Dread and Disunity in Las Vegas: A Report from the Nevada Caucuses
By Tom ZoellnerFebruary 24, 2020
First there was the rain. Dark skies around 9 a.m. had opened a rare February downpour in the Mojave Desert, swelling the city’s gutters, closing most of the Strip casino swimming pools and breathing life into the old political joke that anything less than perfect sunlight is “bad Democrat weather” for a numerically dominant party that has long-standing problems shooing people out to the polls. In the warmth of the gymnasium, site leader Yesenia Moya put a bullhorn to her lips and gamely issued instructions to the three precincts with actual citizens in their chairs. There were 37 of them. About as many television and print reporters from New York, Los Angeles, and London boxed them in on two sides, like eager scientists gazing at lab rats.
“Precinct 4387, are you done aligning?” Moya called out, as the 20 caucusgoers — the vast majority of them under 30 years old — held paper ballots aloft in their chosen spots, each marked with a favored candidate’s name on a sheet of paper taped down on the basketball parquet.
“Can everyone agree that Bernie Sanders has 13 people here in person?” Moya called. Nodding all around. A clear blowout, even in a tiny slice of Nevada, was in the making. One lonely partisan for Tom Steyer jiggled her foot. She was allowed to make a speech to try to sway the crowd, and Moya held up the bullhorn for her. “He’s the only one for reparations for black folks,” said the woman, whose name was Genesis Wheeler. “That’s it.” Nobody budged.
Ten minutes later, it was over at Rancho High School. The high school volunteers sent in the results to the Democratic Party’s central command at the Rio Hotel using Google forms on iPad. Nobody was supposed to call it an “app” for fear of comparisons to the recent fiasco in Iowa where the results were delayed for days and were considered suspect thanks to a technical malfunction. Nevada was itching to prove itself competent, while the question of its enfranchised citizens caring enough to make the caucuses meaningful remained up in the air.
A sense of dread seemed to permeate the frenetic events leading to Saturday’s live caucus gatherings. About 77,000 people — in a state with a population of over three million — had shown up in the four-day early period, as candidates harped on the message that the only force that could defeat Donald Trump was a replication of the Obama coalition that roused itself to the polls and unified the party’s fractious branches 12 years ago. “If you haven’t been paying attention, and I hope you have been, Trump is doing well,” said Steyer at a small union event at Dona Maria’s Tamales. “He can win … If we turn out, we win. If we don’t turn out, we’re screwed. That’s 2020 in a nutshell. It’s a show-up, don’t-blow-it moment for the Democratic Party.”
Steyer, a 62-year-old hedge fund billionaire who has never held public office, was wearing a blue shirt rolled to the elbows and a bright red Scotch plaid tie. His eyes blazed; profanity littered his caffeinated speech. “We have to kick his ass on the economy! He is lying his ass off! It’s the Mar-a-Lago economy!”
No specific policy pledges from Tom Steyer tonight, except for one of posterior violence: “I promise you I can kick his ass!” He paused, then pumped a fist. “Bring on the questions, goddammit!”
Next up was the boyish former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who repeated Steyer’s dire formulation in calmer terms: “So much depends on us getting this right.” About 20 volunteers from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees sipped their Cokes and discreetly ate corn chips as he spoke.
They were the most precious commodity on caucus eve — the outwardly uncommitted choosers who could break in a certain direction, embody that ineffable quicksilver called “momentum,” tell a few neighbors, create some organic buzz, and push their little precinct in a direction that could add enough delegates to the county conventions to force the big interests — heavy donors, that is, in the stratosphere of New York and Washington — to scramble their calculations, adjust their expectations, and perhaps settle on a different human vessel of a candidate to embody their hopes.
