REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: CHAOTIC CAUCUSES


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(Reno, NV)
Saturday, January 19, 2008
As I finish this entry at around 5:30pm Saturday, the Clinton and Obama campaigns are each claiming success in Nevada. It’s been widely reported that Hillary Clinton won about 51 percent of delegates, compared to about 45 percent for Barack Obama and 5 percent for John Edwards. But those delegates are for the county conventions – not to the national convention.

In fact, the Obama campaign is saying that their candidate won 13 national delegates, compared to 12 for Clinton. As I write this, even the national media seem to be confused, so I’m going to let reporters who have far more experience than me work this out. Still, there’s already some confusion over who actually won the Nevada caucuses -- at least on the Democratic side. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney cruised to victory in the Republican race.

The caucuses themselves were even more confusing. It’s important to note that this is the first time the Silver State has had such a large say in the presidential primary process. In 2004, a mere 9,000 Nevadans turned out to caucus for John Kerry, with his nomination at that point a foregone conclusion. On Saturday, more than 100,000 Nevadans caucused for Democrats, and a state GOP spokesman estimated 45,000 Republicans took part. Not surprisingly, there were reports of chaos at caucuses of both parties.

Republican caucuses reportedly had long lines and some started late; the party spokesman said he’d heard of precincts in at least one county running out of ballots. (Republican caucuses are basically straw polls, so they get ballots; Democrats fill out “presidential preference cards.”)

Meanwhile, at the Democratic caucus I attended at a Reno elementary school, three separate precincts met – including two in the same room. The precinct I observed actually went relatively smoothly. But the key word is “relatively.” The vast majority of people there had never caucused before, and many didn’t quite know what to do. The precinct chairman had never run a caucus before, though she did a great job. And there were several moments of confusion throughout: Do I stand here? Should I raise my hand or put it down? Do I fill out my preference card now or later? What do I do if my candidate isn’t viable (that is, doesn’t have enough support to pick up a delegate)?

The most obvious problem was that there weren’t enough preference cards. Each caucusgoer gets a card to mark their candidate of choice. If you don’t have a card, you can’t be counted. So when it’s 11:20am, you’re down to four leftover cards and people can continue to arrive until the doors close at noon … you know there’s a problem. The precinct chair checked with the other two precincts; they were just about out of cards, too. So the chair had to call the Nevada Democratic Party – which then had to send volunteers out to deliver more of them. A party spokeswoman said the same problem happened at other precincts across the state, but that in the end, everyone who needed a card got one.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised to get an email with a statement from Obama campaign director David Plouffe. He said the campaign has received “reports of over 200 separate incidents of trouble at caucus sites” – from doors closing early to registration forms running out.

So setting aside the spin game being played by the two Democratic campaigns (not to mention the Romney camp’s spin that Nevada’s a big win even though no one really challenged him), I’d like to suggest two things Nevadans can take away from Saturday:

1)Turnout exceeded expectations – for both parties. It’s not that surprising that so many Democrats came out, since Clinton, Obama and Edwards battled it out up to the last moment. But considering the Republicans pretty much ignored Nevada for states like Michigan, South Carolina and Florida, I found reports of long lines and late start times surprising.

2)The two state parties have some work to do to make sure the caucuses four years from now go more smoothly. It’s a little more understandable that the GOP wasn’t prepared for Saturday’s turnout, for the reason in Point #1. But I simply don’t get how Democrats could have run out of preference cards. They had to know turnout would be huge, and the last-minute scrambling shows a lack of preparedness that ought to prompt some questions.

On a personal level, I’ve never covered a presidential campaign before – other than stopping by a couple of California primary rallies in 2004 – and it was an amazing experience (except for the long days and late nights). I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks leading up to the Golden State’s February 5th primary.