Nevada’s primary and caucuses didn’t change the race. They did wreak avoidable chaos.

Nevada’s primary and caucuses didn’t change the race. They did wreak avoidable chaos.

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a South Carolina rally ahead of the Nevada caucuses. | Allison Joyce/AFP/Getty Images

Trump won, Haley lost, and Nevada botched its key role in the GOP primary.

Nevada is doing things differently this election season, and not necessarily for the better.

Former President Donald Trump and his former US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, competed this week in Nevada as the last two major candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination. But, confusingly, they did so on two separate days — and in two entirely different types of contests.

Having two contests seemed to give both Haley and Trump a chance to notch a victory. Haley, however, lost the state’s primary on Tuesday; she received fewer votes than “none of these candidates.” Trump won the state’s caucus ballot on Thursday handily. Voters were allowed to participate in both contests, but only one really mattered: The state Republican Party decided that only the latter will determine who receives the state’s 26 delegates, and any candidate who competed in the primary cannot also compete in the caucuses.

If this seems to make no sense, it’s because it doesn’t. But it’s the unfortunate product of political infighting and a national shift away from caucuses after 2020, one that only led to confusion for voters. Trump would have been dominant in Nevada no matter the format — he has a more than 50 percentage point lead on average in national polls. But now he’s won all of the state’s delegates simply because his only major opponent opted not to participate in the caucuses. And that makes it difficult to learn anything new about the depth of Trump’s support in Nevada from the results.

“I don’t want to say the Nevada caucuses and primary are meaningless at this point, but it [was] certainly a foregone conclusion,” said Zachary Moyle, a GOP strategist based in Nevada.

Nevada wanted to move away from caucuses. What happened?

Nevada has historically held caucuses, contests in which voters gather in local meetings run by their state parties to say who they’d prefer to be their presidential nominee. But following bungled Iowa caucuses in 2020 that led to delays in reporting the results, Nevada lawmakers joined a chorus of activists nationwide calling for caucus states to hold primaries instead.

Reformist lawmakers argued that primaries were not only smoother to run but also more inclusive: Participating in caucuses can take hours, and they typically only attract the most ardent partisans who can afford to spend an entire evening in a school gym.

“We’ve made it easier for people to register to vote here in Nevada in recent years and now we should make it easier for people to vote in the presidential contests,” former US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who during his life was a Democratic giant in Nevada politics, said in 2020.

So the Democrat-controlled Nevada legislature enacted a law mandating that a primary, preceded by 10 days of early voting, be held on the first Tuesday in February. This year, that was February 6.

But the change didn’t come without opposition from Republican leaders in Nevada and other caucus states. “We want to make clear that we stand together in protecting the presidential nominating schedule as it has existed for many years,” a group of pro-caucus GOP lawmakers (from Nevada and three other states) said in a joint statement in 2021 after the Nevada law was signed. They didn’t want to lose out on the kind of resources and attention that caucuses typically bring to state parties, Moyle said. In part because they are such an extended affair — and one that produces made-for-television visuals of crowds of energetic voters gathering in chanting groups — caucuses tend to attract national and international media attention and are a big moneymaker every four years.

That was especially true for Nevada, which had some of the most diverse caucuses early in the primary calendar. They were closely watched for clues about the Latino vote, given that Nevada’s population is nearly a third Hispanic.

All that meant that while a primary was legally mandated this year, the GOP wasn’t ready to give up its caucuses. Republicans challenged the Nevada primary law in court but dropped the lawsuit when a judge told them they would not be locked into holding a primary. So, while the state government held a primary, the state party has charged ahead with caucuses. And only the results of the caucuses will determine who Nevada’s delegates will support as their nominee for president at the GOP national convention this summer. But even Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo isn’t happy about it.

“I think that’s unacceptable for the voters and the understanding of how things should be done,” he said on the Nevada Newsmakers podcast in October.

Adding to the confusion about the two contests was controversy: There were allegations that the caucus rules were crafted to favor Trump — specifically, a new rule enacted in September, which banned super PAC employees from attending the caucuses.

Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who later dropped out of the race, claimed that the rule put them at a severe and unfair disadvantage. DeSantis had depended heavily on two super PACs for support in early voting states. Haley’s campaign has also relied on super PACs, though to a lesser degree, now that she has the support of the Koch network. That left them without a fighting chance against Trump, who already commanded the kind of grassroots support that is typically rewarded in caucuses.

What does all this chaos mean?

The only consolation is that all this confusion likely won’t impact who wins the GOP nomination, which Trump basically locked down after his dominant performance in Iowa and New Hampshire. But it sets a troubling precedent: What if this were a competitive primary that hinged on Nevada?

Haley didn’t campaign in Nevada because of all the messiness, as well as her limited campaign resources, which have forced her to be selective about where she spends her time and money. Instead, she turned her focus to her home state of South Carolina, where she previously served as governor, ahead of its February 24 primary as she faces pressure from her party to drop out.

However, Moyle said Haley should have opted to participate in the Nevada caucuses instead of the primary, since she likely would have picked up some delegates for coming in second. And if Trump unexpectedly drops out of the race, she would have been able to pick up his Nevada delegates. There might have been some strategic benefit to claiming that she won the Nevada primary (even if that contest is only symbolic), had she won, but even if she had, “the reality is, Nikki Haley is going to have zero delegates from the state,” Moyle said.

So Trump had effectively scooped up all of Nevada’s delegates before a single voter had even cast a ballot or entered a caucus site.

Still, in insisting on having two contests, Republicans are obscuring just how strong Trump’s candidacy is among voters in the state when faced with a head-to-head match-up (especially amid a Latino demographic in which he made gains last cycle) and could be disrupting the democratic process.

Sadmira Ramic, the voting rights staff attorney at the ACLU of Nevada, said the organization heard from Republicans who showed up to vote for Trump during early voting in the primary, were confused as to why he wasn’t on the ballot, and did not understand that their party would not award delegates based on the outcome of the primary. The Nevada GOP didn’t do enough voter education to guide them through the complicated process this year, she said.

“It’s disenfranchising these Republican voters,” she said. “This is harming the voters on their end, that they decided to go this route.”

That means Trump’s caucus victory in Nevada won’t reveal anything about his actual dominance compared to prior contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. As the results of the primary showed, Trump is an unusually strong candidate, meaning even a less-than-stellar showing in Nevada likely wouldn’t have derailed what appears to be his smooth march to the nomination.

But in a closer contest, signals like margin of victory — and, more importantly, narrow differences in delegate count — take on greater importance. It’s not clear whether the dual primary and caucusing system will survive till the 2028 presidential election, when the GOP field and nomination process is likely to be significantly more competitive. That decision depends on GOP leadership in Nevada, and if Lombardo is reelected in 2026, he’d be in a good position to argue that the process should be consolidated in a single contest, Moyle said.

Otherwise, these shenanigans risk diluting the vote in a very important state. Nevada is now the third state on the presidential nominating calendar for Republicans, and early-voting states tend to exert outsize influence on candidates’ trajectories. In some cases, they can make or break a candidate’s presidential aspirations. The fact that it’s playing effectively no role in the nominating process should be concerning.

Update, February 9, 2024, 10:15 am ET: This story was originally published on February 2, 2024, and has been updated multiple times, most recently with the results of the caucuses.

Follow by Email