Election 2020: My Experience in the Last Nevada Democratic Caucus (2016)
Writer’s Note: The 2020 Nevada Democratic Caucus is only a week away. For those unfamiliar with how exactly a caucus works, here’s a detailed, and sometimes humorous account of my last experience, which happened four years ago.
The Self-Indulgent, Highly-Detailed, and Occasionally Funny Story of My Nevada Caucus Experience in February 2016
This past Saturday morning, I attended the Nevada State Democratic Party caucus for Precinct #6672, which covers The Lakes section of Greater Las Vegas. I take great pride in boasting I reside in The Lakes. That means we’re better than everybody else, except for those rich pricks that live in Anthem.
My precinct includes mostly single-family homes, plus some nice condos and a few apartment complexes in the area just north of Desert Inn and west of Durango. For those unfamiliar with Las Vegas, that’s about 7 miles off the Strip, heading west towards Summerlin.
Democracy in action.
What’s a Caucus?
A state caucus is a very different experience from attending either a primary or a general election. Most of us have participated in both primaries and elections before, in which procedures are familiar: (1) we check in with a poll worker, (2) enter a voting booth, and then (3) cast a ballot in secret. On most occasions, voting takes no more than a few minutes if the line isn’t long. However, caucuses take considerably longer than that and require much more of a commitment. For this reason, caucuses don’t generate nearly the voter turnout as primaries and elections. Good. Keep out the doddering dimwit dirt-dumb masses. They vote Republican, anyway.
About 80,000 Nevadans caucused this year, which was down from 117,000 the last time there was a real contest back in 2008. Given the clear decline in statewide turnout, it’s becoming apparent that Barack Obama had a serious impact on overall enthusiasm when he initially ran back in 2008 which this year’s Democratic candidates are not matching. That could spell trouble for the Democratic nominee, come November 2016. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Wow, what I right or what?!?]
Pros and Cons
Nevada’s state caucus has both pros and cons. It brought both good news and bad news for those of us proud to call “the Silver State” our home.
It was good for us because we’re only the third state (on the Democratic side) to hold a primary/caucus. That means our votes really matter this time, more than in past years, when we voted much later in the primaries, by the time the races had already been decided. Nevada has a reputation (deserved somewhat) as a state that’s politically indifferent, apathetic even. Accordingly, there were some valid concerns Nevadans might not be the best voting block to determine party nominees in the privileged spot of early primaries and caucuses. Nevada’s reputation certainly isn’t enhanced any by its reputation where just about anything goes when it comes to vice. Fortunately, holding this “first caucus in the West” may have turned a corner, symbolically speaking, as Nevada’s population increasingly becomes more diverse and representative of the nation as a whole.
As for the bad, caucuses can be intimidating for some voters, especially those who aren’t as involved in the political process or up to speed on the issues. For one thing, participants are required to pledge their support for candidates publicly — in front of friends, neighbors, and others in their local community. While many of us proudly wear out political stripes on our sleeves and have no hesitation supporting a candidate, others could be less enthusiastic about the process and even dissuaded from attending.
[Another quick note about caucuses: As an activist, I prefer this option over simple voting because it weeds out some lightweights who aren’t as dedicated or informed (with exceptions — some voters may have legitimate conflicts with work, school, or family and cannot attend a process that takes a few hours). The downside is losing all privacy in a caucus. I have serious questions about the biggest unions in the state and membership which turned out heavily for Hillary Clinton. Were some workers who caucused at polling places such as the big casinos intimidated from possibly supporting Bernie Sanders? In response to criticism that a Saturday caucus would penalize lots of service industry employees who are at work during the busiest day of the week (many of whom are in unions that support Clinton), local Democratic Party officials set up caucuses as several casinos on The Strip. That’s fine. What’s troubling here is the potential for intimidation in a work environment when it comes to pledging public support for candidates. How many union bosses were dutifully overseeing their flocks making sure their subordinates turned out for Clinton? Yeah, those are sour grapes — but valid questions.]
Standing in Line
Marieta and I arrived at about 10:45 am. We heard people that would be allowed in at 11 am. However, the doors were open and registration had already begun by the time we arrived. Our precinct caucus was held at a local elementary school — MJ Christensen — who turns out is a local diamond merchant and jeweler. Only in Las Vegas would you see a public school filled with impressionable children named after a diamond dealer, an end-of-the-line financial empire built on the backs of native Africans laboring away in dangerous mines for less than a dollar an hour and monopolistic practices of the global diamond market-based in Antwerp, which artificially creates the lunacy of allure for these buffed up coal deposits.
