April 29, 2015 — Majority state legislative Republicans, led by Assembly Speaker John Hambrick, are moving a bill to change Nevada’s presidential nominating system from a caucus to a primary. A companion measure has been introduced in the state Senate.
The initiative, if both houses pass and Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) signs the bill(s) into law, is quite significant considering Nevada is one of just four states the Republican National Committee sanctions for voting prior to March 1, 2016. The measure(s) would schedule the new Republican primary for Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, just ahead of the Saturday (Feb. 27, 2016) South Carolina primary and behind the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary that is tentatively targeted for Tuesday, Feb. 9. The nation’s first caucus vote, held in Iowa, is scheduled to occur on or around Feb. 1, 2016.
The legislators do not appear to be attempting to aid any one particular candidate, though the candidates with more in the way of campaign financial resources should benefit to the detriment of those depending upon a strong grassroots precinct organizations. Rather, their stated goal is to increase voter participation and avoid what state Republican Party chairman Michael McDonald said hurt the state in 2012.
“It was a total disaster the way it [the 2012 Republican Caucus] was handled. It was an embarrassment for the state,” McDonald said in reference to reports of intimidation going on in the county meetings and the expression of many Republican caucus attenders of disapproving of having to publicly state their candidate preference. State Sen. James Settelmeyer, one of the legislation’s principal sponsors, agreed. In an interview with a Las Vegas Sun newspaper reporter, Sen. Settelmeyer commented saying, “[Voting] is a private thing, and I don’t believe the caucus is private.”
The change would likely be good news for ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush who is faring best in the early money wars but a less welcome development for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul whose father, Ron Paul, captured a close third place here in 2012 but still lost to Mitt Romney. Sen. Paul is considered one of the early favorites for a Nevada Caucus because of his strong and loyal ground operation. With a greater participation rate that a primary brings, Paul’s potential advantage would most likely be diminished.
The Nevada Caucus came to prominence during the 2008 election cycle. It was then-US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) who successfully pushed his state into its priority position, arguing that the constituency was a demographic microcosm of the United States and the west needed a representative among the early voting states. Then-Sen. Barack Obama scored a major win over Hillary Clinton in that year and set a national tone for engendering a huge turnout that featured voter lines stretching around buildings and corners waiting for admittance to the various county caucus meetings.
The particular legislative change for 2016 would not affect the Democratic nominating system. The minority legislative Democrats, however, would naturally cast votes on the legislation and it is unclear if they will organize either for or against the bills. A lot depends upon whether the Republicans become united over this change.
The current Nevada system holds county meetings on a particular day in each of the 17 counties, including Clark County, which houses approximately two-thirds of the state’s population. Voters attend the meetings and, during what can be a process lasting hours, publicly cast their votes. The purpose of the caucus meeting is to elect delegates to the state convention, who would later vote on the presidential resolution and elect national delegates. The contemporary legislation would return the Nevada Republican nomination system to a straight primary where participants would vote as they do in a general election.