A couple of hours before Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley was scheduled to host a “mock caucus” to help educate Nevada Democrats about their upcoming presidential caucuses, she was asked to explain how a caucus worked.
For a little bit longer than a political commercial lasts on TV.
And then one of her top aides, David Cherry, who was listening in on the Wednesday afternoon conversation, said he would search to find someone who could explain the process that will play out on Jan. 19.
“I can’t explain it,” Cherry said.
Even political insiders with years of experience in Washington agree: What Democrats are carrying out in their caucuses — a process dating to 1796 when U.S. political parties emerged — is one of the most complex pieces of the presidential election process.
More than 60 Democrats showed up Wednesday night at the Veterans Memorial Leisure Center in Summerlin in hopes of demystifying the process that will see registered voters caucus in 1,700 precincts around the state. It was the Nevada Democrats’ first mock caucus in Southern Nevada.
Many on hand shared the viewpoints of retired accountant Arthur Greenspan, 70, and his wife, Gloria, 67.
“We want to know what we have to do,” Gloria Greenspan said. “From what we’ve heard, it’s very strange.”
What she found strange was this: For a particular candidate to be “viable,” he or she must gain backing from a certain percentage of all the caucus participants. If the group doesn’t have enough people, it must disband and participants must support another candidate.
Or they could just leave and not support anyone.
“I don’t like that,” Arthur Greenspan said. “I think if you’re supporting someone, your vote should always be counted. I think the primary system is better. I know it’s a whole lot easier.”
“It’s actually easier to implement than explain,” Berkley whispered after she introduced Robert Disney to those on hand as the man who could explain the caucus process easily.
The process first sends delegates from local precinct meetings to county conventions and then the state convention. Those delegates then choose delegates who go to the national convention to select the party’s presidential candidate.
Last year, the Democratic Party chose Nevada to host an early 2008 presidential caucus, placing it between the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, traditionally the nation’s first presidential primary.
The state’s Republicans followed suit and also will hold their caucuses on Jan. 19.
With their new, prestigious position on the nominating calendar, Nevada Democrats hope that 100,000 members of the party will turn out to caucus on Jan. 19.
“If you love grass roots and the political process, this is a golden opportunity to participate,” Berkley said. “But if there isn’t broad participation, Nevada won’t be looked to in the future.”
David Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said it will be interesting to see whether Nevada Democrats are able to attract 100,000 participants. That would be 10 times the turnout they had in 2004, he said.
Disney, realizing that some in the audience on Wednesday were turned off by the math involved in the caucus process, said all you really had to do at the caucus was show up and know your name.
Don’t worry, he said, about a formula that determines how many of a precinct’s delegates that each group — and by extension, each candidate — should win.
The formula goes like this: Multiply the number of people in the group supporting a candidate by the number of delegates and divide that result by the number of caucus participants. (For example, if a precinct had four delegates and 200 caucus participants, and 100 of them supported Candidate X, you would multiply 100 by 4 and divide by 200, giving Candidate X two delegates).
Jerry Simmons, a 50-year-old building inspector for the Clark County School District, heard the message but came away in favor of a primary.
“It would be easier, and more people would probably turn out,” he said.
Instead of supporting political candidates, those on hand for the mock caucus supported types of candy. As it turned out, supporters of Snickers, Hershey’s chocolate, Reese’s Pieces and Starbursts each got one delegate.
Supporters of Mr. Goodbar didn’t meet the viability requirements and had to throw their support behind other types of candy.
“I don’t have a problem with it not being a ‘one man, one vote’ kind of thing,” said Steve Fernlund, who had backed Mr. Goodbar. “It’s the way the game is played.”
If there was some confusion over the process, there was no mistaking the enthusiasm of the people who showed up.
“It’s just terrific to be part of something so big,” said housing consultant Michael Klion. “We have a chance to set a tone for the nation.”