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Election 2008: Previewing the Nevada Caucuses

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Jon Ralston
Las Vegas Sun Columnist;, Host of "Face to Face With Jon Ralston"
Friday, January 18, 2008; 10:00 AM

Jon Ralston, host of political talk show "Face to Face With Jon Ralston" and a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, was online Friday, Jan. 18 at 10 a.m. ET to take your questions on Nevada's caucuses and how they're likely to play out on Saturday.

The transcript follows.

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Jon Ralston: Good morning, everyone. My name is Jon Ralston. I've been covering politics in Nevada for more than 20 years. I now host a daily TV interview program, put out a daily e-mail newsletter and write four columns for local publications. I look forward to answering your questions.

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Reno, Nev.: How will the Nevada Democratic machine affect the caucus? I hear Sen. Reid and others strongly favor Sen. Clinton; have they fixed the "delegates per precinct" to blunt the impact new voters (Latinos, students) might have?

Jon Ralston: Caucuses are strange birds, almost as strange as political parties themselves. Sen. Reid has remained neutral but many people see his son Rory's support for Hillary Clinton as a signal he is not so Swiss-like. The delegates per precinct are not "fixed." There are nine precincts on the Strip that base delegate counts on attendance instead of voter registration. But they will only make up 6 percent of the vote. They were set that way to try to encourage turnout but now have become enmeshed in the politics of the Culinary workers endorsement.

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Los Angeles: Is the Nevada caucus fair, even worth reporting, considering the culinary union's involvement and the strong-arm tactics it is using to assure an Obama victory?

Jon Ralston: Ah, fairness is in the eye of the beholder. A caucus is not as pure as a primary but it does still indicates a candidate's strength. Your use of the word "strong-arm" indicates that you think undue pressure is being applied on union members. There surely is pressure, but the Clinton campaign knows how to apply pressure, too. Check out this morning's Las Vegas Sun for a good story about intimidation -- or lack thereof.

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washingtonpost.com: Culinary pushing hard, but inside lines (Las Vegas Sun, Jan. 18)

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Arlington, Va.: I notice that John Edwards has risen in recent Nevada polls. Where does he draw his strength from in Nevada? What are his prospects of pulling an upset?

Jon Ralston: I doubt he will get there. Two polls now show him way behind the other two. But a caucus is bizarre, so anything is possible. he does have pockets of strength, especially in the North, and passionate supporters. But I think he comes in third.

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Richmond, Va.: It is said that in Nevada (and elsewhere) that the "Democratic base" is behind Hillary Clinton, but I'm not sure I know who comprises that group. Barack Obama is attracting a lot of Democrats, including African Americans, who as far as I can tell usually help to make up that base. So my question is, who is that base (just white women 50 and older)?

Jon Ralston: Breakdowns in recent polls here show her strength here is where it is elsewhere -- as you point out, women, especially older women. But she also has a large lead over Obama among Hispanics, which make up more than a fifth of the population here now. There is an ugly undercurrent here of what some cynics suggest will be Hispanics not voting for an African American -- we will see how that plays out Saturday.

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Fairfax, Va.: Do the caucuses elect delegates to county/state conventions, or do attendees merely vote their presidential preference? If delegates to conventions are elected, can they run uncommitted? If a candidate drops out later, what happens to his or her delegates? Are they free agents?

Jon Ralston: Yes, delegates are elected to successive conventions here. I confess that I have forgotten whether they can run uncommitted later, but I believe the answer is yes.

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Oak Park, Mich.: I am wondering if the Las Vegas Jewish community has reacted to being disenfranchised by the caucuses occurring on the Sabbath, and what the party's justification is?

Jon Ralston: There has been some chatter about it, but not a lot. There was one story with some people speaking out. Someone -- or some group -- would have had a problem with any day that was picked.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning! Rest assured, I'm not one of those Paulistas, so you can be straight with me. I saw some online buzz that Paul might win in Nevada. Given his policies, Nevada figures to be one of his very best states. What can you tell us about his chances? In which parts of Nevada will he run most strongly?

Jon Ralston: I think Paul could finish second here. Romney should win easily but Paul is the only other GOP candidate who has worked the state. And he really has worked it. Considering turnout on the GOP side could be low, he may surprise some people.

