Presidential candidates thinking big think Elko

It’s not easy to get to Elko.

Since a flight from the North Las Vegas airport was canceled last year, the only commercial flight to the northeastern Nevada town is from Salt Lake City. Residents of Reno or Las Vegas must drive four or seven hours, respectively.

The isolation ensures that the town of 18,000 doesn’t get a lot of visitors. But politicians can take chartered planes and private jets — and a lot of them are finding their way to Elko lately.

Last month, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson reportedly became the first Democratic presidential candidate to visit Elko in 50 years.

In April, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona made Elko one of five stops on his official presidential announcement tour.

Today, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois will campaign in Elko as part of a tour of rural America.

Next week, Republican Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, makes his first campaign visit to Nevada — with a trip to Elko.

Why so much bipartisan love for this mining-based community, when all of Elko County makes up less than 2 percent of Nevada’s population? Should Clark County, home to 70 percent of Nevadans, be jealous?

The idea behind the Elko visits, analysts say, is for candidates to show Nevadans that they’re crisscrossing the state — that they know there’s more to the Silver State than just Las Vegas and Reno.

“Most of the visits, especially by the Democrats, outside the main population centers are symbolic,” said University of Nevada, Reno political scientist Eric Herzik. “There aren’t a lot of voters in the rural counties, and there are very few Democratic voters. But it (visiting the rurals) shows an element of openness — that they’re willing to listen to any group, anywhere.”

On Jan. 19, Nevada will be one of the earliest states to hold presidential nominating contests, after the Iowa caucuses and before the New Hampshire primary. Nevada’s contests will be caucuses, wherein party members get together in local precincts and gather into groups to select delegates for their preferred candidate.

Nevada’s “cow counties” are overwhelmingly Republican. It’s not quite a two-to-one advantage for the GOP in the jurisdictions not called Clark, Washoe or Carson City, but there are 1.7 times as many Republicans as Democrats.

But in a primary, the parties aren’t competing against each other. And in the caucuses, there are good reasons for both parties’ candidates to woo the rurals in their quest for the nomination.

For one thing, in the caucuses, rural votes actually count more than urban votes.

Under guidelines provided by Nevada statute, the number of registered party members in a particular county determines how many caucusers it takes to elect one delegate. In the largest counties, it’s one delegate per 50 registered party members; in the smallest, it’s one delegate for every five.

An Esmeralda County or Eureka County Democrat’s vote is worth 10 times as much as a Las Vegan’s; a Lander County Democrat’s is worth five times as much, a Humboldt County Democrat’s 2 1/2 times.

Elko County, the state’s third-largest, actually has enough members of both parties that their votes don’t get weighted. But the candidates’ visits to Elko can be seen as symbolic visits to rural Nevada as a whole, which is considered, along with Northern Nevada and Southern Nevada, the state’s third region.

“It’s designed so that urban counties don’t just dominate the caucus process,” said Kirsten Searer, deputy executive director of the state Democratic Party. “Clark and Washoe (counties) still have the most delegates, by far, but candidates can’t just bank on those to win the state.”

As of the Democrats’ latest count, the rural counties held about 9 percent of the state’s registered Democrats. But they get more than 12 percent of the delegates to the Democratic caucuses.

The Republicans, whose planned caucuses are on a smaller scale, haven’t finalized delegate counts. But based on the maximum allowed by the formula, the rurals have even more disproportionate clout: They make up 15 percent of registered Republicans, but would have 24 percent of delegates.

The Iowa caucuses are weighted in similar fashion, and candidates strategize accordingly, said Jean Hessburg, a Des Moines-based operative who is director of the Democrats’ Nevada caucus campaign.

“In 2004, John Edwards made use of those ratios and focused his campaign in Iowa on a rural strategy,” she said. “He spent a lot of time in northwest and southwest Iowa, where the rural areas are. When he came in second (in the caucuses), he surprised a lot of people.”

Hessburg was speaking by cell phone as she drove the three hours from Storm Lake, Iowa — pop. 10,000 — to Des Moines.

“It reminds me of going from Reno to Lovelock, except you have green corn by the side of the road,” she said.

There’s another factor in the rurals’ favor: Rural voters are much more likely to show up. In the 2006 primary, just 27 percent of Clark County registered voters turned out; in Eureka County, where there may not be much else to do, 66 percent did.

Urban counties’ primary turnout averaged 28 percent; rural counties’ averaged 42 percent.

Because of its meteoric growth, Clark County is often said to lack a sense of community or civic engagement. Compared to other parts of the state, Southern Nevadans are less rooted, less involved, and less likely to vote, analysts say.

“In Clark County, you have all the population, but terrifically low voter turnout,” Herzik said. “Outside of Clark County, voters are going to be more likely to participate.”

Candidates also can do things in smaller towns they couldn’t do in Las Vegas: the kind of small-scale campaigning that puts them in touch with regular folk.

Richardson, for example, was a hit when he strolled through a farmers market in Sparks. He got to meet and shake hands with people from all political persuasions who weren’t expecting to see a presidential candidate when they set out to do a little shopping.

Where would a candidate do something like that in Las Vegas? The Democrats who’ve come here have mostly spoken to more or less captive audiences at union halls, or held rallies that draw a large and self-selecting crowd.

Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, thought he’d make a surprise swing through a Summerlin Target store and shake a few hands. But word got out in advance, and Giuliani was mobbed with fans. Flattering, but not exactly spontaneous.

Thus, between the weighted delegates, the more engaged citizens and the ability to get up close and personal, candidates from both parties can benefit from traveling outside the Las Vegas area.

Last month, about 160 people turned out to hear Richardson in a sweaty airport hangar in Elko. For his trouble, he got a front-page “Richardson wows Elko” headline and a positive editorial in the Elko Daily Free Press.

All the activity “really highlights how politically active our county is,” said Cathie Horn, catering and events coordinator for the Elko Convention and Visitors Authority, who last week was working with Obama’s advance team to plan his appearance in the city’s 923-seat auditorium.

“Democrats and Republicans are coming to Elko and getting a wonderful reception,” Horn said. “People aren’t drawing political lines. There are Republicans I know who want to see Obama just to see what he has to say.”

Although the nomination is the prize for now, both parties are looking ahead to the general election, where rural Nevada will again wield its clout.

Horn pointed out that “during the last presidential election, we had the swing vote. Elko County pulled the state Republican.”

The Democrats don’t have a realistic hope of winning Elko County in 2008, but they can hope to win some converts. They can hope not to get totally clobbered, like in 2004, when Sen. John Kerry got just 20 percent of the vote in Elko County to President Bush’s 78 percent.

The Democrats hope that by getting rural Nevada organized for the caucuses, they can build an organization that will pay off in November 2008.

The Republicans were afraid Democrats might succeed in doing that; that’s why, some months after the Democrats decided to hold January caucuses, Republicans followed suit.

“The real prize of the caucus … is that it organizes grass-roots teams (for the candidates) throughout the state, which will coalesce into one big grass-roots organization behind the nominee,” said Pete Ernaut, chairman of the Republican caucus effort.

Republican candidates have paid scant attention to Nevada so far compared to the Democrats, but Ernaut and others say they are confident that will change.

It had better, Ernaut said.

“The competition between the parties is in November, not in January,” he said. “With Nevada as close as it is, it would take a very slight shove to move it from a Republican to a Democrat state.”

A shove, that is to say, as small as Elko County.

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