Nevada may be the Rodney Dangerfield of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight.
Ask any political junkie to list states that are key to choosing the party’s nominee and he or she will inevitably rattle off Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
But the Silver State is set to hold a caucus vote on Feb. 18 — just four days after the New Hampshire primary and before the race turns to South Carolina later that month.
So why isn’t Nevada getting the same level of respect as its early-voting brethren? And should it be?
Answering the first question is easy. The second one is far tougher.
Nevada’s respect gap is based on two factors: the disappointing 2008 caucuses there and the continued strength of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
In 2008, just over 44,000 Nevada Republicans voted in the Jan. 19 presidential caucuses, a fraction of the 117,000 who cast ballots on the same day in the Democratic caucuses.
That low turnout was blamed largely on Romney’s strength in the state. Relying on Nevada’s large and politically active Mormon population, he cruised to a 37-point victory over Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), a win almost entirely overshadowed by Sen. John McCain’s victory in the South Carolina primary the same day. (Romney finished fourth in the Palmetto State.)
The question for 2012 is whether, with Romney once again in the field, Nevada will suffer the same fate and become an afterthought in the nomination fight.
There are many reasons to believe it won’t.
Unlike 2008, the caucuses will be both binding — a candidate who wins 50 percent support will receive 50 percent of the national delegates to the party convention — and proportional. That means that a second-place finisher would leave the Silver State with delegates, a useful exercise in what could be an extended fight for the GOP nod.
“We have already begun planning and we all agree that it’s incredibly important that Republicans in Nevada do well in terms of showing that they can match or exceed what the Democrats have done in the past,” said Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, who was elected in 2010.
Mike Slanker, a prominent Republican consultant in the state, predicted that “the caucuses will be much more organized under the leadership of Governor Sandoval than they were in 2008.”
The composition of the 2012 field also could make things more interesting.
Romney remains a clear favorite because of his strength in the Mormon community; according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Mormons make up 11 percent of Nevada’s population, but in the state’s 2008 GOP caucuses they accounted for about a quarter of the votes cast.
“Romney has a leg up because of 2008 and [his] infrastructure,” said Jon Ralston, a leading political reporter and columnist in Nevada.
But, Romney could have competition for the Mormon vote from Jon Huntsman Jr., who is expected to run when he returns from his post as U.S. ambassador to China at the end of the month. Huntsman, like Romney, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and he was the governor of Utah, Nevada’s majority-Mormon neighbor.
A potential split of the Mormon vote could open the door for other non-LDS candidates to surprise in Nevada. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has been in the state several times lately, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) is close to Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate and major Republican donor. An adviser to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour predicted that if Barbour runs, “he will play in Nevada and play to win.”
It also may be hard for would-be Republican candidates to ignore Nevada in 2012 because of the national issues at play there. The state’s unemployment rate stood at 13.6 percent in February — the highest in the country — and the state was hit hard by the home foreclosure crisis. Immigration, too, is a hot issue in Nevada, where, according to the 2010 Census, more than one in four residents are Hispanic — an 82 percent increase over the 2000 Census in the state. It’s also expected to be a swing state in the 2012 general election.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that Nevada’s 2012 caucuses will be all that different from those in 2008.
“I think Nevada might see less GOP activity here than anticipated because Romney enjoys such significant support,” said Sig Rogich, a prominent Republican political player in the state. “If you are one of the other contenders, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the time and expense to finish second in Nevada.”