by Todd Beeton, Sun Jan 20, 2008 at 06:42:14 PM EST
Yesterday I was able to see the Nevada caucuses up close at the Wynn Casino at-large caucus precinct location, one of nine locations on the strip set up to accommodate casino workers. As I didn't have wireless access, I called Jonathan with updates as I had them and he updated the caucus open thread, which you can follow HERE. Overall it was a fascinating glimpse into the very strange caucus system as well as an at times disturbing look at a physical manifestation of the Obama vs. Clinton dynamic that the race for the Democratic nomination has largely become.
The caucus was held in a ballroom in the Wynn Hotel with a few hundred chairs set up in front of a stage for caucus participants and a temporary riser set up in the opposite corner of the room for media to observe from afar. The orderly set up of the room and the strict rules established for the caucus certainly belied the chaos that was soon to come.
As the first wave of caucus-goers arrived, a busload from the Hilton Hotel, Obama supporters (conspicuously armed with Obama signs) seemed to far outnumber Clinton supporters. They trickled in and many sat down in the chairs at stage left. Since the signs sort of gave the Obama crowd away, as Clinton supporters entered they tended to gather in the chairs at stage right, across the aisle from the Obama supporters. It was fascinating to watch the room sort of organically split into two factions even before the actual caucusing began. As the caucus-goers at this location were by definition casino workers, most of whom were on break from their shifts to caucus, it was fascinating to see people grouped according to the uniforms they wore.
The media during this time largely milled about among the caucus-goers looking for stories. At one point, a mini Obama rally broke out at one end of the ballroom, a bit removed from the seating area, and you could see most of the media sort of swarm over to the rally. The rallyers wore red culinary union shirts, waved 'Culinary Workers for Obama' signs and chanted either "Obama! Obama!" or "Time For Change!" It was sort of interesting that, as many Obama supporters as there were in the room, only 12 or so participated in the rally, although the seated caucus-goers were not shy about chanting Obama's name either. There was one guy with a whistle who led those caucus-goers in loud "Obama" cheers.
About 15 minutes after the first caucus-goers arrived, the crowd had grown to well over 100 and a new wave of of Hillary Clinton supporters began to stream in. Many of them held "I Support My Union, I Support Hillary Clinton" signs and I asked them what union they were in; they replied "226." That's the Culinary Workers union. On more careful inspection, the signs were labeled "Paid for by Hillary Clinton For President." Remember all the talk of Culinary Workers caucusing for Clinton despite the union's endorsement? It was on full display in that ballroom yesterday, and indeed, their passion for their candidate was no less evident than that of Obama supporters. It wasn't long before the Obama rally was answered with chants of "Hillary! Hillary!" The groups at first held sort of dueling rallies, but then they just shouted over each other, but in what seemed like a healthy enthusiastic way, never did it become mean-spirited, although there may have been some booing. It was hard not to notice that the dueling factions were divided by more than just candidate preference; the culinary workers that were rallying for Obama were mostly African-American and mostly men and those that rallied for Clinton were mostly hispanic and mostly women. But again, the tension never escalated beyond what appeared to be a healthy enthusiasm for their candidate.
It was well into the caucus when it occured to me that my digital camera has a video function. I recorded a minute of the chaos that erupted, which you can watch for yourself below. Keep in mind that this all took place prior to the caucus officially coming to order. Also, notice just how much media was there.
It was fairly late in the process by the time the caucus meeting was brought to order, but the precinct chair finally sent the media off to our corner and began to separate the caucus-goers into more orderly groups, which ended up corresponding (geographically within the room) with where they had naturally settled on their own. A count of total caucus-goers was made and then the viability threshold of 79 votes (20% at our caucus location) was announced. Then the precinct chair announced the results of the first ballot: Clinton had the support of 185 caucus-goers, Obama 181, and Edwards 8, with 3 uncommitted. I was quite surprised, as the Obama side appeared larger to me than the Clinton side. After the realignment, the final count was 189 for Clinton to 187 for Obama, one of six slim victories on the strip for Clinton yesterday.
I left my first caucus experience with fairly mixed emotions about the whole process. First of all, I couldn't help but think, wow what a freak show, is this really the best way for our democracy to function? Not only was it chaotic and thus, it seemed to me, particularly susceptible to various forms of funny business (although I saw none myself,) but the very fact that a caucus takes place at a limited number of places at one pre- determined time is inherently an exercise in dis-enfranchisement. But at the same time, while usually we look to turnout numbers for an expression of the enthusiasm that exists among the electorate for the Democratic candidates, here it was on full display in all its glory. There's just something that seemed right about a process that allowed supporters of a candidate to express that support with more than a poke of a stylus or touch of a screen; here they were standing up, standing proud, shouting their support from the top of their lungs. Ultimately I still favor primaries, but there's something to a system that rewards a candidate for the ability to motivate and inspire the support I witnessed for Clinton and Obama yesterday.