These patrons of Dona Maria were up for grabs. AFSCME had deliberately not made an endorsement, following the lead of the legendarily machine-like Culinary Workers 226, the political colossus of the Las Vegas Strip, which had painstakingly built a health care network for its bartenders, cooks, wait staff, housekeepers — the army of hospitality staff that shoulders the sweat-and-grease labor of the state’s $67-billion gaming industry — and was terrified that Bernie Sanders’s “Medicare-for-All” plan was going to rip it all apart. Their non-endorsement had come with some quiet words of disparagement for Sanders — along with some nasty words in return from some Sanders supporters — which threatened to dent his obvious lead.
The wooing of these uncommitted few had a steep price tag. A preliminary total of $25.8 million in saturation advertising had been dumped into the state, which, given the eventual turnout total of 100,000, translated into $258 spent for each and every voter, and this was a low estimate, not including the money spent on professional campaign staff, or what Mike Bloomberg (who was not even on the ballot) spent for a huge video billboard on the Strip to flash messages ridiculing the incumbent: Donald Trump lost the popular vote. Donald Trump cheats at golf. Donald Trump went broke running a casino. Donald Trump eats burnt steak. Pete Buttigieg paid for more than a hundred staffers to open 12 offices, all for the sake of squeezing out roughly 10,000 votes for a third place finish. At many caucus sites, the number of paid staffers for Tom Steyer — most of them imported from outside the state — outnumbered the treasured Nevada citizens who showed up.
Nevada did not used to exist on the map of presidential politics. Then two things happened in the last decade: a migrant wave of Californians seeking cheaper housing streamed into Clark and Washoe counties, tipping the politics from rural sagebrush conservatism more in the direction of urban liberalism; and Senator Harry Reid — an éminence grise of local clout — was able to convince the Democratic National Committee to position the Nevada caucuses on the calendar right after the twin hammerblows of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, long regarded as exceptionally white and therefore unrepresentative of large segments of the electorate.
Reid muscled the change through in the shadows in 2005, arguing internally at the DNC that Nevada was a small Western crucible where candidates would face their first major city and media market in Las Vegas, and an in-person grilling by minority voters, low-wage workers, and union members — what used to be the heart and soul of the party before the college-educated class took over and shifted its gravitational centers to the coasts and the superstar cities.
Governor Steve Sisolak repeated this idea of Silver State realism during a photo op at Rancho High School where he showed up before caucusing began to hand out doughnuts to the high school volunteers. “Nevada is a microcosm,” he said, shadowed discreetly by two enormous highway patrol troopers. “It’s a great place to test things out. We’ve got diversity here.”
This young experiment had not always gone smoothly. The 2016 Nevada Democratic convention was marred by a chaotic bit of theater. Sanders voters booed, yelled obscenities, catcalled party apparatchiks, and reportedly tossed chairs to display their unhappiness at seeing the process “rigged” at the county level. “What happened at the Paris Hotel was worse than any New Year’s Eve bacchanal on the Las Vegas Strip, but just as uncontrollable,” wrote Jon Ralston, a top state political reporter. “It was a group of delegates, stirred up by Sanders operatives, determined that the deck was stacked against them and they were going to be cheated.”
The caucus process itself was also confusing to many participants. These regional gatherings among party members to select delegates to a state nominating convention have been a feature of United States politics since at least the first term of President George Washington in 1789, but their execution has often been riddled with arguments, misunderstandings. and disputes over the rules. The states are chopped up into voting divisions called precincts, a name redolent of police station booking desks and bagman payments, and each is supposed to host a winnowing process in which candidates receiving less than 15 percent of people physically standing in a designated spot are deemed “not viable.” Speeches may be made at this point. The candidate with the highest number of affirmations at the end gets the most number of delegates pledged to the county and state nominating conventions where the results are usually known far ahead of time.
That such a neighborhood-based system might be grafted onto a Sunbelt state checkered with new homes and sprawl, and one that happens to have the most statistically transient population in the country, seemed a stretch. Just 24 percent of Nevadans were actually born here, for example, and apartments that rent by the month have been a longtime Las Vegas staple. Still, the caucus rules had a waggish casino twist. In other states, such as Iowa, statistical ties in delegate counts are officially settled with the flip of a coin. Here the method is the draw of a high card from a standard deck of 52.
