Four years ago, when Democratic caucus attendees spilled onto the football field at Chaparral High School, few had ever seen such a boisterous turnout locally.
Typically, Nevada’s presidential caucuses were held at night and scattered throughout homes, churches and a few schools. By picking one site for the entire county, organizers thought they could corral more people and energize the base for the long stretch run to November.
We all know how that turned out.
Eight days ago, Democrats multiplied their 2004 caucus attendance by 12. With more than 117,000 Democrats participating, the party believes this year it really has a chance to turn Nevada blue.
“This caucus isn’t just about voicing our opinion in January, it’s about winning Nevada for our Democratic nominee in November,” said state party chair Jill Derby. “With an unexpectedly large turnout like we had (last) Saturday, I’d say we’re well on the road to doing that.”
The state party said the turnout was 30 percent of the state’s registered Democrats — a number unprecedented in Nevada and rivaling Iowa’s.
But the 30 percent is deceiving.
Estimates suggest nearly one-fourth of those attending (anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000) registered as Democrats just minutes before the caucus.
And while the party likes to focus on the 17-year-olds it captured and first-time participants opting for Democrats, independents and Republicans helped generate caucus day registration.
Some precincts had 50 new voters. Organizers said 16 new voters were at my precinct.
As the state recovers from the continued caucus bickering and clamoring for a primary, one of the bigger questions is whether the new Democrats will still be Democrats in November.
“I went to caucus for Obama,” said Harold Landis of Elko. “I’m a Republican who is so sick of what Bush has done to this party and this country that I’m looking for a change.”
Landis, 59, has just one caveat. That change can’t include Hillary Clinton.
Landis, like several other Republicans I spoke with on caucus day, said they can’t imagine pushing the button for Clinton.
Obama’s appeal to independent and Republican voters is, of course, what hurts him in Democratic primary contests. Simply by referencing the hope Ronald Reagan gave this country 28 years ago, Obama was thrown aside like a striking air traffic controller.
Say what you will about Reaganomics and the “trickle down” effect on homelessness, poverty and crime in American cities, but 1980 was Morning in America again for many voters.
The irony for liberal voters is that Obama is the most liberal of the remaining viable candidates. Yet he is someone who can tap into the same hope that caused so many blue-collar Democrats to run to Reagan.
These voters aren’t called Reagan Democrats for nothing. And for the most part, they haven’t come back to the fold — even for Bill Clinton’s two terms.
The entire Reagan flap, based on comments Obama made to the Reno Gazette-Journal, is the kind of triangulation that turns many voters off.
Wasn’t it the Clintons who boosted the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a group designed to woo back the Reagan Dems by moving the party to the middle? Or was that just a fairy tale?
What appears to be happening in this hyper-frontloaded, debate-riddled election year is that voters are latching on to candidates who talk about bridging the divide in Washington or who have shown a propensity to deviate from their own party.
Obama’s whole message of change — hijacked now by “Washington is broken” Mitt Romney — appeals to independents and across the aisle.
John McCain’s ability to win crossover Democrats and independents has given him a boost in states with open primaries — like New Hampshire.
Yolanda Johnson registered as a Democrat on Jan. 19 to caucus for Obama. A former nonpartisan, she now feels strongly that the Democratic Party best addresses her concerns.
“But it’s really Barack Obama that made me come out and switch,” said Johnson, a stay-at-home mother of three. “I could make time for him again in November. If he’s not on the ballot, I don’t know if I’d come out.”
Nevada is still an incredibly difficult state for Democrats to win. Most candidates have to have a sizable advantage in Clark County, and hold their own in Washoe to withstand the 90 percent turnout by Republicans in places like Eureka.
A candidate who has crossover appeal can cut into the rural counties, picking off Nye and Douglas and a few more. We know this is possible because Democrats hold four of the six statewide offices.
The Jan. 19 caucus also saw record turnout by Republicans. It’s amazing the GOP hit 44,000 voters given that most candidates focused instead on the South Carolina primary the same day.
In a divided country, the battle for those few independents and crossover voters could make all the difference.
The nomination picture should come into clearer focus for Democrats after Feb. 5, but one snapshot from our own caucus suggests it’ll be hard for Clinton to win Nevada in November without a good number of crossover voters and independents.
We know they certainly didn’t break her way on caucus day.
Contact Erin Neff at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.