A couple of years ago, after the bubble crashed, my wife and I decided to buy a condo in Vegas. There were many reasons behind that decision, but Sin City is known for delivering the unexpected. And so, political junkie that I am, I suddenly found myself eligible to participate in an early, swing-state, caucus. Las Vegas had taken me into virgin territory.
Being a caucus neophyte, I approached the matter gingerly. I called the Clark County Republican Party office seeking guidance. What happens at a caucus? How long does it run? What’s the procedure? No one possessed definitive answers to these complex questions, but we were able to determine that folks in my precinct were caucusing at a nearby High School. The doors opened at 8:00 AM, with the caucus itself slated to start at 9:00. Anyone could speak on behalf of any candidate; each speaker would have two minutes. Beyond that, things got a little vague. I pre-registered on line “to avoid the crowds” of caucus day.
I arrived at Valley High School at 9:00 AM, impressed to see a sizable packed parking lot. Perhaps these are the political activists I hear so much about, I thought. Great to see how many of them show up early on a Saturday morning. But for a group of activists, the lot seemed singularly inactive. Where were the Paulistas, gesticulating wildly to emphasize that the Fed is our enemy, while Iran is not? Where were the Romney and Gingrich surrogates deflating each other’s tires? Where were Santorum’s nattily-dressed minions? Where were the folks waving Perry and Bachmann signs, refusing to admit that their party was over? Two helpful teenagers provided the answers: the caucus was on the other side of campus. The folks parked in this lot were there for–get this–Valley High School.
I dutifully drove around the block to find the much smaller but equally pacific lot bearing two signs marked “Caucus here,” one sign for Ron Paul, and a TV truck. I entered the school cafeteria, where a helpful volunteer directed me to the table for pre-registrants. I surveyed the scene quickly: Fifty or so small tables, broken into groups, and perhaps two hundred people. No politicking as far as I could tell, no speechifying, just a room full of Americans out enjoying their morning. The young woman who checked me informed me that my precinct was convening in the gym. I thanked her for the directions. Then I told her that it was my first caucus, and asked her what the procedure was. “It’s my first caucus, too,” she said. “So I don’t know.” I thanked her again and headed to the gym.
I found groups of people sitting either in the bleachers or in chairs on the gym floor. Each group had a sign with a four-digit number–a precinct number, I presumed. I found my precinct. A gentleman with a list–the precinct captain, I guessed–checked me in. I told him that it was my first caucus, and asked him what to expect. “It’s my first caucus, too,” he said, “but I think that pretty soon we get to vote.” I thanked him for the information and struck up a conversation with some of the other voters.
A man named Steve wandered by. He wore a T-shirt with what appeared to be some sort of caucus logo and carried a clipboard, so I sensed an air of authority. “How many voters do you have?” he asked. “Fourteen,” said our captain, forgetting to count himself. Steve counted out fourteen blue ballots. “You get eight delegates and one alternate,” he said, then ran off to the next precinct.
Our captain distributed the ballots, each of which bore the names of the four remaining GOP candidates. “Now we have to select eight delegates and an alternate,” he announced. “Then we get to vote for President.” “Why don’t we just see who is not interested?” suggested the man to my right. I looked around to see if, perhaps, I might make a good delegate. I realized that I was the youngest voter in the precinct, likely by at least a decade (I’m 48), but reasoned that I could nevertheless represent the group admirably if chosen to do so.
“I’m not sure that I want to go to Tampa during the summer,” one voter mused. “Oh,” said our captain. “I don’t think we’re electing delegates for the national convention. Are we? Does anyone know?” “I would imagine that there’s some sort of state thing,” someone suggested. We agreed that that sounded right. “Does anyone know when that is? Or where?” “Probably around here somewhere,” someone suggested, “or maybe Carson City.” “My vote would be Chicago,” our captain offered, but conceding that such a venue was unlikely, he set off to ask some questions. He returned. “Someone says they think its in Reno, but they’re not sure when,” he announced to the group.
I decided that it was time to pull up a browser on my iPhone. Apparently, between today’s caucuses and the national convention, the Nevada Republican Party plans to hold a series of county conventions–sometime tentatively scheduled to fall between March 10 and March 17 at places to be determined–and a state convention in Reno in May. I suggested that perhaps we were selecting delegates to the Clark County convention. Everyone agreed that my analysis seemed plausible, but our captain went to find Steve to verify this new information.
He returned with answers. We were tasked with selecting delegates for the county convention, to be held some time in March somewhere in Clark County. Then we could vote for President. “What do the delegates do?” someone asked. “Are they bound by our votes for President?” “Is there any relationship between our votes for President and delegate?” “Are we supposed to support delegates who share our preferences for President?” Our captain looked perplexed. He set out once more in search of Steve. He returned. Delegates to the county conventions get to vote on delegates to the state convention, and on a platform, he announced.
“Does any of that have anything to do with our presidential votes?” someone asked. “Well, those are distributed proportionally,” someone else answered. We collectively deemed this answer sufficient, marked our X’s on our blue ballots, and handed them back to our captain. He sealed them in an envelope and put check marks near those of us who had agreed to serve as delegates. “Now what?” someone asked. “I think we’re done,” said our captain. We all wandered off.
I surveyed the broader scene again, this time from my vantage point as an experienced caucus-goer and a freshly minted delegate to the Clark County Republican convention. I was pleased to note that I was not the youngest person in the room, though everyone younger did seem to be either wearing a volunteer’s badge or providing mobility assistance to someone in need. Very definitely not the crowd you see at Lavo, I thought.
I found myself standing next to a guy who appeared to be about my age–one of three men in the room wearing a suit. “Are you a reporter?” he asked me. “No,” I said. “Just a voter. But I do blog from time to time.” “Same thing, these days,” he said. “Are you a reporter?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “For whom?” I asked. “From Israel,” he said, starting to edge away from me. “For Israel Hayom. I cover elections all over the world. Egypt. Tunisia.” I laughed. “Very different,” he said. “Yes,” I agreed. “No one gets shot here.” He nodded. “This is a very good thing,” he said, completing his escape.
I realized that I must have wandered into some unmarked press area, because the one other obvious reporter in the room–the one with the TV truck and camera from the local NBC affiliate–was interviewing another man in a suit. I overheard the interviewee’s bold prediction that Romney would win Nevada and then take the nomination. The reporter took this news in stride. With his interview concluded he sat back down and struck a pose that seemed to say don’t bother me. No one did.
I determined that I had learned all that I could learn, and that it was time to leave. As I turned to go, I saw Steve, standing still behind a table. I seized the opening. “So I think I’m a delegate, but I’m not sure what comes next,” I said. “Did you fill out one of these forms?” he asked, waving a form at me. “No,” I said. “But none of us did. We just put check marks near the names of folks who agreed to be delegates.” He looked concerned. “Would you like me to fill out a form?” I offered. “No,” he said. “Just give me your name.” I did. He wrote it on a yellow post-it note. “Would you like my e-mail address?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “That would be a good idea.” He handed me the post-it note. I jotted down my e-mail address and handed it back. He folded it in half and put it in his pocket. “We’ll let you know,” he said, and ran off.
I headed back to the parking lot. Looked my watch. The whole thing had taken about an hour. Grassroots democracy in action, I thought. And no one got shot. Gotta love it.