Sunday, January 20, 2008
Las Vegas And Its Discontents
So there were two big charges coming from the Obama campaign out of Nevada: that there were numerous incidents of voter suppression and intimidation at the local precinct sites that swung the vote to Clinton; and, that they actually won Nevada (the front page of Obama's campaign website has a graphic showing the Nevada results with "Obama 13 delegates, Clinton 12 delegates"). Based on being there and talking to a lot of precinct captains and people in the know, I can speak to both of these issues.
First, the delegate count. When I spoke with Jill Derby in the immediate aftermath of the caucuses, she basically tried to dismiss the Obama campaign statement, by saying that no national delegates had been selected and that would be determined by an election at the state party convention in April. I pressed her further a little later, asking her essentially "All things being equal, assuming he remained in the race, would Obama wind up with more DNC delegates?" And she refused to give a straight answer. I later learned that Derby is pretty much known as a Clinton supporter, and she was pretty much trying to tell me "We'll make the delegate count reflect the will of the voters." But now, the NSDP has backtracked on that.
"No national convention delegates were awarded. That said, if the delegate preferences remain unchanged between now and April 2008, the calculations of national convention delegates being circulated by the Associated Press are correct. We look forward to our county and state conventions where we will choose the delegates for the nominee that Nevadans support."
On the face of this, many have made the argument that it invalidates the caucus process. I agree, but it's in the same way that the electoral college subverts the national election process. States weight their caucuses to get candidates out to the rural areas (in Nevada's case, it's really a rounding error that gives a little more importance to areas outside of Las Vegas and Clark County). In the aftermath of the election, they can't just renege on that. I agree with Chris Bowers that the media and the conventional wisdom can't just dismiss the real delegate count because they want to. Unfortunately, they are.
The other thing is that you have to understand the significance of the caucuses for party building. A primary is controlled (and paid for) by the state; a caucus is controlled (and paid for) by the parties. The Democrats had 115,800 Nevadans turn out; in 2004 they had 9,000. If you can get 116,000 people out to what amounts to a Democratic Party meeting, you can capture their information, excite them, and turn them out on Election Day. In states where the Democratic Party isn't very organized and politics is not part of the DNA (and believe me, that's Vegas to a T), caucuses actually play a very important role. They're HORRIBLE at picking a President, but they are great at strengthening the party.
The downside to this, especially in a state like Nevada with new caucuses and inexperienced caucus-goers, is that they're a disorganized mess. And this brings me to the charges of voting rights violations. Matt Stoller covers a fair bit of this today, and I was in the same caucus room as him and talked to a lot of the same people after the caucus, so our takes will track somewhat. The Nevada State Democratic Party, in setting up these caucuses, had to find over 1,700 precinct chairs to run them. There aren't 1,700 nonpartisan activists sitting around Nevada ready to run caucuses, so the chairs ended up being people who supported one candidate or another, and I would guess that a disproportionate amount supported Clinton. This is not to say that those precinct chairs cheated or anything, but the perception of bias was already ingrained before any votes were cast (a lot of those organizers ended up coming in from California and Colorado, too). In addition, the state put multiple precnicts on the same site (there were 1,700-some precincts and only 560 sites), NEVER TOLD THE VOTERS, and expected people who had never caucused before to show up and implicitly know where to go, leading to more chaos. Furthermore, the precinct CAPTAINS (those tasked with organizing voters for their respective candidates) weren't entirely knowledgeable about the process either. But they were told that they had to be assertive in working the rules. And many of them were.
There was a lot of hoopla surrounding the at-large caucuses on the Strip for the employees of the big hotels. Piecing together the evidence, it's clear that there were strong efforts by the labor leaders within the Culinary Workers union to get their folks to vote for Obama. It's also clear that invited a backlash. The picture at the top is from a sign, "I Support My Union, And I Support Hillary," that was paid for by the Clinton campaign, and handed out to Culinary Workers union members. AFSMCE organizers from Iowa and all over the country were organizing inside the union and getting people to caucus for Clinton. In addition, I heard that the rank and file of the union wasn't all that happy with their leadership to begin with, as dues have gone up without an accompanying increase in wages. The result of the Strip caucuses were that Hillary won 7 out of 9, when the projection was 2 to 1 for Obama.
But there WAS a real-world impact to the lawsuit brought by Clinton allies to shut down the Strip caucuses, and particularly Bill Clinton's comments that those employees' votes would "count five times as much" as regular Nevadans. This is a complete and utter falsehood, but coming from a former President, it had weight. Apparently that soundbite was played over and over on Las Vegas TV and radio. There were statements from the teacher's union that the lawsuit was designed to protect voter rights, when the impact would have only been to shut down the Strip caucuses and prevent people from participating. They were making wild claims about how all employees would get to vote at their workplace, which weren't true. And on the ground, people got that message, and the Culinary Workers union were absolutely painted as the caricature of "powerful union bosses" trying to steal the vote. So Hillary's success in Clark County must be attributed to that in part.
