There are two big questions as Nevada holds its Democratic presidential caucus on Saturday: Who will win? And how will Nevada screw it up this time?
If you’re unfamiliar with the relatively short history of America’s “first in the west” vote, here are four reasons you should expect the unexpected when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders square off there.
Nevada is very much still working out the kinks …
Nevada used to be almost irrelevant on the primary calendar. It voted so late that the state Republican Party once decided voters should just mail in votes for their preferred candidate.
That started to change about a decade ago, when powerful Sen. Harry Reid, along with several representatives from organized labor, lobbied the Democratic Party to move up the nominating competition and make it more relevant.
In 2008, both parties booked a date in January and tried to replicate the system used in Iowa, the nation’s most famous caucus state. If you watched this year’s Iowa caucuses and thought, “That is a ridiculous way for a democracy to select its leader,” imagine what that same process looks like when it’s conducted by a bunch of people who have never done it before.
The Democratic Party flew in veterans from the Iowa caucus to train Nevadans on how to do it, and in some parts of the state “mock caucuses” were held so voters could learn the process by caucusing to decide things like their favorite movie.
Despite the preparation, the day of the caucuses brought confusion. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who was then writing for The Nation, wrote about his experience in one of the precincts:
Three precincts were supposed to be caucusing in the cafeteria, but instead there was chaos. Confused crowds surrounded several large tables strewn with registration sheets and preference cards. A black woman named Violet Dorn sat at the middle table, festooned with Hillary stickers and lording over the official registration papers. Across the table, a black man in a white-collared shirt and suit with an Obama button stood berating her. "Stop telling people this table is only for Hillary!" he shouted. "You cannot do that!" A small wrestling match commenced over the paperwork. Then a white man approached. "What kind of politics is this?" he yelled. "Is this the politics of change?" His shirt featured a picture of Obama and the words He's Black and I'm Proud …
… and it's not just the Democrats
The Republicans opted for a much caucus simpler system—a secret ballot, rather than having cluster around a room to declare support for a candidate—and it was plagued not just by chaos but by allegations of foul play.
In 2008, the Ron Paul campaign complained that inconsistent and incorrect caucus information had been sent to voters in some areas. Paul’s campaign manager claimed the Nevada Republican Party was trying to “play politics” with the process.
In 2012, despite the caucuses’ notoriously low turnout, it took the party three days to count all the votes. Even after Mitt Romney was declared the winner, there were many problems with the count, the highest-profile of which was a “trouble box” of questionable ballots that the party was unsure whether to count.
Ties are going to be decided with a high-card draw
Remember those coin tosses that got everyone so riled up in Iowa?
Well, the good news is Nevada won’t be using coins on Saturday to decide who gets an extra county delegate here or there. The bad news is that Nevada Democrats have come up with an equally arbitrary way to allocate those extra delegates—with a little Sin City flair. In precincts with an extra county delegate, caucus participants will decide who gets that extra delegate with a high-card draw.
According to CNN, a new deck will be opened in each such scenario, jokers will be removed, and the deck will be shuffled at least seven times. Representatives from the two campaigns will each draw a card. The highest draw claims the extra delegate. Aces are high, spades beat hearts, hearts beat diamonds, and diamonds beat clubs, just like it says in the Constitution.
It's already gotten ugly
Lest you think the two Democratic campaigns will rise above the state’s history of caucus shenanigans, consider what's already gone down. A Twitter war broke out between DREAMer surrogates for the two campaigns, two staffers for the Sanders campaign were caught impersonating members of a local union that has endorsed Hillary Clinton, and the campaigns both engaged in a rather unflattering battle over the support of a 19-year-old college student. All of this has unfolded in the weeks before a caucus that is likely to have at least one or two shady precinct results to fight about.
Nevada is impossible to poll
In addition to the question of what can and will go wrong, Nevadans will enter the caucuses with very little knowledge about the state of the race. Nevada is nearly impossible to poll accurately. Because of low turnout and little historical knowledge about caucus-goers' behavior, accurate polling samples for the Silver State are notoriously hard to create.
So instead of staking their reputation on something they know has a good chance of being wrong, most polling outlets just don’t bother with the state. Aside from a number of questionable polls commissioned by right-wing news outlets, there has only been one real poll out of Nevada over the past two months. It has a low sample of fewer than 300 participants and shows Clinton and Sanders neck and neck.