The 2008 Democratic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was a long and unpredictable run of events. Never was this truer than in the Nevada Caucuses, where exactly the opposite of the state ethos occurred: it was not winner take all. Shortly after the major news networks declared that Hillary Clinton had won a majority of the precinct caucus delegates (by a 7% margin) they surprisingly declared that Barack Obama had won the majority of the state’s delegates to the national convention.
This odd outcome was the result of a delegate allocation which sought to ensure that northern and rural Nevada, not just Las Vegas, had a voice in the decision making process. Out of the 16 delegates that were allotted geographically and by congressional district, 12 delegates were allocated to Clark County, the home of Las Vegas, 3 delegates to Washoe County, the home of Reno, and 1 to “Rural” Nevada. This distribution would appear to make sense because the majority of the population and the majority of Democrats live in Clark County but the distribution ended up empowering northern and rural Nevada. Because the caucuses were essentially a close two-way competition, the evenly numbered groupings of Clark County delegates split 50%-50%. No candidate was able to garner a large enough majority of precinct delegates to do more than split the Clark County delegate groups down the middle. On the other hand, in “Rural” Nevada and Washoe County the odd number of delegates allotted meant that 51% was all that was needed to win a 2-1 victory of Washoe County’s delegates and a winner take all 1-0 delegate majority in “Rural” Nevada (See the Nevada Delegate Selection Plan for further details). As it turned out, the Obama campaign made a perfect storm of it and while losing 54%-44% in Clark County, Obama pulled out a win in Washoe County and “Rural” Nevada to win the most national delegates.
Even leaving aside the perhaps inherent inequalities in the caucus system, the outcome in the Silver State had to leave many Clinton supporters with flashbacks of the 2000 election, when the popular vote and the electoral college didn’t agree on who was to be our next president. This outcome, based on unequal representation, may have felt undemocratic to some and on its face appears to be a violation of the Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” standard. The applicability of the “one person, one vote” standard in cases like this has not been ruled on by the Supreme Court, and lower courts have found mixed results. As it was, the Nevada Caucuses did not receive any real legal challenge.
When I asked him about these inequalities, the Nevada Democratic Party’s Executive Director, Travis Brock did not seem overly concerned, saying “that’s one of the interesting things about caucus math… This is one of the things you run into in representational democracy.” He expressed that the party’s delegate allocation was intended to ensure that northern and rural Nevada had “a voice” and that while the outcome was interesting he did not find it objectionable.
This said, Mr. Brock also expressed his belief that 2012 and beyond will likely have less disproportionate representation. He identified part of the inequity to be a result of Nevada’s rapid growth and the current inequality in representation among the congressional districts. With Nevada likely to gain a congressional district as a result of the 2010 Census, not only will the lines of the current district be redrawn, another district will likely be created. As Mr. Brock points out, it is conceivable that by 2012 there could be a congressional district including part of Clark County and part of Washoe County. The only thing we can be sure of is that the delegate allocation will not look the same by the next round of Democratic Presidential Caucuses. It will be interesting to see what new delegate allocation emerges and if a clever campaign can use the disparity to their advantage at the expense of those potentially underrepresented.
Nicholas Mueller is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.