Here's What You Need to Know About the Nevada Caucuses

The first-in-the-West contest will be a tie-breaker for Sanders and Clinton who are both vying for the Latino vote.
February 16, 2016, 2:30pm
Photo by Isaac Brekken/AP

In less than a week, 2016 presidential candidates will return for round three of the race for their respective party's nomination, this time in Nevada, where caucuses will be held on February 20 for Democrats and three days later for Republicans.

Nevada is fairly new to its first-in-the West caucus title and was named an early-voting state only in 2008. On top of its bellwether status, the state is also significant because its 2.9 million population is much more demographically diverse than the majority-white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which voted first and second. Nearly a third of Nevada residents are Latino or Hispanic, while African-Americans account for more than 9 percent of residents, according to Census records.

Since Republican rhetoric on immigration has been especially heated in recent months, the Democratic candidates are looking to set themselves apart on issue and capitalize on the Latino vote. Just two days before the Democratic caucus, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will hold a televised town hall in Las Vegas focusing on issues affecting Nevada and the Latino community in particular.

Related: Here's What's at Stake for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in South Carolina

"Mobilizing Latino supporters will be absolutely critical for our Democratic presidential nominee to win in key Western battleground states like Nevada this November," Roberta Lange, Nevada State Democratic Party chairwoman, said in a statement. "While Republican candidates have repeatedly disrespected, dismissed, and insulted Latinos on the campaign trail, Democrats are working to address their goals and concerns on issues ranging from college affordability to immigration reform."

For the Democrats, the Nevada caucusing process is fairly similar to the Iowa caucus, except that residents 18 and older can register to vote on the morning of the caucuses, which is expected to encourage more people to show up. This could serve to boost the chances of candidates like Sanders, who says he benefitted from a huge voter turnout in New Hampshire.

Sanders is also hoping his income inequality platform and calls for a $15 minimum wage will resonate with voters in Las Vegas and Reno, which were hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis. Nevada held the top spot in the nation for home foreclosures immediately after the crash, and recovery has been slow. The state also has a high rate of unemployment at 7.1 percent, compared with the national average of 4.9 percent.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, and his wife Jane, left, meet 3-month-old Oliver Lomas, of Venice, Calif., who was dressed as Sanders during a rally at Bonanza High School, on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Clinton's $12 minimum wage proposal doesn't quite hit as high as Sanders's pitch, but she has sought in recent weeks to cast that proposal and others from the Vermont senator as unrealistic. And her $12 pitch would represent a significant raise from the state's current $8.25 minimum wage. Clinton is now seeking to retain the voters she wooed in 2008 when she scored a significant popular vote win in Nevada over Barack Obama. However, Obama took an extra delegate over Clinton thanks to Nevada's caucus process. Clinton is hoping for a repeat win in Nevada, where she has spent months building on the ground-game that her current campaign manager established there in 2008.

The Republican Party, which does not have same-day registration, will have to work extra hard to secure and register voters ahead of time. It is doing so alongside groups like Engage Nevada, a conservative nonprofit that is working to expand the GOP's voter base.

"Our goal is to engage more voters, especially like-minded conservative voters, in the political process," Chris Carr, former president of Engage Nevada and former chairman of Mitt Romney's 2012 Nevada campaign, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Prediction for which way the chips will fall in Nevada are still murky, mostly due to difficulties conducting polling. Low registration in general and a diverse and transient population make it difficult for pollsters to gather information, since they typically poll using landlines. The continuing foreclosure crisis hasn't helped either, meaning that voter rolls are populated with out of date addresses, phone numbers, and other personal data.

In polls conducted late last year, Clinton consistently lead Sanders by double-digits in Nevada, while Reuters/Ipsos polling from October 1 to February 12 found that 54 percent of Latinos who describe themselves as Democrats favored Clinton over Sanders, who took 37 percent of potential Latino voters.

So there was some media buzz on Friday when the Washington Free Beacon/TargetPoint Consulting released a poll showing Sanders and Clinton at a tie in Nevada, with 45 points each. But this was quickly followed by accusations that the survey was skewed, as it included several negative facts about Clinton (mentioned after voters were asked for whom they'd vote) and that the Washington Free Beacon, which sponsored it, is a far-right publication that is seen as hostile toward Clinton.

Jon Ralston, a journalist and political expert in Nevada, raised a few caveats about the poll, but concluded in a column Monday morning that between those results and the Clinton campaign beginning to lower expectations in the state, "the Sanders surge is real."

People chant during a rally in front of the Trump Hotel Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) 

In one GOP survey from late last year, frontrunner Donald Trump lead the pack with 33 percent of support, followed by Ted Cruz with 20 percent, and Marco Rubio with 11 percent. Despite Trump's lead in Republican polls in Nevada and across the country, an MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist survey from December found that some 55 percent of Latinos nationwide held a "very negative" view of the billionaire businessman, who has both come under fire for his inflammatory, anti-immigrant comments, especially toward Mexican immigrants.

Based on shifting demographics in the Nevada, the Center for American Progress estimates that people of color this year will become just over 39 percent of the voting electorate, compared to 36 percent in 2012. That could make it tougher for Republicans to win in the state in a general election. In 2012, Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote, compared to Mitt Romney who got 24 percent. As more Latinos and minorities register, voting is also likely to increasingly skew in favor of the Democrats.

In stark contrast to Nevada's high unemployment and poverty rates (at least 23 percent of children there live in poverty) the state's most populous city, Las Vegas, boasts flashy resorts and casinos that generate hundreds of millions in revenue each year for the state. Trump owns one such luxury hotel on the strip — the eponymous Trump International, which became the scene of a demonstration by members of the Culinary Workers Union last October that took place just hours before the first Democratic presidential debate in 2015. At one point Clinton entered into the protest, joining some of the workers who carried signs saying "No contract, no peace."

Hillary Clinton just made a surprise appearance at the labor protest outside the Trump hotel — Amanda Terkel (@aterkel)October 13, 2015

How the caucuses actually work:

For the Democrats, the precinct caucusing process on February 20 is similar to the Iowa contest, where caucusgoers move around the room to stand with supporters of their preferred candidate or declare themselves uncommitted. Groups that don't meet the "viability threshold," with 15 percent support at their particular caucus, must realign and join another campaign's supporters before a final head count is made. Each group will then elect their delegates supporting a particular candidate to attend the Nevada county convention on April 2. County conventions will select delegates to go to the state convention, which in turn selects delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Nevada Democrats will send 43 delegates (35 pledged to support their caucus winners) to the DNC in 2016.

Since the gaming industry is so huge in Nevada, and runs 24-7, the Democrats also hold at-large precinct caucuses that allow shift workers (croupiers, bartenders, gas station attendants, etc.) to caucus at six locations dotted along the Las Vegas strip, instead of having to travel to their home precincts — as long as the caucusgoers work within a 2.5 mile radius of the location. At-large precinct caucuses are usually held at major casinos and hotels, and this year the hosts will be the New York-New York hotel, Caesars Palace, Rio, the Paris hotel, Harrah's, and the Wynn Resort.

For Republicans, the process on February 23 is similar to what their party did in Iowa earlier this month. Unlike Democrats, there is no viability threshold and caucusgoers will not move around the room to form clusters. Instead, voters will use paper ballots to determine the number of delegates who will represent each candidate in the next round of caucusing. Ultimately, Republicans will send 30 delegates to their national convention later this year.