With Romney Out, Nevada Caucuses Up for Grabs in '16

With Romney Out, Nevada Caucuses Up for Grabs in '16
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Since 2008, when Nevada acquired its coveted status as one of the four early presidential voting states, there’s been little reason to pay much attention to its Republican caucuses.

Unlike the three other “carve-out” states—Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina—Nevada has no engrained tradition of playing a significant role in selecting the GOP’s nominee. Furthermore, the state’s geographic isolation and tiny caucus electorate has made it easier for the media and candidates alike to downplay the first-in-the-West contest. 

Nevada was never competitive in either of the last two nominating cycles. Instead, with a Republican caucus electorate that has been more than a quarter Mormon, it was solid Mitt Romney country.  

In the 2008 caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor won 51 percent of the vote. Four years later, Romney again broke the 50 percent threshold in in a humdrum contest in which fewer than 33,000 Republicans participated and fewer still paid close attention outside of the state.  

But with the 2012 nominee declining to run a third time in 2016, the Silver State—which will reprise its role as the relative newcomer to the early-voting calendar—is up for grabs. 

Though it again figures to play fourth fiddle, Nevada does offer an opportunity to what is expected to be a crowded field of candidates in the most wide-open GOP nominating fight in memory.  

And it won’t necessarily be enough for any of them to count on a win in Iowa or New Hampshire to propel them through the next state on the calendar.  

According to longtime Nevada political reporter and columnist Jon Ralston, merely knowing that the “a” in “Nevada” is pronounced like “apple” and not “car” won’t be enough to succeed there next year.  

“To organize for a statewide caucus, you need money and you need operatives who know what they’re doing,” Ralston said. “And so I do think that there are going to be people coming in here who understand that and are going to organize for these guys, now that Mitt’s not in the race.” 

In the context of a presidential race, Nevada’s demographics can be broken down into three regions: Clark County (Las Vegas and surrounding areas), Washoe County (Reno) and the rest of the state—a vast, largely rural expanse that contains only about 10 percent of the overall population but has an outsized influence on the GOP caucuses. 

The Nevada Republican electorate has a well-established libertarian streak that figures to benefit Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is already taking steps to build on his father’s base of support there.  

During campaign-style stops in Las Vegas and Reno last month, Paul emphasized areas in which his perspective differs from that of his likely competitors.  

“I'm a Republican who will say things like, you know what, we shouldn't put people in jail for 20 years for marijuana and that, really, we need to have a more compassionate and just criminal justice system,” Paul said during his Reno visit, according to CBS affiliate KVTN.  

But his chances in Nevada are far from assured. 

Despite the ideological bent of the state’s GOP voters, in both of Ron Paul’s two recent presidential bids, he finished far out of contention in the caucuses with barely over 6,000 votes in either contest.  

Strategists who are working for several likely 2016 candidates told RCP they expect to compete strongly in Nevada and have reason to believe that the state isn’t Paul’s for the taking.  

Though the religious right is not nearly as strong in Nevada as it was decades ago, there remains a broad spectrum of Republican caucus-goers, making the state an especially appealing target for less well-funded candidates, who will be eager to compete in a contest where organization might trump TV ad buys.    

“I personally like Nevada because it’s a caucus,” said one aide who is aligned with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. “I’m someone that’s really encouraging a hard look at Nevada.”  

Though it is far too early to put much weight into such surveys, a poll conducted by the group Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions found a wide-open race among likely GOP caucus-goers with Scott Walker (18 percent), Jeb Bush (12 percent) and Rand Paul (9 percent) constituting the top three.  

Despite the fact that Romney’s easy victories garnered scant interest elsewhere, there is precedent for Nevada playing a key role in presidential primary politics. 

When the Democrats held their Nevada caucuses in January 2008, the contest was hotly contested and closely watched as a barometer of the race following Barack Obama’s win in Iowa and Hillary Clinton’s triumph in New Hampshire.  

Clinton ended up defeating Obama in the popular vote, even as Obama managed to edge her out in the final count of delegates that Nevada was to send to that year’s Democratic National Convention. 

That dynamic foreshadowed the Obama campaign’s superior organization in subsequent caucus states—a factor that proved essential to his securing the nomination.  

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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