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GOP leaders are, indeed, ‘rigging the system’

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus

Three years ago, they were self-proclaimed victims of an ostensibly “rigged election.” Today, they are actively rigging their own party’s presidential nomination. 

That’s quite a character arc for Republican Party officials in Nevada. 

The Nevada GOP’s caucus debacle might look like mere political incompetence, but it actually illustrates the degree to which loyalists in the party are willing to disenfranchise their own voters in an attempt to preserve former President Donald Trump’s dominance over the party. 

Of course, party leaders insist there’s no political favoritism at play. In a recent op-ed defending leadership’s plan to ignore the upcoming statewide primary and hold a caucus two days later, Republican National Committeeman Jim DeGraffenreid claimed that “just like the primary, the caucus is open to every Republican voter in the state.”

Technically, the statement doesn’t earn a “pants on fire” rating for inaccuracy, but it’s not exactly “true” either. After all, it’s hard to believe that every single Republican in the state will be available for in-person voting at a caucus site on the evening of Feb. 8, 2024. Republicans who are traveling out of state, working late hours, watching their daughter’s dance recital, picking someone up from the airport or otherwise engaged in any number of ordinary life events aren’t going to find such an in-person process as accessible as DeGraffenreid suggests. 

Common sense would argue that every Republican voter in the state receiving a ballot in the mail — as will be the case for the state run primary — would be infinitely easier (and more accessible) for voters than even the most streamlined caucus process. However, since common sense seems to be in short supply nowadays, maybe history can provide us with real-life evidence to back up that hunch. 

Contrary to comments made by some party officials, Nevada Republicans haven’t exclusively used a caucus system since 1981 to select their preferred presidential candidates. In 1996, the party participated in a presidential preference primary election with mail-in ballots, similar to the one scheduled for 2024. (Unlike the 1996 contest, next year's primary will include both in-person early voting and Election Day voting in addition to universal mail-in ballots.) 

That Republican primary saw 140,637 Nevadans participate. 

By comparison, the GOP held its most “successful” caucus in state history two decades later when Donald Trump won the party’s nomination — a caucus that was so well attended it actually drew national news coverage for having more than doubled the previous election’s participation rates. 

It involved a mere 75,000 voters.

In other words, despite roughly 187,000 voters being added to Nevada’s Republican Party between 1996 and 2016, approximately 65,000 fewer voters were involved in selecting Donald Trump as the party’s nominee 20 years after Bob Dole won the nomination in a mail-in primary election. 

Clearly, if one was actually interested in increasing voter participation rates, returning to a caucus process while the state prepares for a mandatory state-run primary wouldn’t be a serious consideration. However, party leadership doesn’t seem interested in expanding participation. Instead, it’s willing to confuse and disenfranchise its own members to adopt a process that will likely alienate everyone except the most ardent party activists — activists who have proven repeatedly since 2016 to be incapable of dependably picking candidates who appeal to the broader public. 

And, unfortunately, leadership doesn’t seem content with merely making participation more inconvenient for voters — it’s also actively crafting rules that will limit the participation of candidates as well. 

Candidates who wish to take part in the caucus will have to pay the party $55,000 for ballot access — a pay-to-play fee that will inevitably exclude any candidate who would rather spend their precious dollars on advertising, organizing and campaigning ahead of Super Tuesday’s slew of contests.

By way of comparison, Iowa’s GOP doesn’t charge anything to be included on the ballot, ensuring voters have access to all candidates — not merely those with deep enough pockets to play the game.  

Making matters worse, GOP Chairman Michael McDonald has made it clear that candidates who take part in the state run primary will be excluded from the caucus altogether. As a result, campaigns that can’t afford the caucus are likely to write off the Silver State entirely. 

Indeed, it already seems as if many candidates have done exactly that. Until recently, organizations aligned with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were the only ones investing significantly in Nevada — but even they have halted operations as party leaders march unflinchingly toward a cockamamie caucus debacle. 

It’s hard to blame candidates for thinking the state might be hopelessly rigged in favor of Trump. After all, this isn’t the first time GOP leadership has willfully disenfranchised its own party members in the name of saving Trump’s political ego. In 2020, the Nevada GOP canceled its caucus altogether

While the cancellation of 2020’s caucus certainly didn’t change the outcome of the Republican nomination, it did save the former president and his loyalists from having to grapple with the fact that Republican voters weren’t offering him unanimous support in key swing states. As Politico worded it at the time, such behavior from party leaders “underscore the extent to which [Trump’s] allies are determined to snuff out any potential nuisance en route to his renomination — or even to deny Republican critics a platform to embarrass him.” 

The concerted effort in Nevada and elsewhere to tip the scales in Trump’s favor demonstrates just how far from its “anti-establishment” origins much of the MAGA movement has, apparently, shifted. After all, firebrand Republicans have been whinging for years about elections being rigged — blaming losses on everything from algorithms to Venezuelan communists. If old-school Republican insiders were the ones constructing primary rules that inconvenienced (or disenfranchised) potential Trump supporters, the outcry from the MAGA wing of the GOP base would make the 2020 fraud allegations look positively tame. 

And yet, now that they run things, Trumpian party leaders are more than happy to actively limit the voice of average Republican voters with the hope of preserving the former president’s stranglehold on GOP politics. 

Trump loyalists have long played the victim and tried to portray themselves as a grassroots “anti-establishment” movement. However, as Nevada's caucus debacle illustrates, Trump’s political insurgency of the Republican Party is no longer some ragtag group of activists trying to wrestle control from the old guard. Instead, his loyalists within the GOP currently run the show — and they’re using that power to rig the system in their favor. 

Not only are such efforts dividing its voters and throwing the party into disarray, it’s also fairly reminiscent of the sort of “swampy” politics the movement once claimed to loathe. 

Michael Schaus is a communications and branding expert based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and founder of Schaus Creative LLC — an agency dedicated to helping organizations, businesses and activists tell their story and motivate change. He has more than a decade of experience in public affairs commentary, having worked as a news director, columnist, political humorist, and most recently as the director of communications for a public policy think tank. Follow him at or on Twitter at @schausmichael.


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