The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why aren’t the Nevada Republican caucuses a bigger deal?

Supporters wait to greet Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Las Vegas on Feb. 22. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)
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Nevada Republicans wanted to be major players in picking their party’s presidential nominee. They aren’t — and it’s largely their own fault.

By the time Nevada’s turn on the Republican primary calendar arrived on March 21, 2000, the race had been over for almost two weeks. George W. Bush had won eight of 12 states on Super Tuesday — plus seven of 10 before then — prompting top rival John McCain to suspend his campaign.

Nevada didn’t matter, and the media treated it accordingly.

So it was with big dreams of newfound relevance that the Silver State moved up the nominating calendar for 2008. In an interview on PBS in December 2007, Sue Lowden, then Nevada’s Republican Party chairwoman, gushed about the attention. “The fact that our candidates are coming in, and they are generating the support — that you can touch them, that you can have a cup of coffee with them, that you go to somebody’s house and you actually get to meet them — we’ve never had that before,” Lowden said. “So it’s all new for us, and we are excited.”

Now in the third cycle with Nevada as an early-voting state, however, the vision of marquee status hasn’t really been fulfilled. News outlets still don’t afford Nevada premier standing, despite the fourth-in-the-nation place of its caucuses on the GOP nominating schedule.

One small example that says a lot: On CNN Tuesday, the ubiquitous onscreen clock that’s always counting down to something was devoted to two forthcoming events — a Democratic town hall later in the evening and a Republican debate on Thursday. There was no countdown to actual voting Tuesday evening in Nevada.

There are several reasons why Nevada remains an afterthought. One is poor scheduling. Yes, the caucuses come early in the calendar, but they are easily lost in the no-man’s land between the South Carolina primary -- always a huge event on the Republican side -- and Super Tuesday. The build-up to Iowa and New Hampshire lasts for months; South Carolina enjoyed 11 days this year (as did Nevada on the Democratic side, where voting took place Saturday). But on the Republican side, the Nevada caucuses had just three days of hype after the last contest.

Time of day is a factor, too. While Nevada Democrats caucused early on Saturday, producing results by early evening on the East Coast -- a.k.a. where the entire media world is based, Nevada Republicans caucus late on a weekday; results aren’t expected before midnight in the Eastern time zone. That means many of the nation’s leading newspapers won’t be able to report the winner in Wednesday’s print editions, and cable news stations won’t be able to hold their audiences into the wee hours of the morning.

Journalists also take their cues from the candidates, to some degree. It’s hard to cover Nevada if the White House hopefuls aren’t there, and Republican candidates have been slow to recognize the state as a key territory. Donald Trump touted -- via tweet, natch -- that he, unlike some of his rivals, would be spending the night in Nevada Tuesday.

Then there’s the Nevada GOP’s reputation for disorganization. Here’s how The Fix’s Amber Phillips described the party’s record last March (back in her Las Vegas Sun days):

Some insiders say the weakened state party has struggled holding caucuses since the state first started staging them in 2008.

In 2012, Washoe County GOP Chairman Sam Kumar said due to a data error, people were sent to the wrong caucus locations. Voters locked out were banging on the doors, demanding to be let in and participate.

In Clark County, the party was criticized for not releasing results in a timely manner.

And at the Republican National Convention, some Nevada delegates illegally cast their vote for Ron Paul instead of the candidate caucus-goers chose, Mitt Romney.

Add it all up, and you have caucuses that seem poorly timed, poorly run and — as a result — not nearly as important as their spot on the calendar would suggest. Nevada Republican officials had the right idea about voting earlier, but the details of their plan for relevance need a lot of work.