What to Watch in Nevada’s Weird Election Week

The bifurcated Republican presidential nomination contest that is unfolding this week in Nevada — a nonbinding primary Tuesday and a caucus Thursday — was orchestrated by Republican leaders to assure another delegate victory for former President Donald Trump in his march to the nomination.

Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, is not even spending time or money in Nevada, focusing her attention on the primary later this month in South Carolina, her home state. Indeed, the contest has given Trump’s last remaining rival a chance to borrow a phrase from the former president.

Nevada is “rigged for Trump,” Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, told reporters in a conference call Monday, adding: “We have not spent a dime nor an ounce of energy on Nevada.”

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Given all that — and the fact that Trump has already piled up big victories in Iowa and New Hampshire — the Nevada contests aren’t expected to be any kind of a turning point in a race that many Republicans already think is all but over. Polls suggest Trump has a commanding lead over Haley in South Carolina.

But it does have some capacity to reveal more about voters — and not just any voters, but swing-state voters. And it may not be a total washout for Haley.

Perhaps more than that, the race in Nevada has emerged as an object lesson of what Trump — who has spent years accusing Democrats of tampering with election rules — has done, in the courts and through aggressive use of party rules, to assure that he wins his party’s nomination. (There is also a Democratic primary, but President Joe Biden has the field pretty much to himself).

Here are some things to watch for:

Two contests?

Yes, indeed. There is a primary, as mandated by the state Legislature. But the Republican Party challenged that in court and won the right to hold its own party caucuses to select the delegates Nevada will send to the Republican convention this summer. Hence, a primary one day and a caucus two days later.

The primary is by mail and in-person and expected to draw thousands of voters.

By contrast, caucuses are tightly controlled affairs and will draw a much smaller universe of voters. They were set up and are being run by Trump’s allies in the Nevada Republican Party.

Watch the first contest as a measure of how much popular support Haley can drum up without spending much money or campaigning. But watch the second one if you want to keep track of what really matters: the delegates Trump keeps rolling up on his way to the nomination.

Dare we say rigged?

That is what Haley’s campaign called it Monday. “And to be fair, it is rigged,” said Rebecca Gill, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It was set up to deliver all the convention votes to Donald Trump.” Under Republican Party rules, candidates can participate in either the primary or the caucus, not both. Trump’s name will appear in the caucuses, and Haley is on the primary ballot, in the calculation that she could never overcome the Trump forces in a caucus.

It seems important to point out here that while this contest is being described as rigged — meaning, in effect, that its outcome is predetermined — there is nothing illegal about what the Trump campaign is doing. It has used the courts and its allies in the party to bend rules in its favor. That is what campaigns do.

And Trump’s campaign disputed the idea that it was manipulating the outcome, noting that the caucus system had been created by Nevada Republican leaders. “I can’t help it if in Nevada, the vast majority of Republicans are working for and voting for Donald Trump and not Nikki Haley,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior campaign adviser to Trump. “Just because that is the way the system is doesn’t constitute anything but that is the way the system is. It’s really shame on them for saying that.”

Is there any possibility for surprises?

Get ready for a blizzard of numbers from the Haley and Trump camps to try to present the results as a victory. Yes, Trump will capture the delegates, but Haley conceivably could walk away with more actual votes Tuesday than Trump gets in the caucus Thursday. That’s because more Nevada residents will almost certainly be participating in this primary than will make the effort to go to a caucus.

Should Haley get more votes, she could certainly present this as a victory, a sign of her popularity with a broader electorate. After deflating losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, she is understandably on the hunt for even a glimmer of good news that might help her rally support in her home state.

The Trump forces are not leaving this to chance: They are encouraging voters to show up at the primaries and vote for “None of these candidates,” an actual line on the ballot. Should Haley lose to the “none of these candidates” line Tuesday — well, that’s another rough outcome for her.

And either way, it’s the 26 delegates that matter.

The future of Nevada

Political leaders and analysts have long tried to elevate the importance of Nevada in the presidential selection process. Jon Ralston, the longtime Nevada political commentator, calls it the “#wematter” state. The truth is, the bifurcated system dropped Nevada down a few steps on the #wematter ladder of political importance.

“It has severely compromised the importance of Nevada in this year’s nomination process,” Gill said. “Regular run-of-the-mill voters in Nevada are accustomed to being inundated with advertisements this time of year. We haven’t hard anything from anybody.”

But rest assured, Nevadans: That is unlikely to last. Nevada might not be important in choosing the two party nominees. But it is one of a small handful of critical states that will decide the general election in November. Biden won Nevada in 2020 with 50.1% of the vote.

Look no further than who has been in Las Vegas over these past two weeks: Biden and Trump.

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