This year’s representative of the Democrats’ establishment wing, Joe Biden, the greatest mortal enemy to many of Sanders’ followers, had been trying to claw his way back to at least a second-place finish against the formidable ground-game run by Sanders. The 77-year-old former vice president made a pitch to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers inside a middle school gymnasium in which at least a fourth of the floor space was given over to television cameras and 10 folding tables for the print media; an observer might well have concluded that they were the true audience for Biden’s message. On the north wall was one of the many surreal apparitions of American presidential campaigns: an artist’s rendering of an extremely suntanned Joe Biden wearing sunglasses, grinning, and almost visually indistinguishable from Barack Obama. The banner had been taped halfway over a huge rendering of the angry panther mascot of Hyde Park Middle School; its sad yellowish eyes peered over the room, its snarl gagged and obscured by the head of Joe-bama.
After introductions by his wife Jill and US Representative Dina Titus, Biden took the microphone and plunged into a stump speech of a classic formula: 1) cast the current situation as grave and urgent, and 2) present oneself as the inevitable solution. “Folks, we’ve got to wake up,” he said. “The character of the nation is on the ballot right now. I mean it … Eight years of Donald Trump will fundamentally change the nature of who we are as a people. Our democracy is at risk.”
Whether it came from a particular verbal tic, or a genuine sense that Biden felt the public was not taking the moment seriously enough, he kept repeating some version of the phrases “I’m not joking,” and “I really mean it.” And as if to show doubters that this old warhorse could still move a crowd, he dropped his voice to a solemn register, relating the story of how he dealt with extreme hardship in his life when his first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash, then pivoted to the hardships of impoverished American families — those who couldn’t find enough gas to put in the car or money for medical treatment. He was fighting for them. He was one of them — couldn’t they see? The gym went to a hush under the jaundiced eyes of the Hyde Park panther. And then, like a maestro, Biden brought the tone up, his voice pitched upward to a peroration of values and a plea for a flooding of the polls as a cleansing expression of outrage: “Folks, I refuse, I refuse, I absolutely refuse to give up. I refuse to keep this guy in the White House. This is the United States of America! Take it back! Show them who we are!”
The object of his scorn — and the centerpiece of Biden’s electability argument — had come into town on Air Force One earlier that day, packing a rally with 15,000 followers at the Las Vegas Convention Center, dwarfing anything the Democrats could do, despite their slightly larger population numbers in Nevada. Trump didn’t need to be there; the Nevada Republican Party had helpfully cancelled their own caucuses to make sure that all its delegates went to the incumbent. The rally’s timing was a giant troll, alongside some guerrilla street theater from a group calling itself “Pigeons United to Interfere Now,” or PUTIN, which had glued little red MAGA caps on dozens of municipal pigeons and set them free to wander downtown, bobbing their heads.
Between the metal sawhorses in the Trump rally line, a maintenance worker from a Chicago suburb, here on a well-timed vacation, explained why poll numbers never detected the true level of Trump loyalty afoot in the country. The hostility against the president was a centerpiece of his appeal, first of all — the abuse from establishment authority figures reminded them of their own anger at life’s setbacks, and his image of taking no shit heartened them. But saying so out loud was embarrassing, so you tended to talk about it in a whisper, if at all. “You have to keep it secret,” he said. “If I put a Trump sign on my lawn, I’d get rocks through my windows.”
Another part of Trump’s appeal is the anti-government message. Most people here who had had any dealings with public agencies had nothing good to say: sloth all around, goldbricking employees, no incentive for excellence, and participation in what they saw as a dismal medieval bargain between master and serfs — that is to say, free stuff in exchange for political loyalty. But no such sleaze existed in pure capitalism, where the sharp and moral knife of the market separated the winners from the freeloaders. And then there were more celestial explanations.
“It’s hard to explain, but when I first heard him, I knew that God had put his hand on him,” said a financial planner from a red part of California. “The Bible is full of flawed people that God uses. I’ve seen what happens when people are allowed to do nothing, when everything is given to them. I don’t like smooth talkers who tell you one thing and then go behind your back. He just tells it like it is.”
