Who Will Win Nevada's Democratic Caucuses? There's No Sure Bet

After several days of attending rallies by the leading Democratic candidates in Nevada, interviewing numerous likely voters, campaign staffers, union members, party officials and others, I finally heard a rational voice on Friday night give an assessment of what will make the difference in the Silver State's historic caucuses on Saturday, Jan. 19.

"More than 80 percent of the elections in the U.S. are won by less than 5 percent of the vote. And a well-run field operation (turning out voters) can swing the election by 3 to 8 percent," said Dino Martino, the political director of the Service Employees International Union Local 1 in Chicago, as he began a training session for precinct captains at his union's Las Vegas office. "We are the factor they do not have in the polls."

Indeed, as Martino and Morgan Levi, the political director of the city's SEIU Local 1107, told a full classroom of union members who will work on behalf of nominating Barack Obama, the most anyone can definitively say on the eve of the nation's third nominating contest for Democrats is that voter turnout will be unprecedented -- and that means the best organized campaign is the one most likely to win.

"The reality of this election is we will have historic turnout," he said. "There are all kinds of predictions that are way above the 10,000 people who caucused in 2004. That throws those polls out the windows. Out job is to get those new voters out and into our group."

Nevada's Democratic nominating contest is a blank political slate in a presidential year that has so far defied predictions. This libertarian-spirited Western state is determined to have its say, in its own way, as much as ponderous Iowa and finicky New Hampshire. Indeed, for every prediction made by pundits about momentum, mistakes and trends, there seemed to be exceptions everywhere.

The state's largest and arguably most powerful union, the Culinary Workers Local 226, with 60,000 members, was backing Obama. The Democratic Party beat a legal effort to prevent new, at-large caucuses from being held in nine casinos, an effort to bring minority voters into the nominating process. But at least half of the casino employees I interviewed were not even sure they were going to caucus. One waiter said he would wait until November to vote. A card dealer said Saturday was going to be a big day for tips, because of the NFL's AFC championship game between the Patriots and Chargers.

In other words, because the caucus process takes time and more commitment than marking a ballot, and because it will be a new experience for many participants, it is not a sure bet that the special casino precincts will be as decisive as the Clinton campaign fears and as the Obama campaign hopes.

There were other examples that ran counter to the high-profile assumptions. One of the most telling is that not all union members will be following their leaders' endorsement of specific candidates. On Friday morning, John Edwards spoke at a parking lot rally at his Las Vegas headquarters and urged union members to disregard endorsements and back him, saying he would be the strongest defender of organized labor.

"Regardless of who your political leadership chose to endorse, no one will fight for you in the trenches like I will," Edwards said at the 9 a.m. rally, where perhaps 200 mostly white people attended, and where the warm-up music included classic rock with lines such as "That's what I like about you" and "You ain't seen nothing yet."

Edwards' remarks underscore that Obama is backed by two of the state's most powerful unions, the Culinary Workers and the Service Employees Industrial Union, which has 17,500 Nevada members. But as Edwards supporters waited for him to speak, I went looking for people wearing "precinct captain" buttons and found two women who were top SEIU officials.

One, Jerri Strasser, a nurse and a SEIU executive committee member, said she was backing Edwards because he was best candidate. Frustrated that the national media was ignoring Edwards, she said polls showed the race was too close to call and that there was a lot of confusion among voters she was contacting about the caucus process.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there," Strasser said. "People think we will still have a primary. They don't understand it's a caucus. I talked to a lady who said she was getting calls suggesting that if she didn't vote in the caucus that she couldn't vote in the fall ... I think people don't understand that no matter what you read in the papers, the delegate count will be very close."

Strasser's comments were indicative of the challenges facing all the campaigns. In the crowd at the Edwards event were people wearing jackets and holding signs from the Steelworkers Union, Carpenters Union, Teamsters and Vietnam Veterans of America. But whether the confusion Strasser found among voters was due to the fact that her campaign did not have the same resources as Hillary Clinton and Obama -- and was unable to muster the same outreach and education -- is an open question.

"I am not the $100 million campaign," Edwards said, as he started speaking from the back of a pickup truck in his strip mall rally. "I am the underdog. We are the grass-roots movement to change this country ... You can start a grass-roots movement. It can begin here in Nevada. It will spread across this country with a power that cannot be stopped."

But the Edwards' bandwagon was not the only campaign where expected supporters were -- and were not -- present at their public events.

