Presidential Primaries in Nevada

In 2006, the Democratic Party approved plans to hold a presidential caucus in 2008 in Nevada, just after the first caucus in Iowa and before the first primary in New Hampshire. It was the latest maneuver in a long history of presidential primaries and caucuses in Nevada.

Primary elections became widespread as a reform device during the Progressive Era. They were seen as a way to take nominating power out of caucuses and off the floors and smoke-filled rooms of political conventions, and put it in the hands of voters.

The application of that technique to presidential campaigns began in Nevada in 1912. The Nevada Democratic Party, using a provision in state law, held a presidential primary and listed former U.S. Attorney General Judson Harmon of Indiana, U.S. House Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri, and Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey on the ballot. Clark won.

In 1958, as part of a Nevada legislative study of presidential primaries, legal researchers examined the 1912 experience. They discovered that the portion of Nevada law the Democrats used depended on a second statute that had been repealed. So in actuality, the 1912 primary was illegally held. The 1912 election was the last presidential primary in Nevada for sixty-four years.

On July 30, 1952, Las Vegas Mayor C. D. Baker, a leading Democratic Party figure, said he would seek creation of a Nevada presidential primary as part of a package of election reforms. The 1953 Nevada legislature approved a presidential primary, with the condition that such a primary must be held early in the year. The legislators moved the regular state primary date back to June so the state and presidential primaries could be combined. The first time this new date was used was in the non-presidential year of 1954, and the June 1 date for the primary made for a long general election campaign. Candidates wearied by a five-month campaign, as opposed to the original two months, promptly repealed the presidential primary law before it could be used. The 1957 Nevada legislature ordered a study of the possibility of a presidential primary, and the study was completed in 1958, but no enactment resulted.

The 1969 legislature enacted a bill to create a presidential primary that would have made Nevada's the first in the nation. When the speaker of the New Hampshire House informed Nevada that his state would move its primary date back to protect its traditional first-in-the-nation status, Governor Paul Laxalt of Nevada vetoed the bill.

In 1973, Nevada Secretary of State William Swackhamer met with several of his counterparts and planned Western, non-California presidential primaries in several states on the same day. The plan for a Western "Super Tuesday" failed. While Swackhamer made the case for a primary to the 1975 legislature, which created the primary (this time providing the funding for separate local and presidential primaries), only Oregon and Idaho joined Nevada in the venture. In the Democratic primary on May 25, 1976, California Governor Jerry Brown won in a field of six candidates. On the Republican side, former California Governor Ronald Reagan defeated President Gerald Ford.

The legislature later repealed this presidential primary law, though for reasons unrelated to the electoral issues. On June 6, 1978, California voters approved the tax-cutting Proposition 13. In the next few months, tax-and spending-cut fever swept across the nation in legislature after legislature and in local versions of Proposition 13. (In Nevada it was known as Question 6, which was approved by voters in 1978, but then voted down in the second round in 1980, so the state constitution wasn't amended.)

State lawmakers found themselves scraping for money to try to save services that voters still expected. The presidential primary in Nevada, which had been projected to cost less than $100,000, ended up costing nearly $200,000. The state held one more presidential primary in 1980, in which Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Edward Kennedy and Republican Ronald Reagan defeated George H. W. Bush. Then state lawmakers decided to save the money, turning selection of presidential candidates back to parties and their caucuses and conventions, which parties fund instead of the taxpayers.

There matters stood until 1995, when the legislature enacted a law allowing political parties to decide whether to hold a primary. Democrats opted out. Republicans decided to use the primary. A novel development accompanied this primary; it was conducted by mail in the first statewide mail election in Nevada history. Robert Dole won in a field of eleven Republican candidates, but even given the ease of voting, turnout was only 49.4 percent. The primary cost $555,483.01 (though there was some dispute over what expenses were allowable to county governments).

At the 1999 legislature, an effort to join another attempt at a regional primary day foundered when the senate approved the state's participation, but the assembly's budget committee killed it. Nevada was the fifth state (of the eight states planned) to reject participation—only Colorado, Utah and Wyoming joined it.

Over the years, the state's various exercises with presidential primaries have shown that many factors influence them. A state need not have a presidential primary to participate in a "Super Tuesday" election. Nevada's greatest success in this kind of maneuver came in 1984 when it held caucuses instead of a primary on the same day as caucuses and primaries in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and Washington.

Another factor is the intent of legislators in creating presidential primaries. If the goal is to provide representation for Nevada voters, policy decisions will be different than if the goal is to make a splash nationally or promote Western issues. And this last goal is difficult to define. For instance, state legislators long took it as given that if Nevada participates in a regional primary, it should be with other intermountain states. But more recently, legislators have said they believe Nevada, as the nation's fifth most urban state (nearly all the state's voters live in two metro areas), has more in common with California or Pacific Coast states than with other Western states such as Wyoming.

Legislators must also know whether their enactments comply with the rules of political parties. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that national party rules on how states select delegates are binding. This was a consideration when the 1999 legislature was deciding Nevada's participation in the eight-state regional primary day on March 10, a date that violated party rules designed to prevent selecting delegates far ahead of the emergence of the year's issues. Had Nevada joined the primary day, its Democratic delegates would have been penalized at their national convention, defeating the whole purpose of enhancing the consideration of Western issues.

Another issue legislators must consider is whether Nevada really is better off sharing a primary day with other states. Just before the state's 1976 primary, Ken Bode wrote in the New Republic, "[Jerry] Brown's problem may not be winning Nevada, but rather making it seem that he has accomplished something if he does. There are only eleven votes at stake there; in five other primaries the same day, nearly twenty times as many delegates are on the block..." By this argument, participation with other states smothered Nevada's votes.

Finally, legislators must decide whether a presidential primary is a good idea at all. Presidential primaries have many defenders, but also many critics. Ursinus College politics professor Gerard Fitzpatrick has written, "Replacing deliberative party conventions with popular primaries has harmed political parties, the true engines of democracy, by encouraging a candidate-centered politics that emphasizes 'money, media and momentum,' which candidates acquire by beating up more on fellow party rivals than on the opposition."

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