IndyElections: What Nevada can learn from Washington’s dueling caucus/primary in 2016

7 November 2023

Indy Elections is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2024 elections, from the race for the White House to the bid to take control of the Legislature.

In today’s edition: We travel back in time and space to the faraway land of Washington state, circa 2016. There, a divided Democratic Party held both a presidential caucus and a primary — so what can that experience tell Nevada? Plus, we take a look at another poll that shows flagging support for President Joe Biden. 

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Days until: 

Nevada presidential primary: 91

GOP presidential caucus: 93

Election Day: 364

What Nevada Republicans can learn from Washington Democrats’ awkward 2016 caucus-primary split

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton narrowly won the state-run Washington presidential primary, conducted by mail, on May 24, 2016.

It didn’t matter. Two months earlier, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had won the Washington caucus with 73 percent of the vote.

The time-consuming caucus had about a third of the turnout of the primary — but the state party did not award delegates based on which contest had greater participation. 

It maintained a caucus, even though the state had been running a primary since 1989 and even after the state Republican Party transitioned to a primary by 2016.

Sanders took the bulk of the state’s 101 delegates, creating an awkward reality that spilled into the national convention, when Sanders delegates protested and put tape over their mouths at the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

The whole episode embarrassed the state party, which had clung to the caucus as a vestige of its power to influence outcomes. Seeing the writing on the wall, Washington Democrats abandoned the caucus by 2020. The moot 2016 primary, meanwhile, cost the state $9 million.

Sound familiar?

Like Washington Democrats, Nevada Republicans have resisted a state-run primary. They’re running their own caucus, like Washington, though Nevada’s is two days after the primary.

But party Chairman Michael McDonald and his allies have taken a step that Washington Democrats never took — only opening the state caucus to candidates that forgo the primary.

Washington’s situation in 2016 provides some analogs to the self-inflicted primary-caucus brouhaha facing the Nevada Republican Party  — a situation expected to confuse voters.

In 2019, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law moving the state’s presidential primary up from May to March, hoping to increase the state’s political clout on the national scene — a similar motivation to Nevada’s 2021 law aimed at making the state the then-first primary in the nation.

The state party voted overwhelmingly in 2019 to use the state-run primary as its nominating contest, abandoning the caucus. 

“I think we’ve clearly outgrown the caucus, and that is something that rank-and-file Democratic voters made clear to us,” one state committee member told PBS.

While the 2016 caucus favored Sanders, the 2020 primary proved a tight fight between Sanders and eventual nominee Joe Biden. Biden won 46 delegates, while Sanders won 43.

The Nevada GOP, meanwhile, is taking the opposite tack in creating a narrower contest. Many suspect that the caucus stands to benefit former President Donald Trump, who has the most politically active base among Republicans in the state. Trump has wined and dined McDonald at Mar-a-Lago and maintained a close relationship with his longtime ally, who was a fake elector for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

While McDonald has maintained the contest is not rigged, he called Trump “the next president of the United States” at his October rally in Las Vegas. 

But if Washington is any indication, the ensuing voter confusion and contradictory results between the primary and caucus could lead to an outcome Nevada wanted to avoid when it first moved into the early slate for the 2008 election: irrelevance.

Despite Nevada’s position as fourth in the Republican nominating calendar, only Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy visited the state before the Republican Jewish Coalition cattle call at the end of October — prompting more headlines about the primary-caucus confusion than actual candidate visits.

It mirrors what happened in Washington. With the confusing dueling contests, neither Sanders nor Clinton spent much time there, save for a major Sanders rally in August 2015.

It was exactly what inspired Washington Democrats chair Tina Podlowski to shift to a primary and make the contest earlier.

“We wanted to be more relevant,” Podlodowski said, according to Seattle Met Magazine.

Correction (Nov. 7, 2023 at 11:30 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated when the 2016 Washington caucus was held.  It was held March 26, not May 26.

What we’re reading and writing

‘Compassionate conservative’ Scott Hammond leaves Senate early to lead workforce agency by Naoka Foreman

One last look at Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) as he exits the Legislature. 

Republican pollster finds Rosen with narrow lead over Brown in Senate race by Gabby Birenbaum

Undecideds and “none of the above” combined for another 15 percent in this (very early) poll. 

Speaker Steve Yeager calls on Clark County schools boss Jesus Jara to resign by Rocio Hernandez

As Clark County’s K-12 feuding has intensified, things have taken a decidedly political turn. 

Lombardo calls NV GOP caucus plan ‘detrimental’ and ‘unacceptable’ by Sean Golonka and Tabitha Mueller

In which the GOP governor has some choice words for the GOP presidential caucus. 

