LAS VEGAS — Friday night, before the Nevada caucuses meet at 11 a.m. Saturday, White House hopeful Barack Obama is at the University of Nevada campus here, telling a mainly student crowd — not a packed courtyard at the outdoor rally — about the “fierce battle” he’s in and how important it is to reach out to Republicans and independents.
Nonetheless, for the Nevada caucus, it’s the Democratic base vote, especially the Hispanics here, who have been most courted by Obama, chief rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards.
The diversity of the electorate — not the casinos or the shows of the world-famous Strip — is a reason the Democratic National Committee decided in 2006 to move Nevada up on the calendar and make it the first western state ever to have a hand in determining who is the Democratic presidential nominee.
The selling point of Nevada, one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, is that it is a melting pot of all of the Democratic constituencies, with lots of union members, Hispanics, African Americans, Jews and a rising number of Asian Americans. With Sen. Harry Reid’s clout as majority leader closing the deal to get the election here, the Nevada vote comes after Iowa, New Hampshire and before the next contest, the Jan. 26 South Carolina primary.
The turnout at 1,763 precincts is expected to be in record numbers, goosed the last few days by mega-surrogates for the front-runners, including former President Bill Clinton, at a string of rallies across the state — and doing some glad-handing for his wife with workers at Caesars Palace — and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 Dem nominee, firing up Obama workers at their headquarters here.
In 2004, only 9,000 people showed up at the Democratic caucus, held so late in the nominating cycle that the nominee was already known. In 2008, even with the hoopla, state party officials will only go so far as to say that they gauge “tens of thousands” will show up this morning. But no matter who wins Saturday — no predictions here — the exercise has helped bolster the Nevada Democrats to be in position to turn a red state blue come November.
“Democrats are looking at the West as the new market for votes,” said Jamal Simmons, a consultant for the Nevada Democrats.
In 2006, there were 396,022 registered Democrats in the state to 403,020 Republicans. In November 2007, as a result of the yearlong build-up in Nevada (which the Democrats are working harder than the Republicans) — registered Democrats numbered 423,754 to Republicans at 413,500. Democrats are cultivating Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado — the Democratic nominating convention is in Denver — because they think they have a better chance of flipping states in the West than in the more intractable South. If the West comes through, the importance of swing states such as Ohio and Florida, pivotal in 2000 and 2004, is diminished.
Heavily modeled after the Iowa caucuses — the voting is in public, at a set time and place, and a candidate must meet a 15 percent threshold to be viable — there is one big difference. Under an arrangement blessed by the Democratic committee last May — after months of discussion and input from the presidential campaigns and the state party — caucuses will be held at nine hotels on the Las Vegas strip, open to any worker within 2œ miles.
Once Obama won the endorsement of the powerful Culinary Workers Union, Local 226 — the casino precincts are in the union hotels — a teachers union friendly to Clinton went to court but failed to win an order to shut them down on the argument that the union members got special treatment.