But, I digress. We were discussing the caucus. Here’s what you would expect to see:
We waited about 10-15 minutes in line before finally clearing registration. While standing in line, we were surprised to see volunteers from both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns actively engaging those of us waiting to reach the front in order to check-in. They were polite. Each volunteer tried to pass out stickers and buttons in support of their respective candidates. I thought it somewhat odd that campaign workers are allowed to actively engage voters who wait in lines, but this was only a minor annoyance.
Once at the table, we weren’t asked to show any form of identification (voter ID laws are a controversial issue in many states). Instead, we were asked various personal questions such as name, date of birth, address, and so forth and then once our identity was confirmed, each given a ballot. The photo above shows the line at check-in, with perhaps 20-30 people lined out the door and standing outside. Later on, I was told the line reached more than a hundred.
Surprisingly, our local school was the polling place for not just us, but eight precincts on the west side of Las Vegas. So, the long line was somewhat misleading since it includes a much larger geographic area than I had initially realized.
After some confusion, we were shuffled into a first-grade classroom at the end of the hall. This was to be the official “caucus” of Precinct #6672.
Back to School
Here’s where the situation turned comical.
No one considered the quirky logistics of large numbers of adults crashing into a classroom tailored entirely for 7-year-olds. All chairs and tables were tiny, made for little people, raised no more than a foot up off the floor. Moreover, the seats were made of plastic for bodies that weighed perhaps 70-80 pounds. Watching 200-plus pound adults, some of whom were over 6-feet-tall trying to scrunch into these uncomfortable chairs with our teeth pressed into hour knees was unbelievable, until we finally decided to grin and bear it….remember, this is basically what flying coach is like. So, we dutifully took our seats and toughed it out. Also, seeing lessons posted up on the wall about being good little boys and girls would prove useful once the political debate started.
A Party Divided
The gathering included some serious drama.
As I said before, we were among the first to arrive. Once we entered the classroom, a pleasant young man asked us who we intended to support. When we answered “Sanders,” he insisted that we sit on the opposite side of the room. This seemed like a strange request since the 10 or so people already in the room had gathered around a large table and were talking like old friends. It was an odd feeling that we were asked to sit elsewhere until we learned the Hillary Clinton supporters were to caucus over here, and we were supposed to gather over there.
There we went.
Five minutes later, I took a quick headcount and it was 11 lost souls on the side of the room for evil Clinton, versus just 3 with wisdom on the side of good and decency, hardly enough of a quorum to belt out a chorus of “The Internationale.” I whispered over to Marieta that this was going to be a very long day, insisting that the demographics of
clueless old people who tend to reside in The Lakes were within the Clinton sweet spot. I feared this was a very bad early sign for Sanders in Nevada, even with the ridiculously small sample size. I’m a fatalist, remember.
But then, the winds of change blew (hey, I’m trying to make this interesting — we’re caucusing inside a first-grade classroom, so cut me some slack….I’m building steam). The Sanders supporters began to flow in, presumably done with morning Pilates and utterly famished by granola bars. Perhaps they’d partied too long the previous night and were just waking up. A few minutes later, it was 16 awful people for Clinton and 14 heroes for Sanders. We’d closed the gap! From that moment forward, each time a new person walked into the room, there was a real element of suspense. With noon approaching and the deadline for new attendees, it was deadlocked even at 23 supporters each. The drama rose faster than anatomy parts under Bill Clinton’s desk.
Then and there, I realized Sanders was — what we call in sports betting — a mortal lock. This was the perfect microcosm of a caucus. The older and more traditional types, the stubborn party loyalists, the old guard — they would mostly tend to arrive EARLIER. Just like the 5 pm buffets all around town that are packed with blue hairs, Clinton’s loyalists had already shown up and blown their wad. Sailors the first hour of shore leave. The druggies, the radicals, and the intellectuals like me who stood with Sanders would stumble in, either lost or late. Gee, I wish I could have made a bet on this. I knew my instincts were correct. We were a lock.
Then, an old bitch walked in and nearly blew it. An old woman with white hair who looked like she died five years ago doddered in like she’d lost her Social Security check, and we knew instantly that Clinton had taken the lead. Fuck. Okay, so that’s me thinking to myself. I didn’t say it too loud. Then, a youngish girl with pink hair and a giant nose ring accompanied by a boyfriend with lots of tattoos came in just moments later, and I knew we were back on top. Rescued. 25-24 for Sanders. If the blue hair dies while in caucus, we might be 25-23.
Just as the official proceedings were about to begin, three more people popped into the room. At that instant, there was a deafening silence as they waddled the carpet towards the chalkboard. Conversations stopped in mid-sentence. Arguments ended. We all knew that whichever side of the room they sat on would tip the scales and determine the outcome of our precinct (or so, we thought — ass-ripping spoiler alert ahead).
