Politics & Policy

Nevada, the Great Unknown

Ted Cruz speaks at a campaign stop in Las Vegas in December. (Ethan Miller/Getty)
Unlike the other early contests, Nevada has drawn little attention.

Nobody quite knows what is going to happen in Nevada.

The final early carve-out state, which will hold the fourth nominating contest for Republicans next Tuesday, has flummoxed observers both in and out of state.

“The thing I get most from anybody is, ‘I still don’t know who I’m going to support,’” says Cory Christensen, a Nevada Republican consultant.

Strategically, Nevada is not necessarily a make-or-break state for any candidate, so it has attracted little attention, both from the candidates and from the media. The caucuses are scheduled for just three days after the South Carolina primary, leaving little time for any candidate to change the narrative that emerges from that showdown. But the state could serve a purpose for several of the campaigns. For Cruz, it offers the opportunity to handicap Trump on issues that will resonate in other Western states. For the Rubio and Kasich campaigns, Nevada could be the opportunity to get rid of Jeb Bush once and for all.

Whereas the first three early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — were the subject of intense analysis and huge amounts of media attention, few have paid Nevada much attention until now. Though this is Nevada’s third cycle as an early state, it will be the first time its GOP race is competitive. In 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney was the clear and easy favorite, drawing on his advantage with Nevada’s Mormon population.

RELATED: South Carolina Is Key Early Test of Cruz’s Southern Strategy

What’s more, there has been no public polling since the start of 2016, and only five public polls were released in 2015. One casualty of the Nevada GOP’s caucus dysfunction in 2012 is the lack of a full list of the 33,000 Republicans who showed up to caucus that year, which makes it difficult for pollsters to weed out likely caucus-goers in a sample. That has left both political observers and campaign insiders flying blind.

Nevada Republicans and campaigns see two distinct battles taking place. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and, to a lesser degree, Ben Carson, are fighting for a certain segment of voters. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich are vying for another segment.

Nevada Republicans register little excitement around Bush. Depending how Bush finishes in South Carolina, that could pose a problem for him.

Bush, by most accounts, has the best team and operation in Nevada. His senior adviser, Ryan Erwin, is one of the top consultants in the state, and both he and the state director, Scott Scheid, worked on Romney’s campaign in 2012. Bush locked up several important endorsements early, including Senator Dean Heller, Representative Mark Amodei, and state-senate majority leader Paul Anderson, a prominent member of the LDS (Latter-Day Saints, i.e. Mormon) community.

Republicans from most campaigns speak favorably of the Bush organization, which has been in place for about a year. But Nevada Republicans register little excitement around Bush. Depending how Bush finishes in South Carolina, that could pose a problem for him.

Bush operatives believe they have the best organization in the state and believe it will overperform expectations, but they admit that they really need some momentum to seal the deal.

For Rubio’s and Kasich’s campaigns, the strength of Bush’s Nevada operation presents an opportunity. If Bush can’t do well in a state where he’s had an ace team on the ground for a year, how can he justify continuing his campaign into other states?

RELATED: Why 2016 Has You So Stressed

Kasich has had little presence in Nevada, but since his second-place showing in New Hampshire, Zachary Moyle, Kasich’s state director, says there’s been an unprecedented amount of activity in their campaign offices, with people calling to find out more about him. “Kasich is still introducing himself to people out west,” Moyle says, adding: “Whatever we end up with here is more than people gave us credit for in the beginning.”

Several Nevada Republicans not affiliated with the Kasich campaign remarked that they had been impressed with the organization Kasich had been able to mobilize in so little time.

#share#Rubio, on the other hand, has been on the ground in Nevada for quite some time. Like Bush, he has a strong consulting team, a strong list of endorsements — including Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison, an all-star in Nevada politics and also an influential member of the LDS community. His campaign says they feel good about it — though they don’t believe they need to notch a win. “I think we actually have the best organization there,” says Rubio communications director Alex Conant, pointing specifically at Bush for failing to draw a large showing at a rally in Elko last month.

RELATED: Trump Stays Strong, Bush Rises in South Carolina

Cruz has focused his effort very specifically: “We’ve been constantly trying to unite the conservative base,” says Robert Uithoven, who is heading up Cruz’s efforts in western states. Cruz has also been working to bring in Rand Paul supporters looking for a home now that Paul is no longer in the race. One of his first stops in Nevada next weekend will be Pahrump, a city an hour outside of Las Vegas with a libertarian-leaning community.

Some Paul supporters have gone over to Cruz — for instance, Carl Bunce, who was helping spearhead Paul’s effort before he dropped out. Still others have gone to Trump. But, says James Smack, a former national committeeman and Nevada GOP vice chair who backed Ron Paul in 2012 and Mike Huckabee earlier this cycle, and now backs Cruz, fewer Paul people went to Cruz than he anticipated. “Some seem like they’re pretty well disengaged,” he said.

Cruz’s most direct competition in Nevada is Trump, who pulls from the same voters as he does.

In a hiccup with the organization, Rand Paul will actually be on the ballot on caucus night, as the ballots were printed with his name and that of several other candidates who are no longer in the race. Nevada Republicans expect that to have little impact on the process as a whole, but also say Paul is likely to finish seventh out of six candidates, once all the protest votes are counted up.

Cruz’s most direct competition in Nevada is Trump, who pulls from the same voters as he does. But Ben Carson could also cut into Cruz’s vote total. Though Carson has become virtually a non-factor in the race, Nevada Republicans say he is fairly well organized in the state, where he has had an operation in place for several months now. What little of the vote he takes will likely reduce Cruz’s total.

Trump, by all accounts, is almost certainly at the top of the heap. Though there is widespread skepticism of his organization, he seems likely, as has been the case in other states, to be at the top of the polls. “Trump continues to draw the biggest crowds,” acknowledges Uithoven.

RELATED: After New Hampshire, Buckle in for a Long, Bumpy Ride

But a January statement Trump made could put him on the defensive in Nevada — if another campaign hits him on it in time. In a January interview with Field & Stream in Las Vegas, Trump was asked if he supported the federal government’s transferring ownership of public lands to the states. It’s a heated topic in Nevada: Over 80 percent of the state is public land managed by the federal government, and many Nevadans vehemently dislike the federal government’s involvement. In 2014, that tension erupted into an armed standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Trump, however, said he thought the federal government should remain in charge. “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble?” he said in the interview.

It could be a powerful hit against him in a Republican primary — not just in Nevada, but in other western states with high proportions of federal land.

#related#Still, Nevada remains the land of unknowns. A big one this year: turnout. In 2012, 33,000 people showed up to caucus. But this year, campaigns aren’t sure what they’re looking at. A more competitive race could bring out more voters. Donald Trump could bring more people into the Republican fold. But LDS voters are unlikely to turn out in the same numbers as they did in 2012 or 2008, with Romney on the ballot.

Another wild card: the Nevada Republican party. It’s hard to overstate the dysfunction of the Nevada GOP over the past several years. In 2012, it took two days for the ballots to be fully counted in Clark County, home of Las Vegas and the most populous county in the state. Campaigns say things look better this year — but it’s not a high bar.

Most Popular