Nevada: rival primary and caucuses ensure confusion … and a Trump win

When Nevada Republicans started receiving their mail-in ballots for the state’s 6 February primary, Nikki Haley’s name was on them, but a key person was missing: Donald Trump. It’s not an accident.

Instead of appearing on the primary ballot in the key swing state, Trump is participating in the separate Republican caucuses to take place two days after the primary, on 8 February. Haley isn’t participating in those caucuses. The bizarre set-up means that Nevada Republicans will be asked to vote in a primary on 6 February and then in caucuses two days later to choose their party’s nominee. Only the caucuses will determine how Nevada’s 26 delegates are awarded at the Republican national convention.

The Nevada Republican party created the chaotic scheme, changing its nomination rules last year, in what many say is a thinly veiled effort to benefit Trump. The changes have made Nevada’s GOP nomination in the primary essentially irrelevant and left voters confused.

“What it’s probably doing is a) creating a lot of confusion and b) gonna reduce turnout and participation, which totally undermines the purpose of the caucuses, which is for party building,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

They did it because they are controlled by Trump people, and Trump wouldn’t like it if anything were left to chance

Jon Ralston of the Nevada Independent

Michael McDonald, the head of the Nevada Republican party, was one of six fake Trump electors indicted by Nevada’s attorney general, Aaron Ford. Jesse Law, the chair of the Clark county Republican party who also served in the Trump administration, and Jim DeGraffenreid, a Nevada Republican National Committee member, were also charged.

“​​They did it because they are controlled by Trump people, and Trump wouldn’t like it if anything were left to chance,” said Jon Ralston, a well-respected Nevada political commentator who is CEO of the Nevada Independent. “He would almost surely have won the primary, too, but with universal mail ballots and a much larger universe, it would not have been as big a margin, probably.”

In 2021, Nevada lawmakers approved a measure requiring the state to hold a primary election for the presidential preference contest. But last year, the state Republican party decided it wanted to hold caucuses instead. The party said it would award all of its delegates to the winner of the caucus. It also barred anyone who participated in the primary from also participating in the caucuses. It imposed a $55,000 fee to participate and prohibited Super Pacs from intervening in the caucuses – widely seen as an attack on Ron DeSantis, who relied heavily on his Super Pac throughout his campaign before dropping out in January.

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Under Nevada law, all voters are automatically mailed a ballot for the primary unless they opt out. There is also in-person early voting that began on 27 January, and voters can register to vote at the polls. The caucuses, by contrast, will take place from 5pm to 7.30pm, and voters have to appear in person and show ID to participate. Unlike a primary, in which votes are cast by ballot over the course of an early voting period and entire election days, voters in a caucus must show up in person at a designated place with their neighbors, where they are then given a ballot, after which they submit it and can stay and watch it get counted.

Publicly, Nevada Republicans have said the caucuses are needed to ensure the integrity of the vote, even though voter fraud is exceedingly rare. “The caucus, until we get voter ID, and we get the mail-in ballot situation under control – the only pure way to have this is through a caucus,” McDonald, the Nevada Republican chair, said in an October interview with the Nevada newsmakers podcast.

McDonald, who said in 2015 he favored primaries because they increased participation, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Joe Lombardo, Nevada’s Republican governor, has said he will caucus for Trump but has criticized the dual primary and caucus system as confusing and said it would disenfranchise voters.

Ralston said the party’s election integrity concerns were nonsense. “They want only the base to turn out, and the smaller the turnout, the better Trump is likely to do, especially now with only [Ryan] Binkley against him and no ‘none of the above’ to choose,” he said, referring to the long-shot candidate.

Haley, along with Mike Pence and Tim Scott, chose to participate in the primary last year. Trump, Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Chris Christie all chose to participate in the caucuses. Because Haley is the only candidate left in the primary, she is guaranteed to win. Trump, similarly, is the only remaining major candidate in the caucuses and is guaranteed to win that contest.

Haley has said she’s not participating in the caucuses because it was rigged for Trump. “I mean, talk to the people in Nevada. They will tell you the caucuses have been sealed off, bought and paid for for a long time. And so that’s why we got into the primary,” Haley told reporters during a campaign stop in Epping, New Hampshire, last month.

And Trump’s campaign has gloated over its guaranteed win in the caucuses.

“On February 8th, Nikki Haley will be handed her third straight loss – in Nevada. She inexplicably signed up to be included on the state Primary ballot despite the fact that she could not earn delegates in the Primary,” Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, who both lead Trump’s campaign, wrote in a memo on Monday.

Still, Trump allies have spread misinformation falsely suggesting the primary is unauthorized and Trump was wrongfully excluded from it. The presidential primary is required by state law – but Trump chose not to participate in the primary so he could be a candidate in the caucuses.

Voters are confused about the process and why Trump isn’t on the primary ballot, said Cisco Aguilar, Nevada’s secretary of state.

“Voters ask that question all the time,” he said in an interview. “It’s interesting because we did talk about it, we did address it, we tried to do as much mitigation as we could prior to the ballots being received. However, it’s human nature that the voter is only going to pay attention to what’s right in front of them at that moment in time.”

The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the primary is run by state officials and the caucuses are run entirely by the state GOP.

Related: Who’s running for president in 2024? The Republican and Democratic candidates

Kerry Durmick, the Nevada state director for All Voting Is Local, a non-partisan group focused on expanding voting access, said she went to observe one of the first days of early voting and saw confusion.

“I did see a lot of voters say, ‘Oh, I thought today was the caucus. Oh, I thought we were voting in February. Can I vote today or do I need to vote then?’” she said. “Legally the parties can handle the process however they want to. Where I’m frustrated, where All Voting Is Local is frustrated, is the lack of outreach that was done by this particular party around this particular process because this was the choice that they made.”

Republicans are also reportedly still seeking volunteers to staff the caucus sites, which the party was still finalising less than a month ahead of the event, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

There could be even more confusion if the dual contest system results in both candidates claiming victory in Nevada. After 6 February, Haley could claim she won the Nevada primary. Two days later, Trump will claim he won the caucuses.

“To the degree that there’s any sort of media attention of the Tuesday results, it’s gonna be ‘Nikki Haley wins the Nevada primary. Oh, but Donald Trump wasn’t on the ballot.’ That’s a more complicated soundbite but she can certainly spin that,” said Damore.

During a rally in Las Vegas last weekend, Trump reminded his supporters to turn out, even though he’s guaranteed to win the contest. “We do want to get a good vote. We’re not going to have a lot of competition, I think. But it doesn’t matter. We want to get a great, beautiful mandate,” he said.

“It’s very important for you to help educate all of our supporters that we’re not talking about the government-run, universal mail-in ballots. We don’t want mail-in ballot,” he added. “Do the caucus, not the primary. The primary is meaningless. I don’t know, maybe they’ll try and use it for public relations purposes.”

Lauren Gambino contributed reporting

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