Nevada Caucus’s Better Odds


By: Wall Street Journal

Early Post Position May Empower State In Democratic Race
By CHRISTOPHER COOPER

LAS VEGAS — With an early post position in the presidential nominating process, can Nevada gain as much prominence in one year as Iowa has over a generation? A lot depends on the lady’s luck.

If Sen. Hillary Clinton blows out the field in Iowa’s nominating caucus on Jan. 3 she may well coast to the nomination, Democratic Party officials say. If she doesn’t — she’s in a statistical dead heat with Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards with just six weeks to go — Nevada’s Jan. 19 caucus could be pivotal.

So far, Nevada has drawn only a fraction of the interest Democratic candidates have heaped on Iowa and has been overshadowed by the hype from early voting states New Hampshire and South Carolina. Also, there’s not much interest from the Republican side, where Nevada is likely to matter less since the party is staging an “unassembled caucus,” a complicated procedure in which local delegates — not candidates — are selected.

But the state could transform into the important battleground that early-voting advocates envisioned when they received permission from the Democratic National Committee to move up their caucus. If Mrs. Clinton places second in Iowa and goes on to win a close contest in New Hampshire, Nevada could play the role its advocates dream of. “We could become the tiebreaker,” a Democratic Party operative says. New Hampshire hasn’t yet formally set a date for its primary but will likely pick Jan. 8, coming 11 days before Nevada.

What is most likely to make Nevada important is Culinary Workers Local 226 of UNITE-HERE, which represents some 60,000 casino workers. This union, which is expected to endorse a candidate in early December, could hold the key to the state’s caucuses, which are expected to be lightly attended. The prize is likely to go to Mr. Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, or Sen. Obama of Illinois. Both have received endorsements from powerful national unions.

Iowa, which established its first-in-the-nation caucus in 1972, saw its king-maker reputation sealed in 1976 when a little-known Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter won the contest and went on to win the presidency. About 38,000 voters participated in that vote. Since then, Iowa has used its small turnout (it has never exceeded 20% of eligible voters) to cultivate its reputation as a must-win nominating state with the power to turbo-charge a candidacy or dash it against the rocks. This power hasn’t been lost on 2008 presidential hopefuls, who have held a total of 1,707 campaign events in Iowa this year, compared with 180 in Nevada, according to the Washington Post’s Campaign Tracker, which keeps tabs on such visits.
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Even by the standard of Iowa’s modest voter-turnout rates, Nevada has a ways to go. It has been using the caucus system for as long as Iowa, but the Silver State has never played a king-making role, since its nominating contest usually was held in March, long after the race was decided. Consequently, turnout in the Nevada caucuses has often numbered in the hundreds of votes.

A lack of history has made the state a puzzle to this year’s slate of Democratic candidates, and operatives in many of the campaigns say they are unsure about how to play the state. Nevada’s sparse population makes the state a difficult one to campaign in; most candidates do quick drop-ins on Nevada rather than full-blown tours, often tacking a visit onto a California fund-raiser.

So far, Mrs. Clinton appears to have a near-lock on the state: A CNN poll last week gave her a 51%-23% edge over Mr. Obama, her closest rival. That could certainly change if Nevada’s unions — the culinary workers union and the smaller Service Employees International Union — go all-out for someone else. With their ability to organize get-out-the-vote efforts, the two unions could swamp caucus sites in most of the state’s population centers.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s campaign hopes to benefit from the unions’ high proportion of Hispanics. “This state could play a big momentum role,” says David Contarino, campaign manager for Mr. Richardson, a Latino. But he added that Nevada’s influence is far from assured. “Most people don’t even know there’s a caucus,” he says.

The potential power of union workers isn’t lost on Jean Hessburg, campaign director for the Nevada Caucus. The former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party has already hatched plans to make it easier for union workers to participate. Key to the plan: opening more than a half-dozen at-large caucus sites along the famed Las Vegas strip. The caucus sites will allow union shift workers to participate when they otherwise couldn’t.

“This is our constituency,” Ms. Hessburg says. “Why wouldn’t we accommodate them?”

Write to Christopher Cooper at christopher.cooper@wsj.com

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