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Early Caucus Dates Bring Nevada into Focus for 2008 Election

November 12, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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CAUCUS TRAINER: How many votes for “Boston Legal”?

JUDY WOODRUFF: While it may not sound like it, this is democracy in action. For the past several months, Democrats and Republicans in Nevada have been holding training sessions to teach people how to caucus.

NEVADA VOTER: My favorite TV show is “Bones.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republicans have been practicing by voting for favorite television shows.

NEVADA VOTER: It’s all natural ingredients.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats use candy instead of candidates.

CAUCUS TRAINER: OK, now, guys, this is exactly what you’re going to see on caucus day. You’re going to see representatives from the different candidates trying to convince you. They’re going to find out what your issues are, and they’re going to try and convince you that their candidate is best on that issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nevada has been a caucus state before, but it’s always been so late in the campaign season the parties’ nominees were a foregone conclusion. That meant few people participated. In 2004, only 9,000 Democrats showed up to caucus.

But this year is different. Nevada’s senior senator and majority leader Harry Reid convinced the Democratic Party that Nevada should become the third state in the nation to vote for a nominee.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: For many years I’ve been very troubled with how we select our presidential candidate: Iowa, a wonderful state, fairly well populated, no diversity; New Hampshire, no people, no diversity.

I think it’s a strange way to pick a presidential candidate. And so it was felt by me and a number of other people that what we should do is change the process, broaden it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Nevada Republican Party followed suit at the urging of the new state chairman, Sue Lowden.

SUE LOWDEN, Chair, Nevada Republican Party: It’s an interesting political science experiment here in Nevada that we’re doing this. And the fact that our candidates are coming in and they are generating the support, that you can touch them, that you can have a cup of coffee with them, that you go to somebody’s house and you actually get to meet them, we’ve never had that before. So it’s all new for us, and we are excited.

Courting Hispanic voters

Ruben Kihuen
(D) State Assemblyman
Part of the reason why Nevada got the early caucus was because of the fastest-growing Latino population is here... So if the Latino voters come out and vote, I mean, you can talk about possibly deciding who the next president of the United States is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While presidential candidates are visiting the state more than ever before, it's nowhere near the level seen in Iowa or New Hampshire. Still, party activists on both sides say that forcing candidates to pay attention to western issues -- like water rights, nuclear waste storage, and federal land use -- is good for the entire political process.

And it exposes the candidates to a population that is very different than Iowa and New Hampshire: 90 percent of the people in Nevada live in urban areas; nearly 5 percent are Asian; 7 percent are Mormon; 7 percent are African-American; and 24 percent are Hispanic.

It's the Hispanic vote that organizers are particularly courting.

RUBEN KIHUEN (D), State Assemblyman: There's no doubt that the Latino voter's going to make a difference this next election. Part of the reason why Nevada got the early caucus was because of the fastest-growing Latino population is here, as well as the strong labor unions. So if the Latino voters come out and vote, I mean, you can talk about possibly deciding who the next president of the United States is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruben Kihuen is a rising star both in the Democratic Party and on a soccer team it sponsors. The party hopes to raise political awareness among a population that traditionally has a poor record of participating in politics.

That's why, for the last 12 weeks, Democratic activists have worked the sidelines, registering people to vote. Kihuen, who grew up in Las Vegas, became a citizen three years ago and, just one year later, decided to challenge an incumbent Democrat for the state assembly.

RUBEN KIHUEN: I put together a plan. And I said, "Look, if I could get enough Latinos to register and to go vote, I can win this election." A lot of people laughed and they said, "You know what, Ruben? That's not going to happen. It's not going to happen. The Latinos don't come out and vote."

JUDY WOODRUFF: On primary day, Kihuen beat the incumbent by 30 percentage points.

RUBEN KIHUEN: To me, that shows that the Hispanic vote, the Latino vote -- not only in Nevada, but across the United States -- is important. And if we do a good enough effort to get them out to vote, if we give them a reason to vote, they will come out and vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican Party has been slower in starting its caucus outreach to Hispanic voters. It just officially kicked off two weeks ago. But Tibi Ellis is confident that there's plenty of time to convince Hispanics to participate.

TIBI ELLIS, Republican National Hispanic Assembly: Our goal, our mission is to extend the message of the Republican Party and to remind our community, our Hispanic community brothers and sisters, that our values as Hispanics are the values of the Republican Party -- faith, family, future -- and to go out there and incentivize them to vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the biggest hurdles in getting Hispanics and other people out on caucus day may simply be the transient nature of its population. More than 5,000 people move to Nevada each month, which means that many don't have deep ties to the community or the issues. It's a problem that Republican Senator John Ensign acknowledges.

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN (R), Nevada: Nevada is traditionally not very political. In other words, we have so many new people to our state -- and if you think about folks who are new to a state, they don't get involved in the political process because they don't know a lot of people running for office. So I think this is going to encourage, because it is a presidential race, so they'll know the candidates, and I think it's going to get more Nevadans involved and start thinking about politics in general.