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Boston: I didn't get the Clinton's beef with the caucus process. It seemed like they were in favor of suppressing people's ability to vote because it served their purpose in Nevada. How does that serve them long-term?

washingtonpost.com: Judge Allows Casino Sites for Nevada Caucuses (Post, Jan. 17)

Jon Ralston: Your characterization of the suit is very pejorative, but that would have been the net effect. This was raw politics -- after Obama got the Culinary endorsement, those nine at-large precincts became very important. If the lawsuit had been successful, it would have diminished the union's impact greatly. It was short-term, raw, ruthless politics. What will the long-term fallout be? No one thinks about that in the crucible of a campaign where every state has come to be important -- at that moment, at least!

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Albany, N.Y.: Are people buying Hillary's attack on Obama based on his past statements of concern about gambling in poor communities, or is it being discounted as campaign rhetoric?

Jon Ralston: It's lost in the static. It's clear he is concerned about gambling's impact on communities. He has tried to tamp down the criticism by saying Nevada's model works. What I think the Clinton folks miss is that some core party activists here in the land of Sin City might agree with what he said!

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Fairfax, Va.: Why is Romney ditching South Carolina for Nevada?

Jon Ralston: Because he will win here and he will lose South Carolina. He wants another gold medal! And he has been in South Carolina, too.

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Hampton, Va.: The hilarious part of the whole racism dustup in the Democratic race (Martin Luther King, the Spanish ads in Nevada, etc.) is that the Democrats honed these tactics when they were the defenders of an aggrieved victim class versus the evil Republicans. But what to do when both candidates are members of aggrieved victim classes themselves? Can they both play victim politics? Well, they're trying -- and they'll certainly bring this nonsense out en masse for the general election -- but it just looks stupid by both of them. Does this diminish the power of victimization in the real race? Isn't that the Democrats ultimate trump card -- it disallows media inquiry into Obama, sets off-limits certain criticisms of Hillary?

Jon Ralston: Even if your construct is correct, it won't last. Nothing will be off-limits very soon -- and all kinds of nastiness are coming. Victimization, by the way, is difficult when you are asking people to install you as the most powerful person on the planet. Difficult needle to thread there, isn't it?

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Nashville, Tenn.: Jon, I was surprised that you didn't mention Yucca Mountain as an issue of concern to Nevadans during your NewsHour appearance last night. Sen. Alexander (R-Tenn.) single-handedly has brought about a nuclear renaissance through his position as co-chair of the Tennessee Valley Authority congressional caucus, and we just had a major nuclear waste conference here in Nashville last week. Aren't Mormons in Nevada who oppose Yucca Mountain faced with the same hard choice as black women in choosing between Clinton and Obama? Romney has said that he won't rule out Yucca, which forces Mormons to chose between church and state (Nevada).

Jon Ralston: Nevadans don't see Yucca as top-of-mind anymore unless they are environmentalists or somehow connected to the issue. Candidates love to pander on it because the media are obsessed with it, too. I would guess most Nevada voters -- including Mormons -- won't be thinking much about Yucca when they vote.

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Atlanta: Has the legal challenge to the caucuses on the Strip had any boomerang effect (i.e., resentment against the Clinton camp for trying to change the rules after the union endorsement)?

Jon Ralston: The Culinary bosses sure hope so. They are playing that to the hilt in the media and with members. I think it will be effective. How effective? We will see.

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Washington: Mr. Ralston, if you could indulge me with a non-primary question: As a non-Nevadan, could you give me some insight into Gov. Gibbons? Every time we hear about him on the East Coast, it's some amazing scandal or nutty-sounding event -- from alleged sexual assault to being sworn in early. How's his popularity in Nevada? What are his accomplishments thus far as governor? Will he be re-elected? Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Scandals and Missteps Dog New Nevada Governor (Post, April 2, 2007)

Jon Ralston: Gibbons had nothing short of a disastrous first year as governor. I never have seen an administration so afflicted by self-inflicted wounds. You mentioned a couple things, but it has been a constant string of gaffes and missteps. Bad appointments. Poor communication. A bungling of an ongoing budget crisis -- he is on his fourth plan now. What has he accomplished? He hasn't raised taxes -- that's about it and that's all he talks about. His popularity is not good, but he still retains strength in the rural and northern parts of the state. He is not up until 2010; many think he's a one-termer -- some think he won't run. It's way too early. And so many Democrats are salivating to take him on, they easily could shoot themselves in the foot and he could recover.

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Washington: As an outsider, I viewed the lawsuit over the caucus sites as simply an attempt to color the caucus results as illegitimate if Obama were to win. I'm curious, though, what you think the "man on the street" opinion of the suit is in Nevada?

