Bernie Sanders’ double-digit victory over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire magnified the importance of Nevada’s upcoming caucuses.
Clinton, it would appear, has significant advantages in Nevada. First, Nevada has been a stronghold for the Clintons since Bill Clinton first ran for president. She won the popular vote in the 2008 caucuses — although, because of the complexities of the rules — Obama got more delegates.
This year, her team has been working the state since April, contacting thousands of potential supporters and holding myriad caucus training events — in Spanish as well as English. She has, in fact, made continual efforts to build on her already strong support among Hispanics who, according to the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, could make up 30 percent of the party’s caucus voters on February 20.
Sanders, by contrast, didn’t open his first office in the state until November. Since then, however, he has hit the ground running, opening 11 offices statewide and spending more than double what Clinton has on TV and other advertising.
This past weekend, Sanders took the time to appear at an event on the University of Nevada, Reno campus sponsored by groups including the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
Sanders backers held a caucus training session Saturday before that event at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center and PLAN Director Bob Fulkerson said there were carloads of Sanders volunteers coming in from California to canvass throughout the Reno-Sparks area this coming week.
No one on the Clinton team is taking him lightly. Nor should they since the most recent poll by Washington Free Beacon/Target Point Consulting — released Friday — shows them neck-and-neck here at 45 percent. And the sample, instead of the usual 500 likely voters, was 1,236 voters.
“The ground game is what matters,” said Clinton strategist and organizer Michelle White. She said the campaign has been aggressive all the way from Las Vegas to Elko. But, said White, “Her strength is with the Hispanics.“
White said Clilnton’s positions also are aimed at Nevadans who she said share common values with Clinton and more closely mirror the makeup of the nation than many other states.
Organizers and backers of the remaining Republican candidates also say the caucuses here depend on “the ground game” — the ability of each to get his troops to the GOP caucuses Feb. 23.
Robert Uithoven, who’s running Sen. Ted Cruz’s Nevada effort, said campaign staff have been recruiting and training supporters all over the state. They held one in Carson City Saturday at the Basque Deli before the Carson City Lincoln Day Dinner that evening featuring Attorney General Adam Laxalt, Cruz’s highest profile Nevada backer.
“It’s going to be a very close race in Nevada,” Uithoven said. “There’s been a lot of time and investment by some of the other campaigns but I think our volunteers and activists are well organized.”
State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer said the Marco Rubio campaign has also “been working for months and months identifying supporters.”
“It’s all about turning out our people and we feel we have a strong network of people,” he said.
Kieckhefer also said he believes voters should get past Rubio’s poor debate performance in large part “because owning up to your mistakes is leadership and he did that.”
“That’s something that’s clearly been lacking in presidential politics for years,” he said.
Rubio also has a high profile Nevada supporter in Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison.
Jeb Bush may have the GOP’s strongest Nevada ground game and spokesman Ryan Erwin said campaign staff believe they’ll do well in Nevada.
“We have a fantastic ground game,” he said.
Erwin said the Bush team has an advantage similar to that enjoyed by Clinton in the team ran the Romney effort in 2012 and, so, started with a core of volunteers. Bush also has big-names supporting him in former Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, Congressman Mark Amodei and Sen. Dean Heller.
“We’ve made a ridiculous number of voter contacts,” Erwin said (more than 300,000 and trained more than 1,000 potential caucus goers). “I’m confident we’ll do well in Nevada although the definition of well remains to be seen.”
Erwin also said he believes voters are beginning to shift toward candidates who have a track record of success, the “experience, expertise and temperament” to be president. That, he said, favors the former Florida governor as well as Ohio governor John Kasich.
Erwin said one of the challenges has been educating voters about how the caucuses work. In recent years, he said, the electorate has embraced such things as early voting that allows them to vote at a time and place convenient for them.
“Caucuses are the opposite,” he said because voters have to show up at a specific time and place. “It’s a clunky, inconvenient process.”
That’s especially true for the GOP in which the presidential preference vote is just half the equation. After that, the vote to name delegates is important because the preference vote only binds delegates on the first ballot. After that, delegates can vote for anyone. The failure of mainstream Republicans to understand that second part of the rules resulted in a Tea Party takeover of the state convention in both 2008 and 2012.
“Caucuses are so funky,” Erwin said. “I’m in it every day and it’s hard to have a handle on what everybody’s doing.”
As for other candidates, two of those interviewed for this piece said they see and feel each other’s presence but, Donald Trump, not so much.
“We assume Trump is here too but don’t see it as much,” said one politco, who asked not to be named.
Ironically, the two candidates whose teams failed to respond to email and phone calls asking for input are supporters of the New Hampshire victors: Trump and Sanders.
Trump Nevada Director Charles Munoz said a week ago he would have to get permission from leadership before being interviewed. He never got back to the Appeal.
An email to the Sanders campaign drew no response and a phone message asking his Nevada director Joan Kato to respond went unanswered.
One Nevada office holder all of the Republicans would love to have in their corner is the immensely popular Gov. Brian Sandoval. But he has, thus far, refused to commit, instead waiting to see how things shake out.
Controller Ron Knecht, who’s seldom shy about his positions, is also staying out of the fray at this point but for a different reason. He said he has so far come out for Govs. Scott Walker, followed by Rick Perry then Bobbie Jindal, followed that by introducing Rand Paul at an event in the Gold Dust West and held a reception at his own home for Mike Huckabee. All of those candidates, Knecht said, are now out of the race.
“I’m the political kiss of death,” the Republican said. “I think the thing for me to do is endorse Hillary or Bernie.”