Three days beforehand, the president had commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who had been convicted of trying to sell an appointment to the US Senate and served eight years in prison. But perhaps more importantly, he had once served as a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice. This did not matter to the financial planner, who thought Blagojevich had “probably got singled out. Everyone there is corrupt, anyway.”
Trump’s address — delivered spontaneously, as is his custom — checked a few boxes of normal political puffery: he crowed about the job numbers under his watch, delivered local pork (in this case, anti-pork) in the form of a cutoff of funding for further study of the nearby Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, and bragged about his dubious foreign policy accomplishment of ordering the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. But much of it bore no resemblance to what American presidents have ever said before in their official capacities. He mingled outrageous boasts, false statistics, insults against perceived enemies, imagined victimization, and strange ruminations on popular culture that could only come from massive gluts of television viewing. A customary complaint about “fake news” and the terrible people at CNN led the crowd into a fury of booing, accompanied by a forest of downturned thumbs and raised middle fingers, all aimed at the television cameras in the back.
Another segment began as free-association ramble that veered from a proposed retroactive impeachment of Barack Obama for a misstatement on health insurance into a complaint that Parasite had won the Best Picture award at the Oscars, into a disquisition on Brad Pitt, back into a denunciation of all news unfavorable to him. Verbatim:
I used the word belated impeachment, belated, meaning I’m just kidding, okay? They do it all the time, they had it the other day, I said bring back on with the win, right. I said the movie, I said a little bit up here, but I said the movie the other day in Colorado, I guess, I said, huh, South Korean movie won. You know they say, Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the Academy Award is, I guess, was a movie made in South Korea. I said, what’s this all about and I deal with them, they like me. We’re helping them a lot. They’re killing us on trade. You know, they beat us on trade and then they win the Academy Award for a fricking movie, but we redid that trade deal. But the other day they got me one, too. I said, whatever happened to Gone with the Wind? That beautiful movie. Vivien Leigh. Clark Gable, right? Whatever happened, bring back Gone with the Wind, and some of them wrote: he doesn’t know that that movie was made like in 1936. So anybody sitting — this is fake news, that is fake news that fakers. But now, anybody sitting there reading this saying: Man Trump can’t be that smart. You know he said, bring back Gone with the Wind, that’s an old movie. It’s an old classic, bring back, make, what I say is make great movies, you know. Not this computerized crap. Computerized garbage. And I was never a fan of Brad Pitt, I will tell you, I … No, I thought he was a stiff. He was like a stiff, you know it’s like a boring guy. All of a sudden, he wins the Academy Awards. Well, it’s pathetic. Their ratings aren’t so good in the Academy Awards. You know when that stops? When they started attacking us, their ratings went right down the tubers. You know I told somebody the evening newscast, you know they’re terrible for conservative people and they’re crooked, they are absolutely dishonest.
And onward like this, for a total of an hour and 47 minutes.
Though the majority of attendees were affable and even soft-spoken in one-on-one conversations outside the hall, a scattering of T-shirts sported on the convention floor had already given witness to the defiant machismo and anger present underneath the displays of conspicuous patriotism: Warning: My sense of humor might offend your liberal feelings. Trump 2020: Make liberals cry again. A depiction of Trump riding a motorcycle with Hillary Clinton falling off the back, his jacket reading: If you can read this, the bitch fell off. A collage of nine female Democratic politicians headlined Impeach the Kotex Club and Women Stuck on Stupid. Nag, Nag, Nag.
Some of Trump’s many critics have likened these cauldrons of domestic resentment inside convention centers to the giant Nazi rallies of the late 1930s that used to be held in outdoor plazas: similar public aspirations of vengeance and triumph against perceived internal enemies. Some aspects are indeed common to both: a charismatic central figure with an invented narrative of his own heroism; aggressive displays of nationalism; obsessions with victory (“winning, winning, winning,” he insisted); fawning reverence for the military; loud falsehoods too numerous and overwhelming to correct; intolerance from any deviation from the word of the leader; narratives of conquest clothed in rhetorically violent metaphors.
