by DENNIS MYERS
Last year when Florida’s decision to move up its primary pushed the first four primary and caucus states from February back into January, Nevada Republicans moved their caucuses from Feb. 18 to Jan. 14, which threatened to push New Hampshire and Iowa into 2011. The Republican national chair prevailed on Nevada’s GOP to change again, this time to Feb. 4—still earlier than its original date.
That decision was excoriated by commentators in Nevada who faulted the party for caving in to New Hampshire, but the party is now looking smarter than its critics.
If Nevada had stayed at Jan. 14, it would have been overshadowed by South Carolina. Moreover, as events have unfolded, Nevada now has significant influence—negative influence, to be sure, but influence nonetheless. The state’s Republicans are in position to inflict major damage on the two leading candidates competing here. If either Mitt Romney or Ron Paul—the only candidates with substantial organizations—loses here, it will be a major setback, Romney because he won here in 2008 and no other major candidates entered against him and Paul because he has poured significant resources into the state and has rested so many of his hopes on Nevada.
In 2008, Romney won the caucuses with 51 percent, Paul coming in second at 14 percent. But Paul’s forces mobilized and nearly took over the state Republican convention, putting them in position to send a Paul delegation to the national convention in spite of the caucus results. Romney was rescued by party officials who adjourned the convention, leaving the selection of delegates to a party committee and enraging Paul’s people. The Paul forces have been lying in wait for the last four years, less for Romney than for state party leaders.
Romney is aided by a different brand of resentment. Last fall when Christian evangelicals were making an issue of Romney’s religion and claiming that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are not Christians, it infuriated LDS members in Nevada and bonded them even closer to Romney. Paul has been trying to break that bond, hyping endorsements from Utah organizations and church figures.
Nevada has the nation’s third largest percentage of Mormons in its population, who make up about a tenth of the state’s voters. But they were nearly 30 percent of Republican caucus-goers in 2008, and 95 percent of them supported Romney.
Candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both avoided Nevada until after they scored in earlier states. Then they tried slapping together organizations in Nevada, but they’ve have to rely more on media and whatever momentum survives from their early victories.
The early results have thrown a spotlight on Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson, well known in the state as a labor-basher. His $5 million contribution to the Gingrich “super-PAC” called Winning Our Future (WOF) brought him considerable attention. The Washington Post reported on Feb. 1 that WOF is essentially a vehicle funded by various Adelson family members. The notion that Gingrich as a serious candidate was essentially invented by Adelson money unnerves some Nevada Republicans and introduces a new factor just three days before the caucuses.
The candidates have been less than sensitive to Nevada-based issues. At an Oct. 18 Las Vegas debate, Paul and Romney surprised the state by coming out against the proposed dump for high level nuclear wastes at Yucca Mountain. Gingrich was less definitive but sounded like he supported opening the dump.
On more basic issues, the candidates have been even less definitive. The state is an economic basket case. The recession started earlier in Nevada than in the rest of the nation and is still in recession with no end in sight. The jobless rate is 12.6, highest in the nation. Nevada also has had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation for several years. The casino industry is in steep decline at the hands of tribal casinos in California—the Golden State is the Silver State’s biggest source of gamblers—and the growing competition from other states. State officials have been lethargic in dealing with it. The state that was the fastest growing for half a century is now losing population.
The candidates have not addressed the state’s economic problems in much detail. Romney’s “not concerned about the very poor” comment could backfire in a state with 166,000 people out of work. On Feb. 1 Paul said he would try to relax travel restrictions from other nations to increase tourism—the state’s top industry—and also has been touting his history of sponsoring legislation to exempt employee tips from taxation.
But some of these issues would be more likely to resonate in a contested Democratic race, which does not exist this year.
Opinion surveys are of little help. It is difficult to poll in caucus states and in 2008 polls of both the Democratic and Republican races were notoriously wrong. A Nevada survey taken in December showed Gingrich pressing Romney hard, Romney enjoying only a four point lead. But that was five weeks ago, before Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, a lifetime in a presidential campaign.
Late Wednesday, Public Policy Polling released partial results of a survey it was doing. After one day of polling Romney was running 15 to 20 points ahead of Gingrich with Paul and Santorum both running around 15 percent.