The three older white angry-looking latecomers walked down the middle of the classroom, seemingly caught inside a parking garage forgetting what level their car was parked. When the precinct captain finally asked “who” they were supporting, someone mumbled “Bernie,” and 25 people on my side the room suddenly burst into loud applause like the Broncos has just scored the winning touchdown and covered the point spread. If I had a football, I would have spiked it over the American flag.
The Caucus Begins
Oh, wait. Before I tell the story about the actual caucus (you still with me?), first I have to rant. Hide the children. Lock way the knives. This is going to be ugly.
I love that people are engaged and interested. I really do. It’s so Norman Rockwell. It’s so America-like. I’m interested in what common people think about the issues. Sometimes. Occasionally. Okay well, never. But, I digress once again. Let me continue.
The gibberish that flowed of the mouths of some of these people were gut-busting, bat shit baffling! One woman, a Clinton supporter, got into an argument with a Sanders supporter. The woman barked, “I will never support Sanders! I don’t want to work hard and just give it away to people who don’t want to work!” I should have retorted with caucus instructions for the next Donald Trump rally taking place this Tuesday night because she must have either gotten lost or she’s clearly in the wrong political party: however, it took me a couple of minutes before I could regain my ability to speak. She’s bitching about supporting “people who don’t want to work?” That’s really her biggest issue? That’s what bother her most — not wars, nor income inequality, nor health care, nor the environment, not any of the other 189 issues that are more important right now?
Another Clinton supporter brought up the subject of foreign policy. Well, not those words, exactly. More like, “Bernie won’t keep us safe!” or something that you might hear at from Ted Cruz. Somehow, I resisted the temptation to scream out “REMEMBER BENGHAZI!!!!!!” But that would have Tea-Partied me straight off to Cliven Bundy’s psych ward.
I realize there’s some obvious bias here which is juicy cannon fodder for the haters, but when I chose to, I can speak with some bona fide objectivity when it comes to political discourse. Without exception, everyone on the Clinton side of the room, particularly those who spoke out were very traditional old-guard Democrats very much used to support the establishment. It sort of reminded me of what Palm Beach County’s nursing homes must be like on bridge night. Don’t misunderstand me, these were loyal Democrats. But they were not voters who thought much about issues or even seemed to have much of a grasp of current affairs. They were voting for Hillary because Madge and Betsy were doing the same thing and that was the norm. They hadn’t had an original idea, nor an outside the box thought since trying to decipher the hidden lyrics to The Platters when they were teenagers.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ supporters were far more intellectual, clearly more widely read, talked in far greater detail with facts and statistics about real rather than imaginary issues, and were even in some instances still not fully sold on Sanders, but at least swayed enough by his message of change of political revolution that the idea seemed intriguing and worthy of supporting. I often judge a person’s intelligence on civic matters and the prospect of wanting to get to know them better (politically speaking) based on whether or not they can see shortcomings within their own philosophical persuasion. Those who acknowledge a wide spectrum of likes and dislikes and prove themselves capable of POLITICAL INTROSPECTION are far more credible than blind sycophants who fail to see any flaws in their own leanings and favored candidates. Doubt, and even self-doubt, are virtues, in my political wheelhouse. Blind faith is the elixir of stupidity, proof of a close mind that desperately needs lubrication.
Yeah, it’s a small sample size. Many Clinton supporters are very bright people fully capable of arguing a compelling case, I agree. However, none of them were present at Precinct #6672.
The Caucus Really Begins
Sorry for the caucus prick tease. Time for action.
A nice woman with a Clinton sticker on her shirt stood in front of the classroom and called the meeting to order. The first matter of business was to select a caucus precinct captain. The lady mentioned that she’d attended three training sessions and that was why she was heading up this meeting. She asked for unanimous consent to be “elected” as captain or chairperson or whatever she wishes to call herself. I figured this was not the time to throw down the gauntlet and draw a line in the sand, fearing turning the whole room against me, so I too meekly raised my hand and went along with the rest of the crowd, agreeing to vote in a Clinton supporter as our leader.
Next, the vice something or other, the assistant, the second in command was to be chosen. One never knows if the chairperson might collapse before our very eyes and die on the spot, necessitating a chain of command where the precinct is rescued by a backup. To ensure against this dire possibility, a young man wearing a Bernie t-shirt offered himself up as the Biden of the group and he too was voted in with unanimous consent. Now, we were rolling. Ten minutes into the official caucus, we’d established our leadership. Had both the chairperson and assistant somehow been wiped out or become disposed of in some kind of disaster, one presumes our caucus would have been suspended since we didn’t have a contingency for a backup to the backup. Sort of like Grand Poobah in The Mikado, I role I once played by the way.
