Nevada's First in the West caucuses are a relatively new step in the presidential nominating process, having been introduced in 2008.  The Silver State does not get as many visits or as much attention as Iowa and New Hampshire, but as the third contest on the Democrats' 2020 calendar, Nevada could give a timely boost to the candidate or candidates who do well here.


After the cold and snow of Iowa and New Hampshire, the now thinned field of Democratic candidates came West to the desert state of Nevada.  Thirteen Democrats met the requirements to participate in the Feb. 22, 2020 Nevada caucuses and appeared on the caucus ballot (+), but six of these had ended their campaigns.  On the Republican side, in a nod to the incumbent president, Nevada was one of several states not holding a nominating contest; the party's state central committee voted on Sept. 7, 2019 to scrap the caucuses. 

The Silver State

With a population of 3.1 million (>), Nevada has been one of the fastest growing states. According to the Census Bureau from July 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019 the population grew by 1.7%, the second fastest of any state after Idaho (>).  Most of the population is concentrated in the Las Vegas area; the city itself has a population of 641,676, while Clark County has a population of 2.2 million (>).  The state boasts a diverse population.  The Census Bureau July 1, 2019 estimates show: White alone 48.7%, Hispanic or Latino 29.0%, Black or African American alone 10.1%, and Asian alone 8.7% (>).  According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as of Sept. 30, 2017 there are 218,406 veterans living in Nevada or 10.35% of the adult population (>); a Nov. 2018 Newsweek analysis found Nevada ranked 16th in terms of veterans as a share of the population 18 years and older (>).  According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are 183,638 members in the state in 339 congregations, or 6.13% of the population, which is the fourth highest concentration in the 50 states (>).  

The Nevada economy was very hard hit by collapse of the housing bubble.  According to an ABC News report from Jan. 2011, Nevada had the highest state foreclosure rate of any state for four years in a row.  By the end of 2019 the foreclosure rate had improved significantly and Nevada was ninth in the country at 0.42% (>).  As of Dec. 2019 the unemployment rate stood at 3.8% (>), 36th in the country.  Tourism and the gambling industry are cornerstones of the Nevada economy.  Major issues include water and immigration.  Second Amendment rights are important in the state, but countering that Las Vegas was also the scene of the largest mass shooting in American history in Oct. 2017.  The proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository (>), while on hold, remains an issue (>); in 2018 the Department of Energy secretly shipped 1/2 metric ton of plutonium to the Nevada National Security Site (>).

Nevada has long had a libertarian reputation (although in Nov. 2012 Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius pointed out that other states were moving ahead of Nevada in areas such as legalizing gay marriage and marijuana >).  Countering the libertarian tendencies, Mormons have a fairly conservative set of values.

As of Jan. 2020, 72.3% of the 1,601,889 active registered voters in Nevada lived in Clark County (Las Vegas area), another 17.7% in Washoe County (Reno) and the remaining 10% are scattered throughout the rest of the state (>).  610,911 (38.1%) were Democrats, 527,641 (32.9%) Republicans, 362,855 (22.7%) non-partisan, and the rest other parties.  In general election contests for president, Nevada has been a battleground state, backing George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 but Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

An Eventful Pre-Campaign: 2018 1

Democrats enjoyed a very successful 2018 midterm cycle (+).  At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen (D) defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R), who had been backed by President Trump, by 50.4% to 45.4%, and Democrats kept the balance of the House delegation at 3D, 1R by holding on to the two open seats.  At the state level, Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak (D) defeated Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) by 49.4% to 45.3% to succeed Gov. Brian Sandoval (R).  Democrats picked up  a couple of seats in both the state Senate and state House ensuring a trifecta.  Seventeen Democratic women were elected to the state Assembly, and women comprise more than half of the Democratic caucus.  In addition to the Governor's seat, Democrats also won four of five other statewide races including very tight ones for Attorney General and Treasurer:

Lt. Governor – Kate Marshall (D) def. Michael Roberson (R) by 50.4% to 43.7% 
Attorney General – Aaron D. Ford (D) def. Wesley Duncan (R) by 47.2% to 46.8%
Treasurer – Zach Conine (D) def. Bob Beers (R) by 47.7% to 47.1%
Controller – Catherine Byrne (D) def. inc. Ron Knecht (R) by 50.6% to 46.2%

They narrowly lost for Secetary of State as incumbent Barbara Cegavske (R) defeated Nelson Araujo (D) by 48.9% to 48.2%.

On the Trail in 2019-20: Finding and Appealing to the Voters...

