Chapparal High School in suburban Las Vegas became a bastion of civic participation on February 4 as attendees of the Nevada caucuses flocked to the home of the Cowboys. Well, at least some attendees. There are 16 counties in the state of Nevada, each of which is divided into precincts by the Republican Party. Clark County (home of Las Vegas), has 1,100 precincts, each of which has their own individual meeting. At Chapparal High, some 30 odd precincts have assembled to engage in two activities, the election of delegates to the Clark County Republican convention and the conducting of a presidential preference poll.
As people walk through the Chapparal High gym to pieces of paper with their precint’s number on it, I chat with some caucus goers. Carl, a precinct chair, tells me that Nevada is still adjusting to the caucus process as 2012 is only the second time Nevada has held a caucus. Furthermore, it is the first time the Nevada caucus will elect delegates, as in 2008, the RNC stripped Nevada of its delegates because the state put its caucus too early in the year. A senior citizen informs me that many of his peers dislike the caucus system, as it is impossible to vote absentee, making it difficult for elderly persons with limited mobility to vote. Another complaint is that in a caucus, one vote is often equal to 10,000, as turnout in caucuses is lower. Some precincts have seven voters electing seven (county) delegates! Once the caucus groups have assembled in the gymnasium, the precinct chair walks them to assigned rooms in an action reminiscent of elementary students following their teacher back to class after an assembly. I, along with my fellow San Diego journalists, Joelle, Rich, and Sharon Lieb, as well as Catherine Sinow, ask one of the organizers which precinct would be best to follow. We’re told precinct 5397, meeting in the cafeteria, should be well attended. As we walk into the cafeteria, which is adorned by a giant cowboy mural, we flash our press passes, and ask if it is OK if we observe the caucus. One elderly woman adamantly says no, but softens up after we tell her our group is largely high school press. After the precinct chair, Russ Wheeler, checked with the site manager to see if press was allowed in the caucus (they were), we settled into plastic chairs just outside the large circle of chairs the caucusers sit in. Russ, an affable man in a leather jacket, glances at his watch. The caucus officially starts at nine, but the precinct chairs have been told to wait until 9:20 to allow people to file in. Russ asks if anyone has seen the latest poll numbers, which have Romney leading by around 25 percentage points. After some comment on that, one women raises a point about how many people didn’t receive fliers about the location of the caucus. Russ blames the redistricting process that has left the Republican party in limbo about where the precinct lines are drawn.
Deciding it’s time to begin with some preliminary announcements, Russ passed out fliers on how to get involved with the Clark County party, as well as some announcements of upcoming events ,including a Civil War reenactment and an event at former mayor Oscar Goodman’s restaurant Beef, Booze, & Broads. He also described the delegate selection and presidential poll process, saying that the precinct should help get rid of “Barack Obama, socialist in chief.” The other caucus goers respond with mutters of “Hear, Hear”, “Dictator”, and “Food Stamp President”. Russ notes the food stamp president comment saying, “That’s a good one.” Apparently, there are 388 registered voters in the precinct, but only 26 (including Russ) have bothered to show up. Russ takes the low turnout in stride, explaining “I should be at the gym right now, but this [the caucus] is a big deal to us. The other 300 are going with the flow, and then they bitch, moan, and complain.” Russ then begins to explain the process of electing delegates. Precint 5397 is allocated 8 delegates to the Clark County convention. Delegates, once elected, have to pay a $40 fee to attend the convention. At the convention, delegates will work to create a county party platform, which Russ later told me was a laborious, yet fun process in which each individual word is vigorously debated. There are only eight volunteers to be delegates, so no election is necessary. Russ then moves on to the presidential preference poll. Anyone may speak on any of the four candidates for a maximum of two minutes, although Russ asks speakers on the same candidate not to repeat what the previous speaker said, so as to complete the caucus process quickly. Russ, for no apparent reason, starts with Rick Santorum. A middle aged man stands up, paper in hand, and reads a statement on Senator Santorum that sounds like it was lifted right from the official Santorum platform. A woman stands up to give another speech on Santorum that begins with a quote from Rush Limbaugh and then digressed into a choppy endorsement on Santorum. Next came Ron Paul. A woman in a grey pantsuit with a Ron Paul button stands up and talks about how Congressman Paul defended liberty. A girl who looks like a high school student then stands up and talks about how Ron Paul was the only candidate to oppose the national defense bill. After that one sentence however, she trailed off into an awkward silence that ended only when she bashfully sat down. The wife of the man who spoke for Santorum got up to speak for Gingrich. She said Speaker Gingrich was the kind of conservative with the vision to bring real change to Washington. She also read a letter Gingrich had sent out to his supporters to read at the caucuses. The letter was standard political fare, glorifying Gingrich’s record, especially on fiscal issues.
The second speaker for Gingrich was a middle aged man in tan clothing who began to talk about Gingrich, but then proceeded to inform us on the details of his life and how he is a pious member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (commonly known as Mormonism). What followed that biography was a rambling account, but it can be condensed into one sentence he said about Gingrich, “You don’t get baggage if you haven’t gone places.”
The third Gingrich speaker was a former official within the Clark County Republican Party and she spoke of how she recalls nationwide conference calls with Gingrich back in his speaker days and how impressed she was with the depth and breadth of his vision.
Next comes the Romney supporters. A man in a green shirt and tie stands up and gives a substantive speech, that while eloquently delivered, lacks pathos. In this way, he is somewhat of a microcosm of the candidate he supports. Another man praises Romney’s isolation from Washington, while a shabbily dressed man touts his own experience as an entrepeuneur, saying he wants a fellow entrepreneur like Romney in the White House.
Now comes the voting. Blue slips of paper are passed around and the caucus goers write their names on the ballots. With the tie-clad Romney supporter marking the tallies on his clipboard and the pantsuited Paul supporter standing over him, Russ began to read the votes outloud. Calls of Gingrich and Romney rang out, with the occasional mention of Santorum and Paul. The final tally came down to Gingrich: 12, Romney: 8, Santorum: 5, and Paul: 2. This would reveal unrepresentative of the larger results throughout the state. Romney won by a large margin. Of course, Romney won only the presidential poll, which guides delegates at the state convention, who are elected from county conventions, to proportionally send delegates to the national convention.
For all its flaws, the caucus system does present a dynamic side to democracy that we often miss. Observing the caucus taught me that our democratic process can be made into more than a minute at the ballot box. Caucus elections don’t come down to hanging chads and they allow people to be heard before they cast their votes. CCA ASB caucus anyone?