Like the rest of the media, I went to one of the casinos to observe a caucus (Hillary beat Barack at the Wynn, 189-187). It was fascinating and hilarious and I can't wait to write about it, and I don't regret it. But the media's obsession with those caucuses diverted attention from all of the other ones in the Vegas area. And this is where most of the alleged voter intimidation and voter suppression took place (See here, here, and here). With more transparency and a media spotlight, I think there would have been less opportunity.
But let's be clear about these charges. In many cases, the rules weren't properly explained. Here's Stoller:
The central claim of the Obama camp is that Clinton-affiliated chairs were telling their people to show up at 11:30 and then shutting doors to caucus-goers at 11:30 instead of 12. Aside from the fact that party rules conflict with each other on this point, many of the caucus goers really wanted the event to start and end quickly, because they were working. In the middle of the caucus I attended, about a third of the room emptied out because of a shift change (their votes had been counted). In other words, there were good reasons to shut the doors at 11:30.
I heard one report of an Obama precinct captain trying to get the doors shut at 11:30. In truth, the precinct chair had the discretion to keep them open. So it was very muddled.
There are other charges, like voter cards moved into the Hillary camp (it appears the party didn't expect the high turnout and didn't have enough cards or voter registration forms), Hillary caucus-goers attempting to be counted in different precincts on the same site, precinct captains telling caucus goers for non-viable candidates that they had to go home instead of their right to make a new choice, electioneering in places where it was forbidden, etc. My take on all of this is that there were a lot of sharp elbows thrown. Supporters of each candidate were very assertive and trying to do their best. The Hillary precinct captains may have been a little more prepared and a little more experienced for this kind of hardball politics. But that's not universally true. Here's my favorite on-the-ground story from desmoulins at MyDD, an Edwards precinct captain (who I talked a lot of this over with last night):
As the end of the first allignment approached, Clinton had 80, Obama 46, Edwards 13, Kucinic 2 and uncommitted 2. Each of the 3 campaigns made a short pitch for the 2 Kucinic supporters who then said they would come to Edwards if it would make us viable. The uncommitted voters also agreed to come if it would make us viable, as did one Obama voter and one Clinton voter. I was now only three voters short, but I could not let the 15 minutes expire without at least getting 3 more uncommitted (because members of viable groups cannot reallign under NV rules). So I went to the Clinton group and explained that if they helped me reach viability, they could deprive Obama of at least 2 delegates without hurting their own cause. I urged them to move at least 3 people to uncommitted, which would at least make it mathematically possible for us to reach the 22 we needed for viability.
To my surprise, the Clinton captain had no idea what I was talking about and could not understand either why they should move supporters to uncommitted, or why I would suggest that most of the Edwards supporters would go to Obama if we failed to be viable. I explained quickly and had more or less convinced her when time ran out. I pointed out she had to do it now and that if my math was wrong, she could get her voters back in the 2nd 15 minutes. She agreed but only one Clinton supporter volunteered to move. As I pleaded for her and one of the two others assisting her to move themselves, the Obama captain quite rightly began to point out that time was up. (I had told the Obama captain I would come to their group if I were not viable, but to her credit, she was not put off that I was trying to help Edwards at her expense.)
You had a lot of inexperienced caucus goers and inexperienced precinct captains and inexperienced precinct chairs, and there's no question that some people took advantage of that opportunity. The idea that it impacted the vote one way or the other is just not very realistic. Clinton's precinct organizers were more ORGANIZED, and they took advantage of a lot of opportunities. Is that suppression? I can't say that it is, really. I'd be more concerned by the Barack Hussein Obama robocall, if I were the Obama people.
What I do know is that the Obama campaign taking this up as a rallying cry has the potential to be very dangerous. If they are trying to leverage an idea that the Clinton campaign cheated into winning with black voters in South Carolina, that could get extremely ugly. I would hope they would step back from the brink. And the same with the Clinton campaign; Bill Clinton saying that he personally heard a union rep threaten an employee is just not credible. This plays into a growing racial gap that I saw on display a little bit at the Wynn casino caucus. It's a scorched-earth strategy for the Obama campaign to call up the ghosts of 2000 in Florida and 2004 in Ohio in the context of a Democratic primary where the allegations are murky. It will cause a severe rift in the party and could have implications into November. I don't think anybody comes out of Nevada looking good, sadly. The election has gotten very high school and petty, as issues have been pushed to the side. This has the feeling of a missed moment.
dday 1/20/2008 01:22:00 PM