In accordance with DNC rules changes following the work of the Unity Reform Commission, the Nevada Democratic State Party sought to make the caucuses more open and accessible to voters.  Although a proposal for virtual caucuses was dropped due to security concerns, the party developed a plan which called for four days of early early voting from Feb. 15-18, in addition to the in-person caucuses to be held on Saturday Feb. 22.  Shelby Wiltz, the Nevada Democratic State Party 2020 Caucus Director, led preparations for the caucuses, working for almost a year starting in Mar. 2019. 

Fourteen Democratic campaigns established presences in Nevada during the course of the caucus campaign, but by the time of the caucuses there were only six candidates actively competing (the seventh, Gabbard, was focusing elsewhere).  As they built their caucus campaigns, candidates appealed to various constituencies around the state, such as Latinos, workers on the Las Vegas strip, veterans, and rural voters.  Unions were key players (+), particularly Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents 60,000 workers in Las Vegas and Reno, including those at casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.  The Culinary Workers remained neutral, but late in the campaign issued a scorecard which took a swipe at Sanders (+).  In terms of endorsements, the Democratic Governor and two Democratic U.S. Senators did not endorse.  While some state legislators endorsed, many more did not; the relative numbers were much lower than in Iowa and New Hampshire.  Biden could point to noteworthy endorsements, including two of the three Democratic members of Congress and the lieutenant governor.

Nevada did not get nearly as many candidate visits as Iowa and New Hampshire, but there was a steady trickle.  On the eve of the caucuses, The Nevada Independent's candidate tracker showed that the surviving candidates had each made between nine and 11 visits to the state.  The signature event of the cycle was the state party's First in the West, which drew 14 candidates to Las Vegas on Nov. 17, 2019.  Major multi-candidate events, all in Las Vegas, included:

  Apr. 27, 2019 - National Forum on Wages and Working People (SEIU / CAP Action Fund).
  Aug. 3, 2019 - AFSCME 2020 Public Service Forum.
  Oct. 2, 2019 - Giffords and March For Our Lives Presidential Forum on Gun Safety.
  Oct. 26, 2019 - People's Presidential Forum.
  Nov. 17, 2020 - Nevada State Democratic Party First in the West.

  Jan. 14-15, 2020 - Native American Presidential Forum 2020.
  Feb. 15, 2020 - Clark County Democrats' Kick-Off to Caucus.
  Feb. 16, 2020 - "Moving America Forward" Presidential Candidate Forum.

Six candidates participated in the NBC News and MSNBC debate at Paris Theater on Feb. 19.

The campaign in Nevada was nowhere near as visible as in Iowa and New Hampshire.  There were not the yard signs in many people's front yards as in Iowa or on major thoroughfares as in New Hampshire.  Driving around Las Vegas, one did see Steyer ads in the rotation on electronic billboards around the city.  The air war was fully engaged; there were broadcast ads from the campaigns and others; The Nevada Independent identified seven outside groups running TV or radio ads in the closing stretch of the campaign (>). 

After the Iowa caucuses, the campaigns bolstered their Nevada staff with staffers who had worked in Iowa.  Following the debacle in reporting of the results of the Feb. 3  Iowa caucuses, there was considerable nervousness about what might happen in Nevada, but the state party vowed it would avoid such problems. 

The expectation heading into Caucus Day was that Sanders would win; he led in polls, trailed by the other candidates who were grouped fairly closely together. 

Early voting from Feb. 15-18 drew almost 75,000 participants.  The Feb. 19 debate proved to be a lively affair, most memorable for sharp attacks on Michael Bloomberg, who was making his first appearance on the debate stage but not competing in Nevada.  Participation on Caucus Day, Feb. 22, was very small, about 30,000 people.  Total turnout of 104,833 fell between the record 117,599 set in 2008 and the "about 84,000" in 2016.

Although Republicans scrapped their caucuses, President Trump, as he did in Iowa and New Hampshire, made a show of force, holding a rally in Las Vegas on Feb. 21, just ahead of voting. 

Sanders achieved a solid win, indeed this proved to be the high point of his campaign [results and reactions].  2020 will likely be the last time Nevada uses caucuses as part of its delegate selection process; following the caucuses both former U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Nevada Democratic Chair William McCurdy II advocated for changing to a primary process while keeping Nevada first in the West or in the nation.

Developing a Tradition: Nevada Caucuses in 2008, 2012 and 2016

The first early Nevada presidential caucuses were held in 2008.  The Democratic National Committee was seeking to diversify the beginning of its nominating process; then Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid played a key role in advocating for the early caucus.  On Aug. 19, 2006 at its summer meeting in Chicago the full DNC voted to add the Nevada caucuses to the pre-window period; the date was set for Jan. 19, 2008.  Nevada Republicans, not wanting to be left on the sidelines, approved a move to Jan. 19 in a near unanimous vote during their April 21, 2007 meeting in Carson City.  Republicans and Democrats again held early caucuses in 2012 and 2016, but on different dates.  

