Tuesday, January 26, 2021

A Presidential Primary in Lieu of Caucuses in Nevada?

Circling back to this from Michael Scherer at the Washington Post nearly two weeks ago. 

The prospect of a presidential primary in Nevada is nothing new. That was true before 2008 when the Silver state was added to the early state line up on the presidential primary calendar. Nevada was a primary state, after all, when it sought to encroach on New Hampshire's privileged position in the first post-reform cycle. It is true even in the window of time since Nevada was added to the group of carve-out states. Efforts to establish a Nevada presidential primary were derailed in part by Harry Reid at the end of the 2015 state legislative session. 

The common thread across those two actions separated by nearly 50 years was Reid. And after Iowa's caucus snafu in 2020, Reid was not shy about promoting the virtues of Nevada as an alternative first-in-the-nation option. And the former Senate majority leader reiterated the proposal as 2020 came to a close.

But such a change is easier said than done. 

Political actors on the state level in Nevada are likely to wait for cover from the national parties first (which is to say after the national parties set their 2024 rules next year). Party leaders in the Silver state may have, as WaPo reported, "taken steps to shift to a presidential primary in 2024," but the full contours of finalizing such a decision may have the party out in front of its skis a bit. A full-on switch from a caucus system to a primary may correctly anticipate a change that may come down from the DNC anyway: a mandate (or close to it) for state parties to utilize primaries rather than caucuses to select and allocate national convention delegates in the next cycle. 

Yet, that raises some additional questions. First, through what means will Nevada Democrats attempt to make the caucus-to-primary shift? Does the state party unilaterally make the decision and opt for a party-run process? Or does the party lean on the state legislature to establish a state-funded, state-run primary option? The former may provide the party with some latitude in dealing with New Hampshire in a prospective calendar race while the latter may not remain in Democratic control after the 2022 midterms. [Silver state Republicans may not be as receptive to a primary after then as they were in 2015.] 

And there may or may not be a fight with New Hampshire depending on what rules the DNC drafts for 2024 (especially if that includes a primary mandate and/or resets the early primary calendar order).

That brings this around to the second question. Assuming there will be a Nevada presidential primary in some form or another in 2024, where will that primary fall on the calendar? The shift to a primary is something that can be done legislatively or through the state party before the national party rules are set. [The Nevada legislature is due to gavel in on February 1, but no legislation has been filed in advance to shift to a presidential primary.] But timing that contest is trickier. Again, it is here where national party cover may come in handy. If one or both of the national parties rejiggers the beginning of the calendar and Nevada claims that spot, then either the state party or the state government can move to schedule the contest early (or earlier than New Hampshire).

What is clear is that there is a sequence to all of this. Nevada Democrats could shift to a primary early on with or without any mandate from the national party. In fact, Silver state Democrats could use that as an argument to the DNC as to why they are prepared and ready to move into a bigger/earlier spot in the limelight. But only after having made that switch can (or will) the party move to schedule the contest. If both happen simultaneously, then it will all happen in 2023. But Nevada -- either the state legislature or state parties -- could act now to shift to a primary only to schedule it later when effective penalties are in place to deal with any rogue states (Iowa and/or New Hampshire).

All of this is speculative at this point in any event. The regular rhythm to this sequence is for the national parties to spend the year and a half after the presidential election year retrospectively considering the pros and cons of the previous cycle's primary season and making rules for the next cycle. Only then, in the year following the midterm elections, do state parties and state governments react and make their plans for the cycle in view of those rules/rules changes. There are exceptions to those rules, but they are rare. 

But this "which early states?" question will come up in the coming weeks and months. And Nevada will likely be a part of the discussion. 

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