CAMPAIGN VOLUNTEER: We're going to be having our caucus on January 19th.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democratic Party officials say they want to make it as easy as possible for people to get involved. They will have more than 500 locations on caucus day, including two open precincts on the Las Vegas strip, where shift workers can vote.

CAUCUS TRAINEE: Obviously, we have the delegates here. We have the alternates here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans will have far fewer sites, about 100, and they are already acknowledging that more Democrats are likely to turn out on January 19th. But they say they will have the larger numbers when it counts, on general Election Day next November.

Comparing campaigning efforts

Jon Ralston
Political Analyst
Voters here probably aren't as engaged, naturally, as they are in Iowa and New Hampshire. And I think they're hoping that they plant the seeds this year to get them more engaged as time goes on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There may be no place to get a better look at the expanse of Las Vegas than here on the 112th floor, the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel. We asked someone to come up here with us who spends practically all of his time thinking about Nevada politics and what the voters of Las Vegas and Nevada are thinking about. He's Jon Ralston, political analyst.

Jon, good to see you.

JON RALSTON, Host, Face to Face: Hi, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are the Democrats and Republicans in Nevada ready for these caucuses yet?

JON RALSTON: I think that's a good question. You know, we're a brand-new kid on the block, never done this before, real player now. And I don't think most people in Nevada really get it yet. Hopefully, they will after this debate this week brings all the excitement here. But the activists, the partisans, they're very excited about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are they actually getting people interested?

JON RALSTON: The Democrats are doing a lot of different kinds of events. They started this, and then the Republican kind of did a "me, too" on this. The Democrats are having these mock caucuses. They've had soccer games to get people out to watch and register to vote for the caucus. They're trying to create that atmosphere of excitement by having events on a regular basis.

The Republicans, who are doing kind of a scaled-back version, as you mentioned in your piece, haven't done as much. And the candidates on the Republican side haven't been there as much to generate the excitement. That's what's really doing it, all the visits from the candidates, especially on the Democratic side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Help us understand how the voters in Nevada are different. People have heard for so long about Iowans and the citizens of New Hampshire. Tell us who the voters of Nevada are.

JON RALSTON: I do get a kick -- that's one of the things that's happened. Everyone seems to have this view of Nevada, we're aliens out here. We're not like voters everywhere else, because of the craziness that we see around here right now.

But there's a real city that's grown up around, fastest-growing city, all kinds of different people here. The rationale, for getting this caucus here, was the diversity.

Las Vegas is not like Concord or Des Moines. It's a very diverse, different urban environment. You can't go and have a cup of coffee with people here at the little coffee shop. You have to do it in a much different way. Voters here probably aren't as engaged, naturally, as they are in Iowa and New Hampshire. And I think they're hoping that they plant the seeds this year to get them more engaged as time goes on.

Western issues and national issues

Jon Ralston
Political Analyst
The voters here really are thinking about the things that everybody else is. You look at the polls that have been taken here, Iraq, health care, the economy, that's all at the top of the list here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you think about the issues that are on the minds of voters here, what would they be?

JON RALSTON: People like to talk about the western issues that people here are thinking about, land use, water, the environment, Yucca Mountain, the proposed nuclear waste dump just 100 miles away.

But you know what, Judy? The voters here really are thinking about the things that everybody else is. You look at the polls that have been taken here, Iraq, health care, the economy, that's all at the top of the list here. That's what people are thinking about here, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Help us understand the difference between what's on the minds of Democrats in Nevada, people who plan to vote Democratic, Republicans, and then you've got a large group who aren't affiliated with either party.

JON RALSTON: Yes, the independent vote here is very, very important. It's about 15 percent now, and it's been growing all the time. They're generally more conservative, which has really helped the Republican presidential nominee win here, at least the last two elections, and most of the last elections since Lyndon Johnson. Bill Clinton is the only Democratic nominee to win here since Lyndon Johnson, and only because Ross Perot was on the ballot, otherwise the Republicans would have 40-plus years of an unbroken streak.

Democrats here are really concerned about the war in Iraq, just as they are everywhere else. That's what they're voting on mostly. Health care is a big deal here in Nevada. They've got a lot of problems with the uninsured here in Nevada proportionally to other states, a lot of problems providing care to people, very, very controversial here.

The Republican side, Judy, you see immigration is still one of the top two issues, and it is galvanizing voters on the Republican side in that presidential race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, when it comes to immigration, you have a large immigrant population in this state. And right now -- what is it -- 24 percent of the population is Hispanic. You have a large number of undocumented individuals who are in the state.

Explain to us how that is playing as an issue, because you've got people with business interests here who want these individuals working for them and then you've got other views, as well.

JON RALSTON: Exactly, that's the push and pull here. You have the construction industry, which is the second-biggest industry here, maybe behind the gaming industry, a lot of undocumented workers. That will hit on them if there's a crackdown on immigration, especially with all the building that's been going on in Las Vegas in the last 10 to 15 years.

