Las Vegas Casino Caucus Showcases Blue-Collar Vote
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Hillary Clinton won the first round of the Nevada Caucuses, beating her nearest rival Barack Obama, with 51 percent of the voters who caucused compared to 45 percent for Obama. John Edwards finished a distant third with 4 percent of the vote, according to the Nevada Democratic Party.
Clinton's victory included a surprising 11 percent margin in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located and where Obama was backed by two of Nevada's strongest labor unions, the Culinary Workers and Service Employees. In contrast, Obama beat Clinton in many rural counties.
As the caucus results were tallied, the Obama campaign issued a press release saying he would emerge with 13 delegates from Nevada at the Democratic National Convention, compared to 12 for Clinton. That assertion was based the state party's arcane formula for awarding delegates, which varies from county to county. However, Nevada Democratic Party officials replied that conclusion was premature, as the delegates elected on Saturday first have to pass through a county and state nominating process.
Nonetheless, the nation's first western presidential contest was filled with firsts. Voter turnout was historic and unprecedented, with 120,000 voters -- including thousands who registered to vote before caucusing, according to party officials. In contrast, barely 10,000 people participated in 2004's Democratic Caucuses.
Party leaders were jubilant as the surveyed the results on Saturday afternoon at the Las Vegas Convention Center. From their perspective, the caucus energized and enlarged their party, even though there were problems reported, such as voters who were turned away from some locations and confusion over the rules at others.
"Come November, we're all Democrats," was repeatedly heard as party officials congratulated each other.
CAUCUSING AT THE CASINO
Nevada's Caucuses also included special precincts at nine Las Vegas casinos so workers there could help select delegates without losing a day's pay. The Democratic National Committee and state party created these at-large precincts specifically to engage blue-collar minority voters.
One such caucus, at the Luxor -- Las Vegas' famous pyramid-shaped hotel -- was all that party officials could hope for. As the noon start time approached, a parade of valets, maids, buffet servers, cooks, food runners, waitresses, and others dressed in uniforms from Luxor and two adjacent hotels filled a large ballroom decorated with flags and a banner declaring "MGM-Mirage Supports 2008 Caucus." The hotel's president even visited, saying caucusing was more important than getting back to work.
One-third of the attendees registered to vote before caucusing. Party officials said the combined turnout at the nine casino sites was 2,600 voters. Although that figure was less than predicted, they still said the casino caucuses were an unqualified success. "We were able to mobilize so many first-time voters," said Andres Ramirez, who oversees outreach for the Nevada state party.
At 10 minutes past noon, the Egyptian Ballroom's doors were closed and the caucus began. The room was filled with 383 voters, party officials, observers from the campaigns, and members of the media.
The caucus-goers filled three sections of chairs pointing to the podium. In the right and center banks were 231 people mostly wearing Barack Obama stickers and T-Shirts over their uniforms. To the left were 152 people most supporting Hillary Clinton. Edwards' did not send a representative to lead his delegation. The caucus chairman asked a Clinton supporter to fill that role for his campaign.
When television cameras turned on their lights, the room erupted into dueling cheers. "It was a lot like a South American soccer game with fans from each team," said Tova Wang, Democracy Fellow at The Century Foundation, who was observing the process.
Once the attendance was verified, Caucus Chair Matt Paul, a Democratic Party worker who came from Iowa with 40 other volunteers, announced that the caucus would be selecting 77 delegates. He then asked people to form groups supporting Obama, Clinton, Edwards and uncommitted delegates.
Paul then counted those present and announced the Edwards campaign did not meet a baseline threshold to win any delegates. He asked Clinton and Obama supporters to stay put, while the four voters in the room supporting Edwards decided which camp to join.
The room then began to break into shouts for Clinton and Obama. Then, as two large groups huddled along two long ballroom walls, Democratic Party officials counted out loud how many people were supporting each candidate. That number would be used to apportion the caucus' 77 delegates.
During that count, Carlton Hill, an Obama supporter said he was gratified to participate.
"It's interesting," he said, reflecting. "I have watched it on TV and now participating is interesting. It's an opportunity to see it from the bottom up, actually. It's like the difference between watching a parade and being in it. You watch a parade; you have your opinions. But when you're in it, it's a whole different feeling."
Before the final count was announced, there were whispers among the press section that NBC-TV had already called the state for Hillary Clinton. But no one in the room heard that.
"The count for Senator Clinton is 162," the caucus chair said. A few minutes later, he recounted the vote for Obama. Then a voice yelled "211" and Paul asked people to stand by as he calculated the delegate count. That brought more cheers from the Obama section and glum faces from the Clinton camp.
"We assign 77 delegates at this caucus today," Paul began, summarizing the results. "Senator Clinton, 34 delegates. Senator Obama, 43 delegates."
The final count brought yet more cheers. But as the attendees left the ballroom to go back to work, they would no doubt soon hear news reports that the Luxor results were the opposite of the state as a whole. Several hours later, those results had not changed. Despite Obama's win at Luxor, Clinton had carried the state.
Meanwhile, workers from the Mandalay Bay Casino would hear something else when they returned to work. While they were caucusing, Sen. Clinton had visited their workplace.
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of " What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election ," with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).