Have you ever argued politics with friends?
If the answer is yes, then you’ve caucused.
In the end, that is basically what presidential caucuses are all about. When Republicans gather on Feb. 4 at 15 schools around the Truckee Meadows, they will break up into small groups and talk politics. Democrats, who already have their candidate, did it on Jan. 20, but their caucuses were mostly party business this time around.
With the exception of three presidential primary elections for each party (1912, 1976, and 1980 for the Democrats, and 1976, 1980 and 1998 for the Republicans), caucuses are the way Nevada Democrats and Republicans have decided what presidential candidates to support at their national conventions in every presidential election since statehood. At one time, they were dead serious—in 1878, the Storey County Republican Central Committee voted to require that Republican voters would be permitted to participate only after averring “that he voted for … [Republican presidential nominee Rutherford] Hayes … in 1876, or would have done so had he been a qualified elector.”
In the days before radio, movies and television, caucuses—like all politics—were considered entertainment. These days, though, some people consider caucuses an annoyance.
“The caucuses are the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen,” wrote a reader of Sean Cary’s column (“Nevada’s caucuses, part 1,” Jan. 5) from behind reader comment anonymity. “You have to wander around for hours trying to figure out what is happening and then you have to sit and debate with people that have no idea what they are talking about. I am extremely unhappy that we cannot go down and submit our vote for who we want to go to the primary.”
However, those who oppose caucuses have not been noted for volunteering for tax increases to pay for presidential primary elections. Caucuses are paid for by the political parties. So until the recession is over, and the Nevada Legislature undergoes a transformation and begins spending decadently on luxuries like democracy, caucuses are here to stay.
Even if it’s not entertainment anymore, it is frequently a family matter, and it’s also a way for people to meet their neighbors because each caucus represents a voting precinct. To put it another way, it represents a neighborhood. Caucuses also create business opportunities and set in motion a process that has been known to create enduring friendships as participants work their way through the process.
“I like Ron Paul because he stands for getting rid of the IRS,” said Jennifer Haffke while standing with several of her neighbors in a circle on the floor of Reed High School’s gymnasium in January 2008, the first time Nevada held an early caucus. For her, it was a family affair. She was there with a couple of members of her family and several other people who live in her precinct. Her son, J.R., chaired the caucus and was elected a delegate to the county convention. Her husband, Rich, said, “I would normally vote in a primary election, so this just seemed to me to be the same kind of thing.”
Caucus discussions of issues like the Internal Revenue Service are more common than they once were. In fact, in precinct caucuses at one time, the presidential race was often ignored in favor of electing delegates to the party’s county convention—without discussion of who those delegates would support for president.
That probably wasn’t the case on the Democratic side in 1960 in Washoe County. The county Democrats were split wide open as Gov. Grant Sawyer and his supporters, led by Sawyer lieutenant Charles Springer, worked to guarantee national convention delegates for John Kennedy. Party veterans under the sway of U.S. Sens. Alan Bible and Howard Cannon, organized by Clifford Devine, wanted Lyndon Johnson. Two competing sets of precinct caucuses and county Democratic conventions, each claiming legitimacy, were held before the Kennedy/Sawyer people prevailed.
At the caucuses these days, voters debate both issues—national and local—and candidates. Which candidate will have a better chance of beating the other party’s candidate? How will Yucca Mountain or grazing fees play in the candidates’ considerations? Can the presidential race be used to stop the latest war? Will this candidate do better in Nevada than that one? What is more important, the issues or winning?
It’s a multi-stage process. At the caucuses in a presidential year, participants declare their support for candidates and delegates are elected to the Republican and Democratic county conventions. At the county conventions, delegates are elected to the state conventions. And the state conventions choose delegates to the national conventions, where the party presidential and vice presidential nominees are chosen. At each stage, adjustments are made to the rising or falling fortunes of various presidential candidates.
This year, going to the national convention means going to Tampa, Fla., for Republicans or Charlotte, N.C., for Democrats. It is not unknown for caucus newcomers to go the whole way, as Terry Ann Stone did.
It wasn’t a family thing for Stone in 1984, though it gave her an informal extended family. She was a speech and hearing therapist for the Washoe County School District, rebuilding her life after troubled times and seeking some outside activities.
“I liked Gary Hart, and I was at a time in my life when I was going through a divorce, and I was a single mom living at home, and I just needed to stand up for something, and so, I went to the caucus.”
She chose a propitious time. Hart had unexpectedly come in second in the Iowa caucuses and parlayed that semi-upset into a win in the New Hampshire primary. Suddenly, he was winning everywhere—“prairie fire” became the cliché as his wins swept across the nation.