But then you have the other side of it, too. We're not a border state, and yet there are a lot of people here who are very antagonistic toward the growing minority population. It's not as focused here in Las Vegas, but if you go outside of Las Vegas, and you go to the rural counties -- which are very, very conservative, still a significant percentage of the vote -- illegal immigration surprisingly, considering they're really far away from the border, is a huge issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it's not so simple to say that Democrats are for immigration or for looser controls on immigration and Republicans are not. It's not that clean a division.

JON RALSTON: I don't think so, and I think that mirrors what's going on in the presidential race, as you've seen some of the Democratic presidential candidates try to dance around that issue.

It became a big issue here back in 2006 during our governor's race here. It very much hurt the Democratic candidate who was perceived as wanting to give illegal immigrants, coincidentally enough, driver's licenses, which is a huge issue now, as you know, in the presidential race. That galvanized a lot of voters, both Democrats and Republicans, to vote against that candidate, polling showed.

Thoughts of the Culinary Union

Jon Ralston
Political Analyst
The whole melting pot is there in the culinary. They do have a lot of Hispanic workers, and they're trying to get them organized and out to vote in that caucus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The gaming industry, a huge factor in the state's economy. What impacts both the employers and the workers, the thousands and thousands of people who work in the gaming industry?

JON RALSTON: Two different kinds of impacts. The gaming industry has long been seen as the dominant force in politics. They have the most money to give to campaigns, most number of employees to get out to vote. Some of the actual owners have organized their employees by providing them with political literature, but they give so much money compared to anybody else to elections.

It's changed a little bit over the years, as the construction and the development industry has gotten involved, but the real force in politics and in the Democratic caucus is the culinary union, which has 60,000-plus members, who are almost all working in the casinos, overwhelmingly Democratic.

And as you mentioned, the whole melting pot is there in the culinary. They do have a lot of Hispanic workers, and they're trying to get them organized and out to vote in that caucus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some have said that the culinary workers union could make the difference in the Democratic caucus. Is it that simple?

JON RALSTON: I think that's why they've waited so long to endorse. They have yet to endorse. They say they're probably going to do it sometime after Thanksgiving.

I think they want to go with the winner, and I think they're going to determine the winner. The polling here has shown Hillary Clinton well ahead. However, Barack Obama has been very organized and has made several visits to the culinary folks to make his case. So I think that that endorsement is still wide open.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are the issues on the minds of the culinary workers and their leadership?

JON RALSTON: It's been interesting. It's been serendipitous to these candidates. They started coming here right when the big negotiations were going on with the big casinos, so they were able to go to these rallies where the workers who didn't have contracts -- they said exactly what they wanted to hear: "We'll stand with you."

Every single one of the candidates, Judy, promised to go out on the picket line should there be a strike. Most of the contracts have since been settled. There's one or two that are outstanding now.

But, you know, these are working folks looking for good quality health care. Health care is the biggest issue for the culinary. It's a huge issue nationally. Culinary has one of the best health plans in the state. It's a Cadillac health plan. They want to continue it. Very expensive. That was a huge issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about for the Republicans? What's the dominating force, the dominating factor in that race?

JON RALSTON: The Republicans have really tried to get their folks here energized, but it's been tough, because the candidates haven't been coming. Rudy Giuliani was here a couple of days ago, but only been to the state a couple of times. Mitt Romney has been here a little more often and has an organization here. John McCain has been just about invisible here.

It's been very, very tough to get the Republicans interested. They came late to the party. The Democrats did this and, a few months later, the Republicans kind of woke up and said, "Wait a second, we better do this, too, to try to get some attention." But they're doing a very much scaled-down version of it.

And the candidates are really not looking like they have Nevada in their national strategy, more of a big state strategy by Giuliani and, to some extent, McCain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So as somebody who has watched Nevada politics for a long time, as you have -- we're just, what, a little over two months out from the caucuses here -- what are you expecting?

JON RALSTON: I think that the Democrats are very nervous, even queasy about this. In 2004, for perspective, we had 9,000 people turn out, when Nevada really didn't matter. After they got this caucus, there were all kinds of astronomical predictions, up to 100,000 people turning out. And they were quickly muzzling those people doing that.

I think they'll be happy, and I think Nevada will be on the map, if they get three or four times what they got in 2004, so 30,000, 35,000. I think they'd be happy with that. I think anything more than that is gravy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on the Republican side?

JON RALSTON: I think the Republicans generally vote pretty high, and they're doing it in a way, with many fewer caucus sites, what they're going to be able to generate, I think, interest by the time it comes around, I think they'll get about the same or more than the Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jon Ralston, political analyst, helps us. Thank you for helping us take a look at who the voters are in Nevada. Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow night, Judy and Ray will focus on economic issues and how they affect political views in Nevada. On our Web site, you can find more political analysis from Jon Ralston, detailed data about the Nevada population, its economy, and voter turnout, among other things. Plus, you can read Judy Woodruff's daily updates to her Reporter's Notebook. It's all at PBS.org.