When it comes to presidential nominating contests, some states have primaries. Some states have caucuses.
But this year, Nevada has both — and neither of them should really affect the race for the Republican nomination.
If that sounds confusing (and self-defeating), that’s because it is. On Tuesday, Feb. 6, the state of Nevada will hold a primary, and there will be only one major Republican candidate on the ballot: former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Then, two days later, on Thursday, Feb. 8, the Nevada Republican Party will hold caucuses around the state — where caucusgoers will be able to vote for one of the other two remaining GOP candidates (former President Donald Trump or long-shot Texas businessman Ryan Binkley) but not for Haley.
Whoever wins the Nevada caucuses will add to their official delegate tally, moving one step closer to mathematically clinching the Republican nod. That person is almost certain to be Trump.
But the caucus winner won’t enjoy the kind of media attention and momentum boost that typically accrue to a victorious candidate, for the simple reason that he won’t have defeated (or even competed against) his last major challenger.
How did this happen?
The mess in Nevada stems from a disagreement between state Republicans and Democrats.
Caucuses are famous because of Iowa, but they also place a much higher burden on voters. To participate, caucus-goers have to show up at a certain time on a certain day, usually at night, and they have to remain at the caucus site for an extended period of time to hear speeches and go through the voting process.
In contrast, a primary is just like a regular election. The polls are open throughout the day. Voters come and cast ballots at their convenience. Then they leave. And many states now offer early voting, which further expands access.
To open things up to as many people as possible, Democrats in the Nevada legislature passed a law in 2021 that moved the entire state from a caucus system to a primary system. The Democratic National Committee — which had been seeking to give more diverse states a bigger role in the party’s nominating process — rewarded Nevada Democrats with the second slot on its 2024 primary calendar, after South Carolina.
That means Nevada will hold a normal Democratic primary on Feb. 6, which President Biden is expected to win handily.
Nevada Republicans, however, did not want to play along. After then-Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, signed a slew of additional election-related bills into law — one that created all-mail elections; another that expanded voter registration — the Nevada GOP filed a 2022 lawsuit arguing that the state was infringing on its right to decide how to pick its own presidential nominee.
A court eventually agreed that Nevada couldn’t force the GOP to use its new primary system — but also warned that the GOP wouldn’t be able to force Nevada to cancel its primaries.
So in the end, the Nevada Republican Party decided to drop its lawsuit and set up its own caucuses to choose delegates.
Why Haley and Trump aren’t on the same ballot
As part of its protest against the state-run primary system, the Nevada GOP declared that any candidate who put their name on the primary ballot would not be eligible to take part in its caucuses.
Given Trump’s grip on the state GOP — he easily won the 2016 caucuses there, and his name has long adorned a Las Vegas hotel — Haley’s campaign opted last October to forgo the delegate hunt and “compete” in the primary instead. At the time, several other Republican candidates were set to appear on the primary ballot; all of them, including former Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, have since exited the race.
As a result, Haley could be announced as the winner of the Nevada primary two days before Trump is announced as the winner of the Nevada caucuses. Haley’s only real competition in the primary is Nevada’s “none of these” option — which is what the state’s Republican governor, Joe Lombardo, says he’ll choose before voting for Trump two days later in the caucuses. (Republicans are allowed to participate in both events.)
Because more people tend to participate in primaries than caucuses, it’s possible that Haley will emerge from Nevada with more votes than Trump.
“That is not nothing,” wrote Josh Putnam of FrontloadingHQ.com, a site that details the party nominating processes. “But how much that particular something is worth is hard to gauge.”
If, however, Trump supporters flood Tuesday’s primary and follow Lombardo’s lead, it’s also possible that Haley will receive fewer votes than “none of these.” The latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll shows Trump (79%) leading Haley (14%) by 65 percentage points nationwide.