For Democrats, Nevada Is a Throw of the Dice

By: Wall Street Journal

A Win Would Provide a Boost, but Candidates Must Gamble That Voters Know the Caucus Game

LAS VEGAS — The voter-registration office here in Clark County says it received 4,025 new-voter registrations last week and 2,240 the week before that. In a presidential race where new voters are trending toward Barack Obama, and in a state where Saturday’s Democratic caucus may attract no more than 50,000 people, those new voters could tip the balance.

• For Clinton: Nevada’s elected Democrats and Hispanic leaders have backed her, and her increased appeal to women could lift her over the top in Saturday’s caucus.
• For Obama: New voters and union backing could tip the balance in his favor in a caucus expected to attract fewer than 50,000 people.
• The Spoils: While Nevada’s victor could get a bump, winning the Hispanic vote could be of greater significance.

Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton have worked Nevada hard. The state’s elected Democratic leadership and Hispanic leaders have lined up behind her, and a last-minute federal-court challenge to the caucus rules could undercut a big Obama advantage. But what could decide the winner here is whether Nevada voters can figure out what a caucus is and then decide to attend.

“We’re not familiar with the process,” says Dan Hart, a Democratic lobbyist who isn’t aligned with any candidate. Nevada voters have two weeks to cast their ballots in a general election and can vote in shopping malls, among other places. But a caucus, Mr. Hart says, is “the other end of the spectrum.”

An Early-Decision Contest

When Nevada’s Democrats caucused four years ago and just 9,000 voters showed up at 17 caucus sites around the state to endorse John Kerry, the nomination was already sewn up.

For this year, under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — of Nevada — the party made the state one of four early-decision contests. Republicans piggy-backed the date and called their own caucuses.

In an affront that Nevadans still complain about, New Hampshire leapfrogged Nevada to vote second and steal the nation’s attention. In a further affront, the Republican candidates have largely ignored the state, conceding it and its substantial Mormon population to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But Mr. Obama’s first-place finish in Iowa and Mrs. Clinton’s in New Hampshire have added some sizzle to the Democratic race.

The winner here would receive a helpful bump heading into the South Carolina Democratic primary on Jan. 26. More importantly perhaps, the race is focusing the Democrats on the nation’s huge and growing Hispanic vote, which could hold the key to the party’s electoral success for years to come.

Mrs. Clinton was long expected to win the Nevada caucuses. An increased appeal to women, including a women’s rally that was to follow last night’s Democratic debate, could still put her over the top.

The New York senator held hearings on the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste dump near Las Vegas last year. President Clinton carried the state twice, and Dina Titus, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, says even family history favors Mrs. Clinton. “Bill’s mother liked to gamble here,” she says.

But Mrs. Clinton’s third-place showing in Iowa caused her to dip in state polls. The decision by Las Vegas’s 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union to endorse Mr. Obama hurt even more.

The union, which represents workers on the Las Vegas Strip, is an organizing force here. Among other things, it claims to have accounted for 20% of Clark County’s new citizens last year by shepherding them through its citizenship program.

In a bow to the union, the Democratic Party last March agreed to set up so-called at-large caucus sites in nine Strip hotels on Saturday to accommodate workers who can’t attend caucuses in their neighborhoods.

Under the party formula, the casino caucuses also could elect 10 times the delegates of a neighborhood caucus that draws the same size crowd.

Angled for Endorsement

The three Democratic candidates, including former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who has had strong union support in the past, had angled for months for the Culinary Workers endorsement.

Nevada’s caucuses are patterned after Iowa’s, with each candidate’s supporters gathering in a different corner of the room. The union’s endorsement could make it uncomfortable for members to gather in any other corner than Mr. Obama’s.

The state teachers union, which hasn’t endorsed a candidate but whose members are among Mrs. Clinton’s core supporters, has asked a federal court to halt the casino caucuses because it gives casino workers greater voice in delegate selection. The court hasn’t yet heard the suit, but it already has created bad blood between the culinary union and the state’s elected Democrats, who have been largely quiet.

D. Taylor, the union’s secretary-treasurer, calls the suit “an attempt to disenfranchise thousands of union members,” who will be working on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. He and other Obama supporters point out that all the campaigns signed off on the plan months ago.

The caucuses’ timing during a holiday weekend adds to the unpredictability. Sen. Reid initially predicted a turnout of 100,000 Democrats, or about one of every four in the state. But Nevada has notoriously low turnouts, and thousands of people working elsewhere than the Strip won’t get off from work to caucus.

‘Looks Like America’

Mr. Reid also has promoted the importance of the state’s caucus by insisting that Nevada “looks like America” because of its Hispanic population, now 24% of the state.

Many of those Hispanics can’t vote because they aren’t citizens, but many of them or their U.S.-born children eventually will vote and are seen by Democratic strategists as pivotal to the party’s future.

Longtime Hispanic leaders and the Las Vegas Spanish-language newspaper have lined up behind Mrs. Clinton. There also are tensions between the Hispanic and African-American communities over jobs and housing that will work against Mr. Obama, says University of Nevada at Las Vegas political scientist Ted G. Jelen.

Obama supporters are counting on young and new voters, including Hispanics, to flock to the Illinois senator. “Nevadans always march to their own tune,” explains Democratic activist Billy Vassiliadis, an Obama supporter.

The result will likely depend on the campaign’s ability to turn out supporters — and the party’s ability to let them know where to go and what to do when they get there. The state party has been holding caucus-education classes — so-called mockuses — and running public-service ads.

Write to June Kronholz at

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