Jon Ralston: I think such things are viewed through a personal prism. If you don't like unions, you will say it's all about Culinary's influence. If you like Obama, you will see it as an attempt to disenfranchise workers. I think your point is well-taken, but I think any post-caucus attempts to spin the results will depend on the margin. If it's close, and Obama wins, you may be right. But if he were to win by a lot, what can they say? And if she wins, I can hear it now: "Despite the unfairness..."

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Rockville, Md.: What are the rules for reporters covering candidates? Are they allowed to dispute assertions made by candidates if they know for sure they are wrong? If they do, will they face repercussions? This is obviously about the AP reporter and Romney. I found it refreshing to see something not scripted, and candidates challenged and forced to defend themselves.

washingtonpost.com: Romney Criticizes Rivals' Lobbyists (AP, Jan. 18)

Jon Ralston: Reporters should challenge assertions they know to be wrong. When Bill Richardson came on my program and claimed to have a lifetime record against Yucca, I challenged him and it got quite heated. The bigger problem -- I think -- is reporters who don't do their homework and get bamboozled by spin and deflection.

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Nashville, Tenn.: "Romney should win easily"? On the NewsHour last night you said that Romney likely would garner support from the strong Mormon presence in Nevada. Because Paul was one of only three congressman to vote against the "Screw Nevada Bill," and Romney says he can't rule out Yucca, does that mean that Yucca Mountain isn't an issue for Republicans in Nevada?

Jon Ralston: As I said earlier, I don't think it is. Romney doesn't just have Mormon support -- he has the only GOP organization in the state. And Yucca just isn't a driving issue for most voters here.

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Washington: Obviously a lot of emphasis has been placed on the influence of the Culinary Workers Union, which I imagine would be especially strong in Las Vegas. What are some of the influences in the rest of the state? Are the issues different outside of Las Vegas?

Jon Ralston: Great question. Its influence almost exclusively is in Las Vegas. The union has some presence in Reno but not a lot. Rural Nevada -- 15 percent or so of the vote -- is much more conservative and much more concerned with land-use issues. Reno and environs have urban issues, but not like Vegas.

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Rocky Mount, N.C.: I always have been enthralled by Nevada on a demographic level. You have two entirely different electorates: Las Vegas metro area, and then the rest of the state. One describes itself as Sin City and the rest of the state is heavily conservative. If you had to break them in two, who would win each for each party?

Jon Ralston: There are really three areas: the South, the North and the rural areas. The latter two are heavily Republican and the reason Democrats have difficulty in statewide races. Since Lyndon Johnson, only one Democratic presidential nominee has won the state -- Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and only because Ross Perot siphoned enough votes. Turnout in the rural areas is always super-high and super-anti-Democratic contender. Reno votes Republican enough to help the GOP candidate, too. Las Vegas has two thirds of the population but the percentages of votes for Democrats usually are not enough. Kerry and Gore won the South, but not by enough to offset losses in rural and Northern Nevada.

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Los Angeles: The AP reporter's interruption of Romney was a bit too early. It didn't allow Romney to complete the second part of his statement on the lobbyist. Had the AP reporter delayed his interruption by about five seconds, Romney likely would have completed the statement he started: "I don't have lobbyist that are tied to my..." Had Romney finished that statement with the word campaign, the AP reporter would have been able to nail him cold. As it stands, Romney was able to rely on his initial statement about lobbyist not running his campaign. Perhaps reporters should take a lesson in how to ask questions or when to interrupt with a question.

Jon Ralston: It can be difficult in the heat of the moment. But you are right -- it should be judicious and only when the question is not being answered.

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Nashville, Tenn: "Nevadans don't see Yucca as top of mind anymore." Is that because Nevadans think Yucca never will open, and if so, where do they visualize the nuclear waste ultimately going? There was an excellent quote in in a similar Post online discussion on Tuesday: "if you can not imagine what will happen, it will happen in a way you can not imagine."

Jon Ralston: I call it Yucca fatigue. Folks have heard about it for so long that they either think it's inevitable or, because of all the delays, it never will happen. And they think we are pretty powerless to stop it. Waste was supposed to start coming in 1998, so it may not be as inevitable as people think. On the other hand, when was the last time the feds walked away from billions of dollars spent? It's up to the licensing process and the courts now.

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Washington (former Nevadan): Can you explain what happened with the Republican caucuses? Nevada went for Bush twice, so it seems like Republicans would have been paying more attention to the state than they are. Why have only Romney and Paul made the effort to campaign there?

