Democrats, Republicans offer course in Caucus 101

What is a caucus, anyway?

Well, depending on whom you ask, it’s either vital to the election of the next president or a process intended to keep the party’s mechanism busy.

That, in a nutshell, is how Democrats and Republicans present themselves in five-minute public service announcements airing on Cox Cable to explain the caucus system.

Cox Media and National Cable Communications partnered with the Center for Governmental Studies to produce similar low-frills spots airing “On Demand” for digital cable subscribers. Cox customers can access the videos by selecting channel 852 with their remotes and following the on-screen directions.

The most striking difference in watching each party’s educational snippet is what each chooses to stress.

Democrats have State Party Chairwoman Jill Derby co-hosting the question-and-answer style format with state Sen. Steven Horsford of Las Vegas, who is also the state’s Democratic National Committeeman.

The pair stress the ease of the caucus — as if it’s commonplace for apathetic Nevadans to just march to the local school on a Saturday for a political conversation with their neighbors.

While this easy-peasy description belies the complicated caucus math that even die-hard Democrats are struggling to learn, it also comes across as very inviting.

“All you have to know to participate in a caucus is your name,” Derby informs.

In fact, she stresses, you can register to vote or switch parties right there on caucus day. Because the Democrats, not “state government,” are running the show, anyone can show up on caucus day and pick a presidential candidate.

The Republicans aren’t so laissez faire about who they invite to the show.

In their five-minute spot, hosted exclusively by Rep. Jon Porter, it’s Republican that’s stressed the most.

The word Republican is spoken 21 times in the spot, compared to just 10 uses of “Democratic” on the other spot. And Porter makes it clear: You’ve got to be a committed Republican to caucus.

“If you’re currently registered as a Republican in Nevada, you’re already eligible,” Porter says. “If you’re a new resident to Nevada, or if you’re planning to change your registration to Republican, you need to register 30 days before the caucus to get involved.”

Each party invites 17-year-olds to the show. And both parties trot out the requisite minorities, with Democrats using two Hispanics and a black woman to ask questions. Republicans counter with a black man, an Asian woman and an Hispanic woman among the questioners.

Democrats also show a young white woman with a baby (bring the kids) and Republicans feature a laptop-using young white man in another question.

And really, the questions to set up the answers are mostly the same.

What happens at a caucus? Who can come? What’s the difference between a caucus and primary? Where will be it be?

But Porter stresses the procedural mechanics of the caucus more than any presidential contest.

During a 40-second answer, Porter details how delegates and alternate delegates are elected at the precinct caucus level. “It’s the most important part of the caucus.”

Really? Tell that to the presidential candidates and national media.

Democrats stress how they were chosen for the early caucus, they mention their good slate of candidates, and Derby tells people why they should participate.

“Are you concerned about the war in Iraq?” she asks.

Or maybe it’s health care for your family, or more resources for local schools. That’s why she says you need to caucus.

Porter talks at length about the four steps to the national GOP convention in Minneapolis. First there’s precinct caucuses and the county and state conventions. Then you select delegates to the Republican National Convention, where the nominee is chosen, he says.

In theory that’s true, although the nominee will be well-known by the time Nevada Republicans even get to step two.

Democrats use the same process for electing delegates to their national convention, which will be in Denver next year. But neither Derby nor Horsford takes more than 10 seconds talking about it.

They spend more time (three times to be exact) pointing people to the state Democratic Party’s Web site. And Cox is kind enough to put the address and phone number right there on the screen.

Porter gives out the phone number to the county registrar of voters, trying to get more people to register Republican.

Porter ends his message by answering what he termed “the most important question.” It came from the kid with the laptop who asked if the caucus was going to be his only chance to vote for his favorite Republican presidential candidate.

Porter, who has already endorsed Rudy Giuliani, stresses that by the time Nevada holds its primary election in August, the nominee will be known. So much for the importance of Minneapolis.

The tale of two caucuses is an interesting political lesson. And as long as Republicans keep stressing civics over organization, the caucuses will still be reverberating next November.

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at

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