After Trump left the auditorium, a woman with a red T-shirt reading “Voter Registration Strikeforce Volunteer” stood glumly on the floor in front of the stage. She had been promised seats in the bleachers in exchange for her volunteer work, but had been forced to stand for hours instead. This was only her second rally; one man in the crowd next to her had claimed to have attended more than 80. “He gets better and better,” she said. “He hasn’t changed since he’s been in office. He tells the truth. And you can tell it’s coming from his heart.”
Conservatives do symbolism far better than liberals — not just the brandishing of the flag and the cross, but the emotional messages that pierce the rhetorical fog and offer simplistic and rule-based answers to complicated problems. Government is the problem. The market separates winners from losers. Abortion is murder. Taxes are bad. Immigrants are unclean. Allies rip us off. Nobody gets free stuff. It is much harder and requires a new level of thought to articulate a plain message for higher taxes, expanded immigration, student loan forgiveness, single-payer health care, widespread religious tolerance, international alliances, and quality public schools. Next to the pure declarative sentences of Trumpist thought, the Democratic message seems like so much fine print on the contract that probably hides a trick somewhere.
Trump’s counterprogramming the day before the live caucuses may not have done much to depress the turnout that was already trending toward merely average in a year when the phrase “most consequential election in history” was becoming a cliché. Democratic Party officials seemed embarrassed and were noticeably surly at their tabulation headquarters at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino when asked basic questions. Several volunteers had earlier quit in frustration after being asked to sign legal non-disclosure agreements, theoretically lasting forever, to not speak ill of the caucuses. Though the reporting via the iPads had gone smoothly, at least compared to Iowa, some citizens griped about the confusing rules, the waiting and the doing away with the older and more straightforward primary system in the privacy of a voting booth instead of the charming but uneasy openness of walking over to a spot on a gymnasium floor. “Going to the caucus was the worst thing we ever did in Nevada, and we’ve done some dumb things,” Kay Darr told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The most common explanation for the so-so turnout was the four days of early voting, in which approximately 77,000 people showed up ahead of time to fill out a ranked choice ballot. The raw statistics seemed to be superior to the anemic numbers in Iowa and certainly exceeded the numbers of the 2016 Nevada caucuses, but only two viable candidates were in play at that time. The only lines around the block this year had been at the Trump rally.
Another old political joke has it that newspapers could run the headline “Democrats in disarray” in every single edition and it would never be inaccurate. Yet something felt different about the customary squabbling, disunion, and wasted money in Nevada this year. Caucus day ended with Bernie Sanders picking up nearly half the vote and a commanding national lead, amid distress and even despair that a 78-year-old professed Democratic Socialist could never win in a general election against a cultic force like Trump, whose weaponization of the very word “Socialism” might scare the pants off moderates in the five states that elect the president. Something very bad had been happening in the United States for the last three years, and the springtime promised no resolution and no obvious road forward to ending it. But this was the outcome of micro-democracy in the American miniature of Nevada, and convincingly so in the precincts north of Bonanza Road where depressing lines of public housing and cheap apartment blocks looking like so many Monopoly hotels lined the roads around Rancho High School.
Outside the cafeteria, after almost everyone else had gone home, two volunteers for Elizabeth Warren sat flicking through their phones. They had been at work in these precincts for three months, knocking on doors and phone banking. In the end, less than 10 voters had shown up for their candidate on caucus day and at least one of them had realigned for Sanders. “We did what we could,” one said.
Photograph by Gage Skidmore.
Tom Zoellner is the politics editor of LARB.
Tom Zoellner is the author of five nonfiction books, including Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World. He is the co-author of The New York Times bestselling book An Ordinary Man, and his book Uranium won the 2011 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Time, Foreign Policy, Departures, The Wall Street Journal, Men’s Health, the Oxford American, and many other places. A professor of English at Chapman University, he lives in Downtown Los Angeles.
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