League says so far, Western issues have had more momentum from the Nevada caucuses than in the past. “Nevada is playing a large role in airing Western issues,” Davis says. “I would expect that any candidate wanting to win the (national) vote would have to continue to address Western issues.” 

Since candidates began campaigning in Nevada in the fall, the volume of the public lands transfer debate has been turned up, in part due to the occupation by antifederalists at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year. Many Republican candidates are leaning toward at least partial transfers of federally owned lands to state control. In Nevada, where the federal government owns more than 80 percent of the land, harboring ranching, grazing and oil and gas leasing as well as vast swaths reserved for conservation, it makes sense that the issue is striking a chord with voters, says David Fott, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

But even if it’s resonating with some far-right voters now, candidates who aggressively push for transfers of public lands may end up alienating many of the nation's citizens during the general election. “A candidate that supports the seizure of public lands might be able to get votes from a fringe of the Republican party, but huge majorities of Westerners support keeping public lands public,” says Jon Goldin Dubois, president of nonprofit conservation group Western Resource Advocates, based in Boulder, Colorado. 

Among the presidential office-seekers, Republican candidate Cruz has taken the most extreme position on public lands, supporting an outright transfer of all federally owned public lands to citizens. Whether Cruz’s policy would include national parks and monuments isn't yet clear. In a Feb. 18 ad, Cruz criticized front-runner Trump, who has said federal lands should remain under federal control. “Donald Trump wants to keep big government in charge. That’s ridiculous. You, the people of Nevada, not Washington bureaucrats, should be in charge of your own land,” he said. With background music fit for an action movie, Cruz concluded: “I will fight day and night to return full control of Nevada lands to its rightful owners: its citizens. Count on it.” 

All told, candidates spent more than $4.5 million on television ads in Nevada and received more than $72 million in campaign contributions from the interior Western states, according to the Federal Election Commission. But many haven’t provided much insight on some fundamental Western dilemmas, including their views of water management and water conservation. “Not enough of the candidates have clear enough agendas on drought, which has gotten so much attention in the West,” Goldin Dubois says. “There’s a real lack of forethought and foresight in how the next President would address these issues.” 

Whether they’ve campaigned in Nevada or not, here’s where the current presidential candidates stand on Western issues: 

Scroll to the right to view all candidates. Scroll down to view their stances on all issues. 

The political forces shaping the Nevada caucus could be a harbinger for campaigning in the rest of the region. “We have a large city balancing water scarcity with demand, rural communities in Elko and hipster enclaves in Reno,” says Laura Martin, associate director of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN). (Disclosure: HCN board member Bob Fulkerson is the state director and co-founder of PLAN.) “We look like the future of our country.”

If that's true, Nevada could be a testing ground for the campaign-season debate over illegal immigration. The question of building up border defense and addressing the status of those people already residing in the U.S. without official standing has dominated the early election season in the West partly because of the growing population and political power of increasing Hispanic populations in the region. In Nevada, there are 328,000 Hispanic eligible voters, the 13th largest Latino voter population nationwide. California is the first, with more than 6.9 million Latino voters. According to a Nevada caucus exit poll, Latinos voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., over frontrunner Hillary Clinton by 53 percent to 45 percent, respectively.  In the Republican caucus, despite his hardline stance on immigration and frequent suggestion that he will build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Trump was supported by 45 percent of Latino voters, according to a Nevada entrance poll.    

On the horizon is Colorado’s caucus on March 1, a day also known as Super Tuesday. As in Nevada, Democratic candidates Sanders and Clinton are in a tight race there. Wyoming and Alaska also hold their Republican caucuses on March 1. Coming later in the month: Idaho Republican primaries on March 8, with Democrats following suit on March 22, Arizona and Utah, both March 22 and Alaska’s Democratic caucus on March 26. From April through June, Oregon, Washington, California, Montana and New Mexico will complete their primary races. The Republican Convention is July 18 through 21 in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Democratic Convention convenes the week of July 25 in Philadelphia. The general presidential election, of course, is November 8. 

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets