How Nevada became the first Western caucus (and why it matters)

The early caucus drew attention to Western issues. In November, the state will play an even bigger role.


At a Donald Trump rally in Las Vegas last October, a Colombian emigrant named Myriam Witcher walked out onto the stage, her black ponytail swinging. She clutched a tiny American flag and a copy of People magazine with the billionaire Republican front-runner featured on the cover. “I’m Hispanic, and I vote for Mr. Trump!” she cried. “We love you, all the way to the White House!”

Altogether, 45 percent of participating Latino Republicans voted for Trump in the Nevada caucus. But that doesn’t mean he’ll win that electorate’s favor come Nov. 8. Caucuses tend to bring out the most polarized voters, and thus don’t tend to represent the broader electorate.

But if you want an indication of how the West — or even the country — might vote on Election Day, look to Nevada. In the definitive race, the state has been a strong indicator of the preference of the whole.

Nevada moved to the forefront of campaign season in 2008, becoming the first caucus in the West to take place prior to Super Tuesday, largely due to the influence of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He argued that his state provided an important contrast to Iowa and New Hampshire, the predominantly white early nominating-season states. Nevada’s typically low-turnout race saw dramatically increased participation this year (the Republican caucus broke records, with more than 75,000 people in attendance), providing a crucial trial indication of how campaign messages are resonating with Western voters, including Latinos.


Donald Trump supporters wait for the candidate to speak at a rally at South Point Arena in Las Vegas, the evening before the Republican Caucus, on Feb. 22.
Zoë Meyers

Nevada shares many of the nation’s socioeconomic challenges and also embodies a complex sliver of its increasingly diverse and politically discontented population.

Roughly 80 percent of Americans live in urban centers, and Nevada reflects that, with nearly 75 percent of the state’s population concentrated in Clark County, home of Las Vegas. “We have a large city (Vegas) balancing water scarcity with demand, rural communities in Elko and hipster enclaves in Reno,” says Laura Martin, associate director of the 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,” Martin says.

And that applies especially to the state’s racial makeup. Among its 2.8 million residents, 9 percent are black, 8 percent are Asian and 28 percent are Hispanic; nationally, 13 percent of the population is black, 5 percent Asian and 17 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Across the board, minority groups tilt toward the Democratic Party: Among eligible Hispanic voters, 56 percent are registered Democrats, while 26 percent are Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center.

Nevada’s caucus results could be a barometer for the campaign-season debate over illegal immigration. The West’s early election season has been dominated by the question of how to strengthen border defense while addressing the status of undocumented people already living in the U.S.

The state has 328,000 eligible Hispanic voters, 17 percent of all voters there. According to a caucus exit poll, Latino Democrats voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 53 percent to 45 percent. In the Republican caucus, despite his platform’s promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, more Latino voters supported Trump than his rivals, Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., according to an entrance poll. Both Sanders and Trump offer an “outside establishment” perspective that appeals to Latino voters, says Dulce Saenz, who was born in Mexico and is Colorado state director of Sanders’ campaign. (Both polls, however, have been criticized for their small sample sizes.)

Not only did the Nevada caucuses provide a testing ground for a more diverse electorate, they also encouraged candidates to address some of the issues that resonate strongly in the West, such as public lands, extractive and renewable energy and immigration reform.

All the candidates who have visited the Silver State have weighed in on the debate over transferring public lands to state and local control, which came to a boil with the occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year. Since the federal government owns nearly 85 percent of -Nevada’s land, it makes sense that the -issue is important to the state’s voters, says -David Fott, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Both Sanders and frontrunner Clinton oppose the transfer of public lands to state control, but Cruz condemned government control of public lands in a television ad that ran in Nevada, and John Kasich, governor of Ohio, echoed his stance in a radio commercial.

It’s been more difficult to get a read on the issue from Trump. In an interview with outdoor magazine Field & Stream, in January while campaigning in Nevada, he said public lands should stay under federal control. By the end of the month, however, Trump was criticizing the government’s role in his Reno Gazette-Journal editorial: “Because the BLM is so reluctant to release land to local disposition in Nevada, the cost of land has skyrocketed and the cost of living has become an impediment to growth.” Then, during the state’s Republican caucus on Feb. 23, he sidestepped the issue entirely, claiming ignorance. “Well, it’s not a subject I know anything about,” he said, according to the Washington Post.


Nevada voters debate their candidate choices with an undecided voter at the East Las Vegas Community Center during the Democratic Caucus on Feb. 20.
Zoë Meyers

Yet when it comes to the presidential election, Nevada’s early tally is actually a bit of a red herring.  The state’s caucus relies on voter discussion, as opposed to the secret ballot of primaries. It’s a closed system, which means only registered Democrats and Republicans can participate. By their nature, such races draw only the most vocal and polarized voters in both parties.

That strong partisanship means that February’s early caucus results aren’t necessarily predictive of eventual nominations. And yet, because of its demographics, the state has proven strongly representative of the rest of the nation in the general election. Nevada has picked more presidential victors than any other state, choosing the winning candidate in every general election since 1912, except one. But the state’s caucuses have swung the other way: The candidates chosen in Nevada’s 2008 preliminary — Clinton and Mitt Romney, who also won the state’s favor later in 2012 — were both defeated by Barack Obama.

At this year’s caucus, Clinton gained a narrow victory in Nevada, but Sanders claimed Colorado on Super Tuesday. Republican frontrunner Trump succeeded in Nevada by a wide margin — more than 20 points over Cruz and Rubio. But in  the Idaho Republican primary on March 8, Cruz dominated.  Overall, Nevada’s results followed the national pattern, with Clinton and Trump winning the most delegates so far.

The preferences of Nevada’s Hispanic voters were not echoed in another key early state, Colorado, where Latinos make up 15 percent of eligible voters. On Super Tuesday, Latino Democrats favored Sanders over Clinton. No Republican results were available, since that party opted out of early polling.

“This year, it’s a very strange race on both the Republican and Democratic sides,” says political science professor Fott. “I’m very interested in seeing what happens.”

Click to view larger.
Brooke Warren

Explore our map of campaign spending in the West, to date. To get the most information out of this map, click the "visible layers" tab on the upper right and toggle to select individual presidential candidate spending. The default view is Hillary Clinton; simply unselect her name to see other candidates. To see all candidates' spending in an area, hover over a state with your cursor.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an HCN editorial fellow

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