Jon Ralston: Giuliani, Thompson and McCain have pursued big-state strategies, so poor lil us has been left out. Romney always knew he might need Nevada as a firewall, and Paul's message is tailor-made for the libertarian strain in some parts of Nevada. But once the nominee is determined, he will campaign out here -- Nevada is a red state but not dark red and could be important in the fall.

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San Antonio: What do you think of your coworker David Schwartz's math in his Las Vegas Sun blog entry: " The actual impact of the at-large precincts"? Do you agree or disagree with Schwartz's calculations and opinion?

Jon Ralston: His math is right. And the overall point is salient: The delegates apportioned at those Strip caucuses is unlikely to be a large percentage of the overall delegates. But if it is a close race, they could swing the race.

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New York: We have heard a lot about unions pressuring their members (or not pressuring their members) to caucus for Obama. Do you think this is going to play a significant part in tomorrow's caucus? And as a follow up, if union members are largely Latino and minority, do think these demographics trump the union expectations?

washingtonpost.com: Democrats toughen up (Las Vegas Sun, Jan. 18)

Jon Ralston: The answer to your last question may be the key to the election. That is, will women and Hispanics in the Culinary -- Hispanics make up about 40 percent of the union members -- who might lean toward Hillary Clinton stick with her, or out of union solidarity go with Obama? If it were a secret ballot, I think the Culinary's impact would be diminished, but these folks will be standing with other union members and openly stating their preference. How many will go against the union's wishes?

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Philadelphia: Can you give us a time tomorrow to check in on the caucus and find out who won? I can't handle watching CNN, FOX or MSNBC anymore. I want to simply turn one of them on, hit the mute button, see who has the check mark next to their name and then turn something else on! Help! P.S. I love Vegas!

Jon Ralston: Thanks for the love! GOP results should be in late morning; Democrats by 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. But the operative words in that sentence is "should."

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Meta-cynic: I feel there are more anti-Hispanic white voters than anti-black Hispanic voters. So if the idea gets out that Clinton is winning because of racist Hispanic voters, that actually would turn a larger number of racist white voters against her. Law of Unintended Racist Consequences.

Jon Ralston: This kind of phenomenon is immeasurable. People won't answer truthfully in polls. Racism will play a role in this election -- here and nationally. All kinds of racism. But how significant it will be is a matter of speculation and your degree of cynicism.

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Anonymous: Thanks. One more (not to suck up anyone else's time). In an earlier question you answered that the votes in the south that Kerry and Gore won were not enough to offset losses in the north, but that was a general election. In the caucuses, will this have a similar effect if candidates split the state?

Jon Ralston: It could. But Vegas is where most of the Democrats are, so whoever wins Vegas probably will win, unless one of the candidates crushes the other outside Vegas. That's much more likely in a general election.

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Rochester, N.Y.: What's the conventional wisdom on who will win the caucuses? I want to know, because I am certain that whatever it is, the opposite actually will happen.

Jon Ralston: No one knows. There is no conventional wisdom because this is so unconventional for us. Not a cop-out, but truly, no one knows. Never been done before. Same-day registration. Anything could happen.

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Nevada: What if any verification process will be put in place to validate the casino workers as being legal U.S. residents at the nine at-large caucus locations?

Jon Ralston: None -- no ID required. All they have to do is sign a statement saying they are legit under penalty of perjury. Pretty loose.

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Las Vegas: The only instructions I've been able to find say that the caucus centers open at 11 a.m. and register at 11:30 a.m., but there is no statement about how long the process will last ... is this two hours or eight hours, and if you work and only can stay an hour or two, does your attendance make a difference?

Jon Ralston: It should only take an hour or so, they say. Done before 1:30 p.m., they say. We shall see.

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Claverack, N.Y.: Seriously: Why a caucus? Wouldn't a primary be easier on everybody?

Jon Ralston: Yes. Believe me! When Nevada first moved up, it was supposed to be before New Hampshire. and that state has a crazy law saying it has primary primacy. The state didn't want to get into a fight with New Hampshire, so it went with a caucus. Now that we are third, turns out we could have been a primary!

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Just a simple question, and not sure you can answer given your paper's endorsement, but who do you think will win, and by what margin?

Jon Ralston: I'm not affected by that endorsement -- just look at what I've written. I predicted Obama a while ago, but I have no idea. And I don't often admit that!

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Jon Ralston: Thanks for all the questions, folks. Been a pleasure being here. So long.

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