Do Nevada’s caucuses matter?

February 3, 2012

Presidential contests are inherently an expectations game, and because of that, the expectation is that Saturday’s contest in Nevada doesn’t mean much.

Rightly or wrongly, when a state isn’t competitive, we generally discount its broader impact on the presidential race.

And given the fact that Mitt Romney blew out his competition in the Silver State four years ago and is likely to do so again, his likely victory probably won’t land with the same kind of oomph it might have, had the outcome been in any serious amount of doubt.

So does Nevada matter?

In a word, yes. But not nearly as much as the state GOP had hoped when it was granted one of four early slots on the presidential primary calendar last decade.

Romney’s runaway win in the state four years ago — combined with a high-profile Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — sucked whatever drama was to be had in the GOP primary.


Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (L) talks with fellow candidate and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) during a break in the Republican presidential candidates debate in Tampa, Florida, last week. (Scott Audette — Reuters)

And similar to this year, Nevada’s caucuses had some of their thunder stolen by a rogue state — Michigan in 2008, Florida this year — setting its primary just four days prior. In both cases, that big state sucked up a lot of the oxygen and campaigning time and money in the presidential race, which left Nevada looking small and less significant in comparison — not exactly what it had in mind when it was given early-state status.

Still, Republicans in Nevada insist that they matter.


But not everyone agrees.

Longtime Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston has repeatedly lamented how Nevada has gotten a raw deal when it comes to being a pivotal GOP primary.

Ralston said the state GOP ceded importance when it moved its caucuses to Feb. 4 rather than ahead of Florida in January. Nevada did so to avoid pushing the presidential contest into December and also to avoid the penalty of losing half its delegates to the national convention.

“I would like to argue we are important,” Ralston said. “But if Romney wins in a blowout, no real story here. Only story is if (Newt) Gingrich or (Ron) Paul upsets. We should have stayed third.”

Unfortunately for Nevada, a big upset or even a close race looks unlikely.

Below, we explain why.

To the line!

4. Rick Santorum: The Pennsylvania senator just can’t catch a break. Despite starting the week making his case for why he’s the new Romney alternative, the conservative base isn’t buying it yet, and whatever tea party is left in Nevada — read: not much of one — was unable to coalesce around him. If Santorum finishes fourth, it’s going to be real hard for him to get momentum in this race. Indeed, the fact that he’s counting on a strong finish in Tuesday’s Missouri primary — a beauty contest with no delegates and no Gingrich on the ballot — for momentum shows how much he needs something to latch on to.

3. Ron Paul: The Texas congressman has put a premium on Nevada and could really use another second-place finish here. A Las Vegas Review-Journal and UNLV poll released Thursday actually had him in fourth place at 9 percent, but we’re giving him the edge over Santorum because he’s put so much effort into this state, and he generally does well in caucuses. In fact, some suggest he might press the stumbling Gingrich campaign for second place (more on that below). Time will tell.

2. Newt Gingrich: The former House speaker’s campaign has had two bad days in Nevada already, and we’re only entering the third day. On day one, a photo op with Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) fell through and some rally-planning went awry. Then, on Thursday, someone in the campaign reportedly leaked word that Donald Trump would back Gingrich. Not so; he backed Romney. For a Gingrich campaign that didn’t show much prowess in Florida, a second-place finish is really a must here, to avoid an even bigger embarrassment.

1. Mitt Romney: Four years later, Romney finds himself in much that same spot he was last time. Unfortunately for him, expectations are higher than four years ago, so if this winds up being at all close, he may have some explaining to do. Either way, though, a win is a win, and Romney is likely to have two in one week after Saturday’s caucuses.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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