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What Nevada Republicans can learn from Washington Democrats' awkward 2016 caucus-primary split

Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
Election 2024Elections

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton narrowly won the state-run Washington presidential primary, conducted by mail, on May 24, 2016.

It didn’t matter. Two months earlier, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had won the Washington caucus with 73 percent of the vote.

The time-consuming caucus had about a third of the turnout of the primary — but the state party did not award delegates based on which contest had greater participation. 

It maintained a caucus, even though the state had been running a primary since 1989 and even after the state Republican Party transitioned to a primary by 2016.

Sanders took the bulk of the state’s 101 delegates, creating an awkward reality that spilled into the national convention, when Sanders delegates protested and put tape over their mouths at the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

The whole episode embarrassed the state party, which had clung to the caucus as a vestige of its power to influence outcomes. Seeing the writing on the wall, Washington Democrats abandoned the caucus by 2020. The moot 2016 primary, meanwhile, cost the state $9 million.

Sound familiar?

Like Washington Democrats, Nevada Republicans have resisted a state-run primary. They’re running their own caucus, like Washington, though Nevada's is two days after the primary.

But party Chairman Michael McDonald and his allies have taken a step that Washington Democrats never took — only opening the state caucus to candidates that forgo the primary.

Washington’s situation in 2016 provides some analogs to the self-inflicted primary-caucus brouhaha facing the Nevada Republican Party  — a situation expected to confuse voters.

In 2019, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law moving the state’s presidential primary up from May to March, hoping to increase the state’s political clout on the national scene — a similar motivation to Nevada’s 2021 law aimed at making the state the then-first primary in the nation.

The state party voted overwhelmingly in 2019 to use the state-run primary as its nominating contest, abandoning the caucus. 

“I think we’ve clearly outgrown the caucus, and that is something that rank-and-file Democratic voters made clear to us,” one state committee member told PBS.

While the 2016 caucus favored Sanders, the 2020 primary proved a tight fight between Sanders and eventual nominee Joe Biden. Biden won 46 delegates, while Sanders won 43.

The Nevada GOP, meanwhile, is taking the opposite tack in creating a narrower contest. Many suspect that the caucus stands to benefit former President Donald Trump, who has the most politically active base among Republicans in the state. Trump has wined and dined McDonald at Mar-a-Lago and maintained a close relationship with his longtime ally, who was a fake elector for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

While McDonald has maintained the contest is not rigged, he called Trump “the next president of the United States” at his October rally in Las Vegas. 

But if Washington is any indication, the ensuing voter confusion and contradictory results between the primary and caucus could lead to an outcome Nevada wanted to avoid when it first moved into the early slate for the 2008 election: irrelevance.

Despite Nevada’s position as fourth in the Republican nominating calendar, only Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy visited the state before the Republican Jewish Coalition cattle call at the end of October — prompting more headlines about the primary-caucus confusion than actual candidate visits.

It mirrors what happened in Washington. With the confusing dueling contests, neither Sanders nor Clinton spent much time there, save for a major Sanders rally in August 2015.

It was exactly what inspired Washington Democrats chair Tina Podlowski to shift to a primary and make the contest earlier.

“We wanted to be more relevant,” Podlodowski said, according to Seattle Met Magazine.

Correction (Nov. 7, 2023 at 11:30 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated when the 2016 Washington caucus was held.  It was held March 26, not May 26.

Editor’s Note: This story appears in Indy Elections, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2024 elections. Sign up for the newsletter here.


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