Thursday, May 14, 2015

Nevada Democrats and a Presidential Primary in the Silver State

Democrats in Nevada have expressed some concern over the potential switch from a caucuses/convention system to a presidential primary in the Silver state. During hearings on both the Assembly and Senate versions of bills to shift to a primary, Democrats have voiced variations of the same fear: Switching from a caucus system after the DNC specifically added Nevada as a carve-out caucus state in 2006 would jeopardize the state's protected status.

Fair enough.

FHQ has played along with that line of reasoning thus far. However, it ignores the history of the 2006 landscape when Nevada and South Carolina were added by the DNC as protected early states alongside Iowa and New Hampshire. The reason Nevada was added as a caucus state -- that the DNC wanted a western caucus state -- was that the original plan was to wedge that contest in between Iowa and New Hampshire. Actually, the recommendation from the Herman-Price Commission was to add up to two caucus states in between the first in the nation caucuses in Iowa and the first in the nation primary in New Hampshire.

Any contest wedged into that calendar space between Iowa and New Hampshire had to be a caucus so as not to cross the state law in New Hampshire.

Since the 2008 cycle, however, the Democratic National Committee has slotted Nevada third in the queue, behind Iowa and New Hampshire. What that means is that Nevada Democrats really do not have much to fear from a switch to a presidential primary. It (mostly) would not conflict with New Hampshire law.

This idea, then, that such a trade -- caucuses for a primary -- would cost Nevada Democrats their place at the carve-out table rings somewhat hollow. What it really indicates is that status may already be on thin ice1, and the state party does not want to do anything (or support anything) that might give the DNC an opportunity -- an excuse -- to dump Nevada from the early state lineup in future cycles.

But here's the thing: Nevada Democrats control the caucuses. They do not currently control the primary process because Republicans control the state government. If that continues -- something Nevada Democrats are working to prevent, I'm sure -- then Nevada Democrats would have some insulation against a national party that wants to dump the Silver state from the list of non-exempt states at the beginning of the presidential primary calendar.

Silver state Democrats could -- could -- opt into the primary in 2016 and argue in 2018-20 if Republicans still control the levers of power in Carson City that they had no choice but to go along with the decision. They could petition for a waiver from the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) arguing that Nevada has to stay early because they have no control over the primary process. But the likely response would be, "Hold caucuses instead. You have a history with caucuses." This is what RBC members have said about Florida, post-2012. Florida Democrats argued in 2008 with the threat of losing all their delegates hanging over them that they could not hold caucuses as an alternative to an early, non-compliant primary. Then the party turned around and without prompting held caucuses in 2012 (demonstrating that the party could, in fact, conduct caucuses).

The simple truth of the matter is that if the DNC wants to replace Nevada at the front of the calendar it can. Nevada Democrats could argue that they cannot move the presidential primary, but the Rules and Bylaws Committee would throw that back in their faces rather quickly and penalize the party if they do not comply (by switching back to compliant, later caucuses). Ultimately, this is a good example of the competing interests in presidential primary calendar politics. State parties that do not have control of the state government and perhaps do not have the backing of the national party (in terms of future early state status) are the odd players out in that game. They have very little leverage.

This is less a question for 2016 than it is for 2018 and the beginning stages of the 2020 cycle. Still, if Nevada makes the switch from caucuses to a primary, then that has implications for that process.

1 FHQ is sure Nevada Democrats have heard the same whispers we have: With Harry Reid out of the way, the national parties are free to make a carve-out trade. The Senate minority leader was instrumental in gaining early state status for Nevada in 2006. I've heard that from folks in the DNC and the folks in the RNC were seemingly more than happy to go along with that after having Nevada kind of forced on them in the 2008 cycle (and then seeing things not go all that well with the Republican caucuses in Nevada in either 2008 or 2012).

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