Caucuses can be complicated, particularly on the Democratic side, but there are people who know the procedures and walk caucus-goers through the process, and it usually becomes easier as the meeting goes on. In Nevada, Stone and others navigated the rules, and their candidate won the Nevada caucuses over Vice President Walter Mondale. Stone was one of Hart’s county convention delegates, then won election as a delegate to the state convention. At the state convention, she was elected an alternate delegate to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
Midway through the national convention, a Nevada delegate got injured, allowing Stone to leave the gallery and go down on the floor in time to participate in the voice vote that made U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro the nominee for vice president (“Party animals,” RN&R, Aug. 14, 1996).
She stayed involved in the party, was later elected Democratic state vice chair, which made her a “superdelegate” to the 1988 national convention in Atlanta—meaning she got to go without facing election. In one high point, a photo of her and 1988 vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen appeared on the front page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It all began at her precinct caucus, and it still surprises her. She says now that she had not originally been savvy enough to know that precinct caucuses led to so much, or that the caucuses were where one started to, say, become a state party official.
“I didn’t even know that was the process to do that,” she said.
In addition, she didn’t realize that a rank-and-file person could go to a national presidential nominating convention.
“I thought it was just well-heeled, influential people who went to those things,” she said.
She also found that caucuses are a good way to network.
“There was just a lot of connecting and some of that transferred over to other types of relationships in business, other types of organizations,” she said. “It’s a good thing.”
Even if Nevada held a presidential primary, caucuses would still be needed. National convention delegates have to come from somewhere, as Patty Cafferata knows. She has participated in a variety of configurations of caucuses—both presidential and non-presidential caucuses, presidential caucuses that stood alone and others conducted in conjunction with presidential primaries.
For her, politics was definitely a family affair when she attended her first precinct meeting in 1974. Her mother, a local businessperson, was active in Republican politics. It was a non-presidential year, but caucuses are needed in those years, too, for party matters.
“In those days the caucuses were held at people’s houses and it was at someone’s house and we voted for people to be on the central committee and to be delegates to the county convention,” Cafferata said. The central committee is the governing body of the Washoe County Republican Party.
There was a handful of people at the meeting, held in the living room. In a time of transition in women’s roles and the rise of women in politics, Cafferata whimsically recalls getting elected to the Washoe County Republican Convention. “And I won my delegate position by one vote and only because I took my husband to nominate me and vote for me, and my opponent was Olive Hill.”
She won because Hill voted for her. Laughing at the memory, she recalls, “That’s what women were told to do in the old days. … You always voted for the other person. And I won by one vote. I voted for me.” Gales of laughter.
Hill didn’t hold a grudge. That’s not politics at the close range of caucuses. In fact, Hill later worked for Cafferata’s mother, who was elected to the U.S. House in 1982.
That was Cafferata’s first caucus. She later became prominent in politics. She was elected to the legislature, then won the post of Nevada state treasurer and, in 1986, was the GOP candidate for governor. She has been a district attorney in several Nevada counties.
Her first presidential caucuses were in 1976, when the state held a primary election won by Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Jerry Brown. She believes that by then the caucuses were being held in public places—at Wooster High School, in her case.
Though Reagan won the primary over incumbent Gerald Ford, a primary victory is not always a guarantee of success in electing delegates to the national convention. But in Nevada that year, it was. Reagan’s friend, U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, and his organization made sure that there was no gain for Ford from the primary results to the delegate elections, though by the time of the state convention it was clear that the president was in the dominant position. Although there was little discussion of the presidential race at the caucus level, it was pretty clear that Nevada was a Reagan state, and the primary results were honored by the time the process reached the state convention.
“People ran for delegate pledged to a certain candidate,” Cafferata said. “We used the proportion of votes that Reagan got and Ford got in the primary” in deciding how to allocate the national convention votes.
Four years later, Cafferata ran Reagan’s 1980 presidential primary campaign in Washoe County.
In 1992, she recalls, Cafferata missed her precinct meeting because she was at law school. It was a bad year to miss—Vice President George Bush and evangelist Pat Robertson were competing for the presidential nomination, and dramatic events unfolded in Washoe County. Cafferata happened to be home on the weekend of the Washoe County Republican Convention and she attended as an observer, watching as the results of the caucuses unfolded.
“Robertston people were well organized and took over the county convention,” Cafferata recalls. “They used walkie talkies to stay in touch. They voted everyone out of the central committee and replaced them.”
By the time she attended her most recent presidential caucus in 2008, Cafferata’s precinct caucus was held at Reno High School. It was the same size, though, as that 1974 session—a half-dozen people.
“I chose not to be a delegate to the [county] convention because other people wished to do it,” she said. “So I ran as an alternate and was elected.” She was also elected to the central committee.
She’s aware of the sentiment for a presidential primary election, but her conservative instincts take over.
“I would not support the state spending money on a party nomination election” for president, she said.
At caucuses, both Stone and Cafferata met people in their neighborhoods they didn’t know.
For Stone, no longer in politics, there is a lasting benefit. As she went through the process, she met several people who became very important to her.
“That experience led to very close friendships that are still ongoing,” she said “They’ve been my best friends since then.”