Q&A: A look at Nevada’s debate over caucus vs. primary

Lawmakers are trying to change how Nevada votes for presidential candidates in a move that has major implications for the state’s relevance on the campaign trail and who is likely to be the nominee.

A bill pending before the Legislature would change Nevada’s old-fashioned presidential caucus system to a primary election, and possibly move the primary election date for all offices to February, much earlier than the current June date.

Supporters say the change would give more Nevadans a say in choosing their next president and avoid embarrassing intra-party conflicts. Opponents say the change would stretch out the campaign season and send candidates knocking on doors during the holidays.

Here’s a look at the debate and the differences between a caucus and a primary:


Nevada’s caucus system is much more complicated than simply going to a ballot box and casting a vote for a candidate. Registered voters gather on caucus day in lengthy, party-specific precinct meetings at school gyms, churches or other public venues. Some attendees give off-the-cuff speeches about why they favor a certain candidate, hoping to convince uncommitted attendees. Voters physically move around the room and form small groups to indicate which candidate they support. Precinct-goers then choose a delegate who supports their favored presidential candidate to attend a county-wide convention, and the candidate with the most delegates wins the state.

While the precinct-level caucuses are the most watched and play the most decisive role because they’re the earliest indication of Nevada’s presidential preference, they’re followed by county-level and state-level caucuses that choose delegates to national party conventions.

Because of the time commitment involved in attending caucus meetings, and the sometimes loud, chaotic atmosphere, the format usually attracts the most fervent activists. Results tend to skew in favor of candidates outside the mainstream. Mitt Romney won votes from more than 50 percent of caucus attendees in 2012, but libertarian supporters of candidate Ron Paul defied Nevada GOP rules and sent a majority of votes to Paul at the national convention.


A primary involves a trip to a polling place and a ballot cast in secret — something that usually takes just a few minutes. The speed and privacy of a primary tends to attract a larger base of voters than a caucus meeting, which can take hours and sometimes involves a clash of personalities, so a primary tends to favor more mainstream candidates. Moderate, establishment Republicans are supportive of a primary in Nevada because it’s likely to yield a more middle-of-the-road nominee who could win in a general election against a Democrat.


As one of the earliest states to hold a caucus and express a preference for the president, Nevada is an essential stop for presidential candidates. Potential nominees think that if they can win in Nevada and other states that have early votes, they’ll have enough momentum to shake off their opponents and win their party’s nomination. Nevada is already abuzz with candidate visits. So far this month, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson have paid visits, and Marco Rubio plans to stop by at the end of May. Nevada wants to hold its primary or caucus early enough relative to other states that it’s still a relevant, popular stop for presidential hopefuls.


That depends. Republican lawmakers want to consolidate the presidential primary and the primary for other offices, which is usually held in June, into a single, late-February event. Doing so wouldn’t cost more than the current system. But Democrats are outspoken against holding a primary so early in the year for non-presidential offices, such as the state Legislature. They say voters don’t want a campaign season that extends into the holidays. They also say that such an early start favors well-organized campaigns and incumbents to the detriment of smaller campaigns and newcomers that might be slow getting off the ground. A possible solution is a presidential primary in February and a primary for other offices in June, but two elections would come at double the cost.


The Nevada Senate voted 11-9 earlier this month to pass SB421, which would institute a primary but give national party organizations a chance to opt out of a Nevada primary and hold a caucus, instead. The bill is now in the Republican-controlled, but less predictable, Assembly. It was up for discussion Tuesday but has yet to receive a vote at the committee level.


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