Indy Poll Watch

The New York Times/Siena College (Oct. 22 – Nov. 1)

611 registered voters (Nevada) // 3,662 registered voters (six-state sample)

Margin of error: 4.4 percent (Nevada) // 1.8 percent (six-state sample)

The New York Times/Siena College found President Joe Biden trailing a hypothetical matchup with former President Donald Trump almost across the board in one of the most wide-ranging sets of early polls of critical swing states this cycle — Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. 

Nowhere was Biden’s weakness more pronounced than in Nevada, where he trailed Trump by more than 10 points — 41 percent to 52 percent. 

Within those results, a story: The core constituencies of the Democratic Party post-2016 have continued to shift, as non-white voters have soured on the president and the gender gap has closed. Biden trails Trump in solidly blue Clark County — where nearly three-quarters of all Nevada voters will cast their ballot — by 5 points. 

Among Hispanic voters, Trump and Biden are even at 45 percent apiece, and Biden only leads among young voters by 3 points — two demographic groups that the Democrat won big in 2020. Biden even trails among women, 45 percent to 47 percent. 

All the caveats about any poll conducted a year out from Election Day remain true — this, despite the NYT/Siena poll’s reputation in 2022, is just a snapshot in time. Other recent polls have also been less disastrous for Biden — a recent poll sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) showed Biden and Trump tied at 46 percent. It does, however, add to a growing pile of concern for Democrats that voters remain unhappy with the incumbent. 

One silver lining for Democrats — 65 percent of Nevada respondents think abortion should remain always or mostly legal. Buoyed by success in 2022, Nevada Democrats plan to make abortion access a cornerstone of their 2024 electoral strategy.

Jacob Solis

The Lightning Round

Campaign fundraising at 200 mph — More or less, anyway, as the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) is set to host a fundraiser in Las Vegas timed with next weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix. Attorney General Aaron Ford (who is termed out in 2026) will join Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul at Vdara for the grand prix weekend, with views of the race included. The get-in price? A cool $25,000. 

Legislative candidate update — Last week, 19 incumbent Assembly Democrats announced plans to run for re-election in 2024. Though a majority of Assembly Democrats are planning to return, a quarter of the state’s 42 Assembly members will not be running for re-election. More details onThe Nevada Independent’s tracker here.

End Citizens United targets Sam Brown PAC — Republican Senate candidates have consistently attacked primary frontrunner Sam Brown over his maneuver to transfer debts from his unsuccessful 2022 campaign to a PAC (meant to support other Republican candidates) and subsequently using PAC funds to instead mostly pay off the debt. Now, a Democratic PAC has entered the fold, filing a complaint that asks the Federal Election Commission (an agency renowned for its lax enforcement of campaign finance guardrails) to investigate Brown’s “apparent violations” of federal law and regulations.

Sounds familiar… — In the Senate race, Republican candidate and retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Grady attacked Brown Monday for his support of Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) block against military promotions. Grady’s campaign criticized Brown for fundraising “off of putting our military in harm’s way” — echoing attacks from Nevada Democrats and Sen. Jacky Rosen’s (D-NV) campaign.

Lombardo 14th-most popular governor — At least according to the latest Morning Consult tracking poll of gubernatorial approval ratings nationwide, which have Lombardo at +29 (58 percent approve, 29 percent disapprove). Related, not a single governor was actually underwater in that poll. 

Abortion access ballot measure gets an Illinois boost — That’s according to the Chicago Sun-Times, which reported last week that a nonprofit founded by Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave $1 million to Nevadans for Reproductive Freedom, the PAC behind a proposed constitutional amendment that would aim to solidify legal abortion access in Nevada via a 2024 ballot question. 

John Lee gets the Lombardo stamp of approval — Bygones were bygones last week after Lombardo gave Lee his endorsement in the race to unseat Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) in Congressional District 4. It comes after Lee ran against Lombardo in last year’s gubernatorial primary, a race in which a pro-Lombardo PAC attacked Lee, and in which Lee’s campaign ran an ad calling Lombardo a RINO who “loves sanctuary cities and unconstitutional gun grabbing.” 

Lombardo appeals NCAA transgender student athlete policy — Lombardo joined eight other Republican governors requesting that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rewrite its Transgender Student Athlete Policy. The letter is the second time Lombardo has weighed in on national transgender policy issues. In May, he signed onto another joint opposition letter to a proposed Biden Administration policy to require schools respect a student’s gender identity in sports participation. 

— Jacob Solis, Sean Golonka and Tabitha Mueller

And to ease you into the week, a few “posts” to “X” that caught our eye: 

The City of Reno does street sweeper ASMR

Get ready to learn Iowan, buddy. 

Rocio doesn’t want a lot for Christmas

The Coach Prime x Barbenheimer crossover event you didn’t know you needed.

We’ll see you next week. 

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Editor’s Note: This story appears in Indy Elections, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2024 elections. Sign up for the newsletter here.

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