In another Las Vegas neighborhood on Thursday, the Clinton and Obama campaigns held rallies within two hours and two miles of each other. What was most notable, apart from the content of their remarks, was that the Clinton campaign seemed to draw an almost entirely Latino and larger crowd, while the Obama audience appeared to be predominantly white and African-American black. That was surprising because the Culinary Workers Union, which endorsed Obama and is seen as being so strong, mostly consists of minority workers, especially Latinos.

Dueling Obama and Clinton rallies

The Obama rally was at Rancho High School, which the candidate had visited earlier in the campaign. The audience of 400 to 500 people was in a Latino part of town, according Eugene Lewis, an African-American precinct captain who said the neighborhood was 60 percent Latino, 30 percent African-American and 10 percent white.

Obama was two hours late to the event, so people sat quietly listening to local organizers who asked how many people were undecided -- about 50 raised their hands -- and modern R&B music, not any strain of the Latin genres that were played at the rally featuring Bill Clinton a few miles away.

As people waited, organizers, including Hollywood celebrities, handed out cards to people so they could be directed to their proper caucuses. Meanwhile, the campaign held a training session for precinct captains and other volunteers, one union organizer said.

When Obama took the stage, he first noted it was his wife's birthday, and he told the audience he would be taking her out to dinner. He then began a stump speech that was a mix of "yes, we can" peppered with a long list of liberal promises to reshape the federal government from a street-smart perspective. On his to-do list was making life miserable for lobbyists, offering people better and cheaper healthcare, ending tax breaks for the wealthy while giving tax breaks to seniors living on Social Security, raising the minimum wage annually, subsidizing college tuition, creating a humane "pathway" to citizenship for immigrants and having a dialogue-based foreign policy.

But perhaps Obama's deepest theme was that his election would mean a new day for minorities and others who struggle in America. It was time, he said, for people who have always been told to wait for prosperity or justice to move to the front of the line. While John Edwards was calling himself the underdog in the race, Obama's message of hope was appealing to underdogs everywhere.

"This is our moment. This is our time," he said.

"Sen. Clinton says stop pedaling false hope," Obama said. "Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is not ignoring the hurdles and the challenges that stand before us. It will not be easy to pass healthcare reform. It will not be easy to have an energy policy that makes sense ... to make our schools work ... to deal with immigration policy in a humane and just way."

In contrast to Obama's message of hope, the Clinton camp's most famous surrogate speaker, former President Bill Clinton, delivered an entirely different message at an outdoor evening rally in a park. It was 35 degrees and damp, with grass was covered in crunchy frost, but Clinton stood beaming in a suit under the spotlights, as relaxed and buoyant as if he were in the warm California sun. At Obama's rally, I asked myself where were the Latino voters, as I was told this was a predominantly Latino neighborhood. The answer was, they appeared to be supporting Hillary Clinton.

The rally was the fourth that day for Bill Clinton and it almost started on time, which is no small feat in presidential campaigns. The crowd was bigger than at the Obama event, and it was so friendly that Clinton spent more time telling stories to demonstrate how he -- and Hillary -- understood the needs of the people who were in the audience. Of course, he punctuated each anecdote with remarks such as Hillary would never forget you; she is the best candidate he has ever known; Hillary is prepared to step in and take charge right away. The rally appeared to skimp on the nuts-and-bolts organizing the other campaigns were emphasizing. But other unions were there, notably AFSCME (municipal employees), Painters and Allied Trades and Sheet Metal Workers.

Perhaps the most telling moment came when Clinton told a golfing story to this very working-class audience and had them nodding in agreement, because, the main character was a NYC fireman moonlighting as his caddy. Clinton said he stopped playing golf to listen to this man, who told him why he had to work two jobs, and how he noticed when Hillary stood up in the Senate so firefighter families could get better healthcare. "It brought tears to my eyes," he said, in his well-known wispy cadence.

As the former president ended his speech and introduced his daughter Chelsea, a mariachi band struck up their first note and a woman draped a colorful Mexican shawl over his shoulder. He adjusted it and then stepped into the crowd to shake hands.

The Democratic caucuses start at 11 a.m. on Saturday. At the SEIU training session, veteran organizer Dino Martino told his precinct captains to be there by 10:30 a.m., ready to greet, welcome and persuade attendees. The captains are to remind people that anyone of legal age and residency who shows up can register to vote then and there.

"I know SEIU workers can work a room," said Morgan Levi, the union's local political director. "Start talking to people. Get their status. Start talking about Obama."


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