Las Vegas Revamps Old-Line Party Caucuses The Democrats are holding a series of "mock caucuses" where people debate pizza toppings instead of political candidates. And GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani followed up a high-dollar casino fundraiser last week with a visit to the local "Crazy Pita" franchise.
NPR logo Las Vegas Revamps Old-Line Party Caucuses

Las Vegas Revamps Old-Line Party Caucuses

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The Democrats are holding a series of "mock caucuses" where people debate pizza toppings instead of political candidates. And GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani followed up a high-dollar casino fundraiser last week with a visit to the local "Crazy Pita" franchise.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

For those young people, Madeleine, and indeed for all of us, Nevada's never mattered so much in presidential politics as it does this year. And that's because with this accelerated election season Nevada has zoomed its caucus up to January 19th. That's just 16 days after Iowa begins this whole process.

We sent reporter Adam Burke to find out how Nevada is dealing with all this newfound political attention.

ADAM BURKE: Just a few months ago, Andres Ramirez, the outreach director for the Nevada State Democratic Party, was explaining the caucus process to a room full of retirees.

Mr. ANDRES RAMIREZ (Nevada State Democratic Party): We had originally tried educating people using a presentation, going over talking points, just kind of going through the PowerPoint.

BURKE: Ramirez is an animated guy and a good teacher, but I mean PowerPoint? Can you see the puzzled faces, the eyes glazing over? Well, he could. Since then, he's made some changes and he now uses a live caucusing simulation.

Mr. RAMIREZ: We call it the maucus. It's a combination of a mock caucus.

BURKE: Now, there are few no-nos in all of this. Using real presidential candidates makes it way too divisive. And you don't want to scare people away with too much complexity. So Ramirez has people caucus in his workshops over a slate of candidates that they can identify with, get worked up about, but still leave behind when it's all over. You know, pizza topping.

(Soundbite of community center)

BURKE: Last week, in a Las Vegas Community Center, 68 people caucused over the merit of cheese, veggies, pepperoni, anchovy, and everything. Everything pizza.

Okay. So here is how a caucus works. There are two rounds of activity. Candidates get delegates based on the number of people in the room who support that candidate. So if half the crowd chooses pepperoni, then pepperoni gets half the delegates. But there's also a minimum. Pizza toppings need at least 15 percent support to remain in the game. It's okay. I'll do the math. That's 11 people. And when the dust settles after the first round, pepperoni has enough. On the other hand...

Unidentified Man: Anchovy, the people like bad breath.

BURKE: Anchovy does not have enough.

Unidentified Man: Anchovy. What have you got?

BURKE: But that doesn't mean curtains for anchovy.

Unidentified Man: Are we ready? Let the horse trading begin.

BURKE: Because during the horse trading of the second round, some of the anchovy supporters agreed to join forces with the everything pizza folks in exchange for half the delegates. So in the end even anchovy gets a slice of the pie, at least this time. Of course what's really at stake here is not political representation for salty canned fish. Again, Andres Ramirez.

Mr. RAMIREZ: If we don't demystify the process and make them feel excited about this and comfortable that they can participate, they can do this, it's going to make it that much harder for us on January 19th.

BURKE: The early presidential caucus has pushed political activists in Las Vegas into new territory. They're faced not only with the prospect of reeducating voters; they're also campaigning differently.

Mr. RAMIREZ: You have to win a caucus neighborhood by neighborhood. I mean, one person at a time. It's such retail politics it would almost make most states blush just thinking about it, you know?

BURKE: Brian Kaminski(ph) is a staffer for Republican Congressman Ron Paul's campaign in Las Vegas. Preparing for the caucus has forced him to get to know neighbors he'd only seen from afar.

Mr. BRIAN KAMINSKI (Ron Paul Campaign Staffer): When you put on a television commercial, you're coming into somebody's house. But we're literally coming into somebody's house. I mean, you know, they're inviting you in and giving you cookies half the time.

BURKE: And meanwhile, party leaders have ceased on the early caucus as an opportunity to prepare for the general election a year from now.

Sue Lauden is chair of the Nevada Republican Party.

Ms. SUE LOWDEN (Nevada Republican Party): You know, this is a practice run on our grassroots support and getting out to vote. And we will know who's engaged in Nevada, and that's very, very good for us.

BURKE: Both parties are projecting an increase in turnout from what they saw in the 2004 caucuses, but that's an easy bar to get over, since the Nevada caucuses drew less than one percent of registered voters that year. Compare that to Iowa, where 21 percent of registered Democrats attended that year's caucus. So the big question in Nevada is can either party attract more than just a tiny core of activists?

Mr. STEVE SEBELIUS (Editor, CityLife): I don't see voters as being any more less energized than they were, say, in 2004 or 2000 just because of the caucus process. Quite frankly, it probably confuses a lot of people.

BURKE: Steve Sebelius is the editor of CityLife, a weekly newspaper in Las Vegas.

Mr. SEBELIUS: You know, a lot of people said, well, now that Nevada is like Iowa, it'll become a little Iowa; you know, there'll be people in people's living rooms in diners. And it really hasn't turned out that way.

BURKE: And candidates are visiting Nevada less. There have been 10 times more presidential candidate events in Iowa than there have been in Nevada this year.

Most of those Nevada visits have come from Democrats. Only two Republican candidates even have offices in the state.

Susan Milligan, who covers national politics for the Boston Globe, says candidates seem baffled about how to meet real live voters in Las Vegas.

Ms. SUSAN MILLIGAN (Boston Globe): Well, what are you going to do, campaign on a strip? The people who are patronizing the casinos are generally from out of state, and you know, they're drinking margaritas by the yard. They don't want to talk to a candidate.

Unidentified People: Rudy. Rudy. Rudy. Rudy.

BURKE: Last week, several dozen people gathered to see former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani at the Crazy Pita, a newly-minted restaurant in one of those newly-minted suburban shopping malls south of Las Vegas.

Republican Joan Pasero(ph) stands on a chair to watch as Giuliani picks his way through the crowd, signing autographs.

Ms. JOAN PASERO: This is the first candidate that I have seen for Republican president and I think they should come here more.

Pasero has covered herself with Giuliani bumper stickers. She even has one on her forehead. And she's waiting for her chance to get a photo.

Ms. JOAN PASERO (Republican): With all the signs I have on my body, he can't miss me.

BURKE: Pasero eventually gets her 10 seconds with the candidate and a photo too.

Ms. PASERO: Here we go.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Republican Presidential Candidate): All right, there you go. Thank you.

BURKE: It isn't much of a conversation. A voters in Iowa or in New Hampshire might feel slighted, but Pasero doesn't seem to mind.

Ms. PASERO: As far as I'm concerned, Rudy's at the top of my list right now.

BURKE: So you might be wearing another person's sticker on your forehead or never?

Ms. PASERO: No, I don't know. That's debatable. Right now I'd say no.

BURKE: For NPR News, I'm Adam Burke.

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