Nevada, now early in '08 calendar, needs Caucus 101

Political parties and campaigns are racing to train voters, holding mock caucuses or 'mockuses.' Glitches are common in these sessions since trainers themselves are newbies to the caucus system.

The DJ spins the Jackson 5's "Sugar Daddy" as grown-ups get out of their chairs to line up behind their favorite candy. Some head for Snickers, others gravitate toward Milky Way.

No, the National Confectioners Association convention hasn't rolled into Vegas. This is a mock caucus – a "mockus" – designed to educate voters, with candy as the substitute for honey-tongued presidential candidates.

How to caucus isn't well known in the Silver State because in past presidential elections Nevada voted too late to matter in the nomination process. Not this year: The state will caucus Jan. 19, just after Iowa and New Hampshire hold their contests.

Whether Nevada finds its voice in national politics as the representative of the high-growth, heavily Hispanic, Intermountain West depends on the ability of party and campaign organizers to teach voters and volunteers that a caucus is no quick trip to the voting booth.

"It's a huge education challenge, [and] I suspect to some degree the campaigns themselves may not have thought just how hard this really is," says David Redlawsk, professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "With 40 years of [caucus] experience in Iowa, say what you will, folks understand how it works."

The same is not true in Nevada, where only 9,000 voters caucused in 2004 – up dramatically from past contests that drew less than a rodeo in Pahrump. Since then the state grew 10 percent, welcoming another quarter million people – often young or retired and uprooted from the kind of community connections that foster political engagement.

Figuring out who the likely voters will be is trickier than usual for pollsters. On the Republican side, a poll released Dec. 7 by the American Research Group found Mitt Romney with 29 percent, Mike Huckabee with 23 percent, and Rudolph Giuliani with 17 percent.

On the Democratic side, American Research Group has Hillary Rodham Clinton with 45 percent, Barack Obama takes 18 percent, and John Edwards garners 14 percent. Another poll, however, from Mason-Dixon found Mr. Obama closing the gap to within eight points of Mrs. Clinton.

In a Las Vegas living room, a dozen neighbors have gathered to hear volunteers from Clinton's campaign tout the Democratic candidate and explain the caucus. Ryan Williams stands in front of a flip chart that reads, "#1 show up, #2 stand with Team HRC, #3 be counted" but it isn't long before he's interrupted by several questioners suddenly realizing that there won't be a ballot with Hillary's name on it.

"I would never have known, and that to me is scary," says Crystal Solis, sitting on one of the sofas. She didn't believe caucus organizers would reach people in Las Vegas without putting a message up in lights. "I work with [lots] of people every day. But nobody knows this. Where is your billboard?"

The political parties don't have a ton of money for advertising. The Republicans have a caucus budget of $500,000, most of which will be spent in the week before the Nevada contests. The Democrats have spent a quarter of their $2 million caucus budget on fliers and ads.

But a lot of work has gone into public training sessions. The Nevada Democratic Party has run more than 500 mock caucuses; the GOP has hosted hundreds more. Campaigns have also included caucus 101 lessons in their outreach efforts and grooming of precinct captains.

At these meetings residents also learn that they will be assigned a caucus location based on where they live. It could be a school, a church, or, this being Vegas, a casino on the Strip.

"I wouldn't have taken this job if it wasn't a challenge to overcome, and the challenge we have is making sure everyone understands the caucus," says Jayson Sime, Nevada Democratic caucus director and former field director for the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucus.

The candy caucus drew about 100 people, led by Kenya Pierce. She's one of 10 regional caucus organizers working under Mr. Sime – all of whom are newbies to the caucus system.

With mockusgoers huddled into groups, Ms. Pierce deftly explains the concept of viability. Those supporters of less popular candies – Milk Duds, Heath Bars, Now and Laters – have to join a group that has earned at least one delegate.

Then it's time to apportion the 15 delegates, requiring a few calculations. Pierce winds up with eight delegates for Snickers, three for Sugar Daddy, and six for "red vines" or licorice – for a total of 17. Few people notice the error, and the meeting moves on.

Democratic organizers say a mistaken number would be spat out by the vote tallying system, and a phone hot line will be available to work out last-minute glitches.

In attendance, too, are several temporary precinct chairs, the volunteers who will be running the show at each precinct. So far, both parties have filled 80 percent of the chairs for caucus day in January. Some of the remainder won't be filled until the 19th, says Sime, noting the same things happens in Iowa.

Iowa precinct chairs in 2004 had to call the hot line several times to get through with their questions, says Dr. Redlawsk, because all the snags tend to come within the same 15-minute window. It wasn't a huge problem, he says, partly because enough precincts had longtime veterans at the helm. "You should not underestimate the value of people who have been precinct chairs since 1984 [since] they have pretty much seen it all," he says.

"You can anticipate all kinds of snafus. But I don't think it's going to matter much because I think the results will be messy with or without the snafus," says Ted Jelen, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "I'm looking for something fairly close here."

In some respects, caucuses are understood to be harder and to draw lower turnout, therefore lowering the bar a bit for what constitutes success.

One of the earliest Iowa caucuses in 1976 drew 7 percent turnout, and the Nevada Democrats say 10 percent "would be wonderful."

"People take Iowa very seriously even though 124,000 [Democrats] participated in 2004," says Dr. Jelen. "Nevada is the first place where organized labor is very powerful, and that's a bellwether for the labor vote in other states."

The mockus succeeded in leaving attendees more confident – and excited – about the process. "Now that I understand the process I'll be able to go and speak and do something," says Candice Davis, a young Las Vegas resident. "It seems like it will be a lot of fun, and it will be fun with a purpose." The word "caucus" doesn't exist in Spanish-speaking countries, so one of the tasks for Nevada's caucus organizers and Spanish-language media was to settle on common vocabulary. The word "el caucus" won out, along with "recinto electoral" for "precinct."

Hispanics make up a quarter of Nevada's population, and both parties are reaching out to the community for votes and volunteers and plan to have Spanish speakers available at various precincts to help with translation. The state Democratic Party has even sponsored a soccer team.

But will the interactive format of the caucuses frighten off those who have limited English skills?

The process can be intimidating to anyone, regardless of language barriers, says Andreas Ramirez, Hispanic outreach director for the Nevada Democratic Party. But for those with limited English, walking into a voting booth alone can be more intimidating than a caucus, where people can rely on the friends and family around them, he says.

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