Things I Learned Covering the Nevada Democratic Caucus


Photos by Christopher Smith

Levi Kamolnick stands in line to enter the John C. Fremont Middle School caucus location Feb. 22. His two-cent "Mickey ears" are a nod to Senator Warren’s proposed two percent wealth tax.

For Nevada’s 2020 Democratic Caucus, I was assigned to cover John C. Fremont Middle School, which is located in a historic district Downtown. The site encompassed five precincts and drew around 200 people by my informal count. It also happens to be my neighborhood — the school is on my regular dog walk route — which made for an interesting day, watching people I know from other contexts openly debate and defend their political preferences. As with the other locations Nevada Public Radio reporters covered, the process I observed went smoothly. Final results may have taken forever to compile, and some candidates may have called for a review of the results, but the scene in the Fremont gym was far from Iowa 2.0. That meant plenty of time to mull over the dynamics behind the democracy. Here are my takeaways.

I live in a bubble. You probably do, too. Most of us seem to, if our social media feeds are any indication. But the caucus brought this home for me because, of the five precincts represented, three had Senator Elizabeth Warren coming in (at times a close) second to Senator Bernie Sanders. One of the two precincts with the biggest day-of turnouts, No. 5350, had an especially large and vocal Warren contingent. That precinct also happens to include a few of my friends, which may explain why, the morning of the caucus, I commented to a family member inquiring about my predictions that I thought Warren would do well. If the Democrats in my immediate circle are pro-Warren, then isn’t everyone in Las Vegas? Nope, clearly not. They’re just exhibiting certain preferences that put them in the same universe as both Warren and me. As obvious as this may seem, it’s worth remembering next time you’re making your own observations and predictions. And friends, for that matter.

Early caucusing defeats the purpose. For years, I’ve heard curmudgeons say they won’t early-vote because of the October surprise factor; you know — you could vote and then news that your candidate is a closet Nazi could break, but it would be too late to take back your vote. So, you should wait until day-of, just in case. I’ve always kind of shrugged at this reasoning and early-voted anyway. But on Saturday, I saw the logic of this argument play out for Elizabeth Warren, who, by all accounts, performed strongly in the debate Wednesday evening, February 19, two days after the early caucus polls closed.

“I’m kind of disappointed that early voting greatly affected the number of votes that our candidate got,” Warren supporter Candice Hensen (pictured right) told me, on her way out. I watched her and other people from those large Warren contingents shake their heads in disbelief as their precinct chairs factored in early vote totals, effectively undoing their candidate’s strong on-site showing. Many questioned whether the percentages were calculated correctly. One guy even stormed out in disgust.

Given the number of people who told me they were undecided going into the caucus, it’s not hard to imagine Warren’s Wednesday night performance changing the minds of some people who’d already voted by then. And the force of her on-site support might have nudged others to her side on Saturday as well. This doesn’t make up for the inherent unfairness in caucusing, which shuts out anyone who has obstacles to access (meaning, most everyone) and entails math too arcane for the average citizen to understand. But it does make me think that splitting a caucus into early and on-site voting undermines the intent of having communities hash things out together based on the information they have at a given moment in time. That brings me to …

Live caucusing brings out the extroverts. Splitting the caucus into early and day-of voting generally split the vote into introverts, who would rather be poked in the face with a stick for two hours than stand around a school gymnasium engaging in political discourse with a crowd of people they go to great lengths to avoid talking to on a regular basis, and extroverts, who could hardly think of anything else they’d rather be doing on a Saturday afternoon. Of course, some introverts live-caucused anyway, out of a sense of duty, but you could easily spot them leaning on the folded-up bleachers, scrolling through their phones. Extroverts, on the other hand, hung around continuing conversations while volunteers gathered their paperwork and put chairs back in storage.

“I mean, honestly, I like the opportunity to meet a lot of new people here and see everybody with similar opinions to mine,” first-time caucus attendee and Sanders supporter Matthew Ned told me. “And we’re the future of the world, so, I mean, I’m ready. And it’s been great so far!”

The early vote introvert-versus-live vote extrovert generalization would also explain why so many people we reporters interviewed were happy with the process, despite its obvious flaws.

Also despite these flaws, if caucusing ends after this election cycle, as pundits predict, I will be sad to see it go. In a time of such carefully scripted politics, it’s nice to see ragged, raw democracy play out among the hoi polloi. At the very least, it would be nice to preserve the spirit of the exercise in our day-to-day conversations about current events with neighbors. Unlikely, maybe, but I can hope. It's in my nature, as an extrovert.

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