After that, the lady took out a large manila-style envelope and asked for contributions. She noted the State Democratic Party mandated that envelope be passed around the room in the event
some idiot was gullible enough to donate money someone might be so delusional, they might be inclined to pull out a checkbook. I saw one lady drop a twenty into the envelope as it was passed around the room. Too bad that was after it had already passed through my hands — as I might have been tempted to pilfer the loot.
Next, we had to count the number of attendees in the room and determine if we had a quorum, whatever that meant. We took a headcount, by rattling off numbers one at a time. Surprisingly, we all discovered we could count to 53, but even with 53 witnesses that weren’t enough clear evidence of an exact count, and so we had to do it all over again.
So, we started again, this time counting ourselves as we raised our ballots. One. Two. Three. Four. And so on. Fittingly, this was a first-grade classroom.
During the merry go-count-around, we discovered one person was visiting from out of town and had come in as an observer. I have no idea how someone stumbled in off the street into a caucus (talk about a bad case of getting lost!), but this actually happened. Since there’s apparently nothing at all to do in Las Vegas, this person declared she was visiting and did not intend to participate in the caucus. I resisted the temptation to ask where she was headed off to next — the joys of an insurance seminar?
Next, we were shocked to discover two people had been sitting on the wrong side of the room. When it finally came time to count heads and take ballots, two people in the Clinton camp professed the intended to vote for Sanders. That created some confusion, but at least we didn’t have to recount the room again. Turns out, Sanders ended up with 28 votes to 24 for Clinton. Sanders was the winner!
Of course, one pass through wasn’t enough. We each raised our ballots once again, one at a time, and (shocker!) the vote turned out the same. 28 to 24. The Sanders side of the room erupted in applause while the Clinton camp appeared disappointed and dejected. As I said, democracy works. Kinda’.
Turns out, our precinct was given 8 delegates to award proportionally, according to the vote (delegates to the county and state convention — not the national). The chairperson pulled out a calculator and did the math according to her instructions. Unfortunately, the 28-24 margin wasn’t within the formula to award delegates 5-3 in favor of Sanders. Even though Clinton lost by 4 votes, the delegate allocation would be split evenly, 4-4.
Someone in our group protested. Okay, that was me. Then, another more vocal supporter stood up and demanded to know what it would take to get the delegates to swing 5-3 for Sanders. Again, the calculator provided the answer. The chairperson stated that if we could get ONE Clinton supporter to defect, that would tip the scales 5-3. Since caucuses are different and give us that right, we pounced.
One of the Clinton supporters (to his credit) admitted he was unsure about supporting either candidate, but had made a rather quick decision to do what seemed safe. The man, perhaps age 60 or so, dangled a carrot by stating he might be swayed to come over to the Bernie side. That launched a remarkably interesting 15 minutes of dialogue which surprised even me. The case for Bernie couldn’t have been argued any better than OJ’s lawyer, and I really thought we had a shot at swaying not just the weak link in the chain, but half the room.
Well, the man inexplicably became stubborn, unresponsive to logic and burrowed himself deeper into the Clinton camp like a fat tick on a farm mutt. Had the ballot been secret, I’m sure he would have defected. However, peer pressure can be a strong force — again — one of the problems with caucusing.
Final delegate count: Sanders — 4, Clinton — 4.
This Caucus is Adjourned!
The final order of business was to select actual delegates to attend county-wide caucuses and register their votes. Volunteers were taken. I joined with Leon Trotsky and two others locked arm-in-arm as pledged delegates for Sanders, to be cast in Clark County sometime in April. One guarantee: At least I’ll have material for another column.
We departed and went off to lunch. Even with the annoying quirks and time-wasting, I still felt satisfied with what I’d experienced. I felt even better about Sanders’ chances of winning Nevada. If he could carry my precinct, which probably has all of ONE Socialist actually living in the entire neighborhood, and few of the base demographic groups that tend to support Sanders strongest like students and free-spirited artists as you might see in other parts of town, surely he was pulling even bigger numbers elsewhere. From my vantage point, the Sanders camp was representative of the heart and soul of the left, while Clinton attracted a far more traditional voter. Then, I realized I’d forgotten about unions and the commotion that was probably taking place on The Strip, where turnout would probably be high since the caucuses were so convenient.
As I was enjoying the first part of my meal I checked my messages. That’s when I lost my appetite. Corky Parks, my fellow leftist comrade off of Facebook, messaged me and announced that NBC had called just Nevada for Clinton. I wanted to punch the phone.
Democracy in action? I guess I need to go back and repeat first-grade.