Republicans in Nevada had both a primary and caucus in the 2024 GOP nomination process. However, only votes cast in the caucus will award delegates to the Republican Conventional Convention. Trump’s remaining challenger, Nikki Haley, was on the ballot in the primary but not in the caucus. However, only the caucus will award delegates to the Republican National Convention. How did this happen? How does this square with recent politics?
Parties in states have wide discretion in how they will award delegates to their national convention, even to the point of them holding their own contests not run by the state. On occasion, voters may face both a primary and a caucus, with only one awarding delegates. While this is not a new phenomenon, it is not common either. In 2008 and 2016, there were both primaries and caucuses in Nebraska and Washington for Democrats. Given that caucuses traditionally require a larger time commitment than simply voting in a primary, they generally have significantly lower turnout.
This tends to benefit the more liberal candidate for Democrats and the more conservative candidate for Republicans. This can lead to divergent outcomes because of the differing electorates. In 2008, Texas Democrats held a primary and a caucus on the same day, where Hillary Clinton narrowly won the primary, but Barack Obama won the caucus by a comfortable margin. Thirty-two times more people voted in the primary than the caucus. In 2016 in Washington, 26,345 persons voted in the caucus, while over 800,000 people voted in the primary, which was non-binding. Hillary Clinton won the primary by about five points, while Bernie Sanders won the caucuses that awarded the convention delegates by 55 points.
Supporters of Sanders complained very strongly about the votes of superdelegates at the Democratic Convention, and in 2018, their power was curtailed. However, what was not as publicized was that states were encouraged to make caucuses more inclusive, but also for states to scrap caucuses in favor of state-run primaries. This underreported story had electoral consequences. While the 2020 Democratic primaries had issues that cannot be explored here, on Super Tuesday, Colorado, Maine, and Minnesota had switched from caucuses to primaries, with Idaho and Washington doing the same. Sanders won these caucus states by landslides in 2016, but in 2020, he could only win Colorado (where many ballots were cast before the primary in South Carolina).
The Nevada Republican Party chose to award delegates in a caucus over a primary due to disagreements with how the state conducts elections. On its website, the party says that its caucus will have voter identification, precinct-based voting, election day voting (in contrast to what it refers to as “election month “), paper ballots, transparent tabulation, and no dark money. Many of these have been things that Trump has said in rallies and interviews that he believes need to be changed nationwide in elections.
Trump has exhibited control over the national Republican Party, but also amongst state parties, including Nevada. Candidates had to choose between competing in the caucus or the primary. Haley chose the primary over the caucus even though it awarded no delegates and still lost by a wide margin to “none of the above,” which is unique to Nevada. We observed something somewhat analogous in the 2008 Democratic Primary in Michigan.
Due to a decision by the Republican State Legislature to move up the primary in violation of rules of the Democratic National Committee preventing most states from moving their primary too early in the process (and stripping the state of all their delegates), most of the candidates other than Hillary Clinton removed their names from the ballot. Turnout was about half of what we saw in Democratic primaries in 2016 and 2020, given that voters knew no delegates would be awarded. Clinton won the primary, but almost 40% voted for “uncommitted,” which, like none of the above in Nevada, was viewed as a proxy vote for Obama and former Sen. John Edwards.
Dr. Shawn J. Donahue, JD, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Buffalo, specializing in law and politics since 2018 and was awarded the Lisa Hertel Teaching Excellence Award in 2020. He earned his Ph.D. from Binghamton University, with a dissertation on electoral manipulation in the U.S. Dr. Donahue’s work focuses on Voting Rights and Gerrymandering, among other political sciences. Outside academia, he is passionate about travel, having explored 14 countries and 49 states, and enjoys cooking and visiting historical sites and national parks.