The Nevada caucuses do not have the long tradition of New Hampshire or Iowa.  Democrats led in the creation of the First in the West caucuses, and Nevada Democrats thus had a significant head start in preparing for their caucuses; there was much more activity on the Democratic side.  117,599 Democrats participated in the Democratic precinct caucuses, double the numbers predicted, and Sen. Hillary Clinton edged out a win over Sen. Barack Obama by 50.8% to 45.0% (+).  Only 43,578 Republicans participated in the GOP precinct caucuses, delivering a solid win to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; he obtained 51% of the vote to 13% each for Rep. Ron Paul and Sen. John McCain.  Many observers attributed Romney's win to high turnout among Mormons (+).

In 2012 the two parties diverged on the dates (1, 2, 3); Democrats held non-competitive caucuses on Jan. 21.  President Obama was unchallenged, but more than 12,000 people gathered at 118 caucus locations and 1,553 precincts (+).  Nevada Republicans held their precinct caucuses on Feb. 4, making it the fourth GOP contest after the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary.  From the beginning former Gov. Mitt Romney was considered the favorite in Nevada; he had won the 2008 caucuses and it was expected he would benefit from the state's high Mormon population.  Rep. Ron Paul achieved one of his better showings in 2008 here, and his campaign built a strong organization for 2012.  Gov. Rick Perry had the support of Gov. Brian Sandoval, but he bowed out before the South Carolina primary.  Just 32,894 people participated in the Feb. 4 Nevada Republican caucuses; to put that in perspective, as of January 2012 there were 400,310 active registered Republicans in Nevada.  As expected, Romney finished first with 50.0%; Newt Gingrich came in second at 21.1% and Rand Paul was third at 18.7%.

Heading into 2016, some Republicans sought to change the caucus system to a primary election.  On May 12, 2015 the state Senate passed S.B. 421, which would have changed the primary date from June to the last Tuesday in February, by a party line vote of 11 to 9.  A.B. 302, introduced on March 13, 2015, would have allowed political parties to hold a presidential primary election, with the cost to be borne by the state.  However the Legislature failed to act before it adjourned on June 2.

The two parties again held their contests on different dates.  Nevada was the third contest for Democrats after Iowa and New Hampshire (+); the Democratic caucuses took place Saturday, Feb. 20, ahead of the Feb. 27 South Carolina Democratic primary.  For Republicans, South Carolina's traditional early primary took precedence.  The Republican caucuses occurred on Tuesday, Feb. 23, three days after the February 20 South Carolina Republican primary.

> About 84,000 people participated in the Feb. 20 Democratic caucuses, significantly fewer than the 117,599 who participated in 2008.  Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finished ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders by 52.2% to 46.9% of county convention delegates (+).  County conventions were held on April 2.  The state convention on May 14 drew national headlines when it devolved into chaos (+).  According to the state party, "Based on the county convention results, Bernie Sanders had 2,124 delegate slots to the State Convention and Hillary Clinton had 1,722 delegate slots to the State Convention."  However, Clinton filled 98 percent of her available delegate slots at the State Convention, while Sanders only filled 78 percent of his available delegate slots.  Sanders supporters charged misconduct by the chair, but the net result was 20 national convention delegates for Clinton to 15 for Sanders.

> Nevada Republicans reported record turnout of 75,000 voters, a vast improvement upon 2012.  Five candidates were actively competing.  Donald J. Trump won his third straight early contest, by 45.9% to 23.9% for Sen. Marco Rubio and 21.38% to Sen. Ted Cruz.

1. A parenthetical note.  In 2018 Nevada Republicans made an effort to attract the 2020 Republican National Convention to Las Vegas; President Trump reportedly was interested in the idea, but the notion of holding the convention in "sin city" apparently did not sit well with advisors and the prize went to Charlotte, NC.  Las Vegas also made a strong bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Results and Reactions




Candidate Visits - Democracy in Action is not tracking candidate visits this cycle.  Recommended: The Nevada Independent's Presidential Candidate Tracker.


Key Dates


Nov. 17, 2019 - NV Democrats' First in the West

Feb. 15-18 - Early voting in the Nevada Democratic Precinct Caucuses.

Feb. 19 - NBC News and MSNBC Debate in Las Vegas.

Feb. 22 (Sat.) - Nevada Democratic Precinct Caucuses.

Apr. 18 - County Conventions.

May 30 - State Convention.

Delegate Selection Plan [PDF]

Sept. 7 2019 - State Central Committee votes to scrap the caucuses.