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Nevada’s push to have the first-in-the-nation presidential primary faces hurdles

A Nevada law waiting for the governor’s signature would switch the state’s caucus to a primary and move it up on the calendar

People wait in line at an early voting location at the culinary workers union hall in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 2020.
People wait in line at an early voting location at the culinary workers union hall in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 2020. Lawmakers in the state are waiting for Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to sign a bill that would change the state’s presidential caucus into the first-in-the-nation primary in time for 2024.
John Locher, Associated Press

Nevada would like to go first.

Lawmakers in the state are waiting for Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak to sign a bill that would change the state’s presidential caucus into the first-in-the-nation primary in time for 2024. But it will take more than the governor to seal the deal.

Any changes to the primary calendar have to be signed off on by the national parties, meaning Nevada still faces hurdles to leapfrogging Iowa and New Hampshire. The Nevada bill would schedule the state’s primary for the first Tuesday in February, triggering a New Hampshire law that requires the state to move its primary “immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election.”

Assemblyman Jason Frierson, a Nevada Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said there’s a chance other states could still move ahead of his state’s new primary date since its Legislature meets biennially.

“If another state decides that that’s what they want to do, then there’s nothing that we can do to stop that,” Frierson said. “However, those are states that are not representative of the country the way Nevada is.”

Proponents of Nevada having its primary first argue the state is more reflective of U.S. demographics than Iowa and New Hampshire, which are both more than 90% white. Nearly 30% of Nevada residents are Hispanic and 10% are Black, according to Census data.

“Nevada having the kind of population that we do and the issues that we’re facing in the state, it’s just ideal, I think,” Frierson said.

Iowa’s botched 2020 Democratic caucus, in which results were delayed, led to calls for the state to step aside and let another state go first. “The status quo is clearly unacceptable,” former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told the New York Times in February. Republicans, however, seem less eager to shake up the status quo, with Nevada GOP lawmakers voting against the bill.

Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democrats, said he’s supportive of Nevada remaining one of the early, pre-Super Tuesday states, but he’s confident New Hampshire will fend off any challengers to its first-in-the-nation primary.

“We’ve been very supportive of the Nevada caucuses, and as they transform into a primary, we are certainly supportive of them remaining part of the four early states,” he said. Buckley noted it’s still early, though, and the DNC won’t organize its rules and bylaws committee until later this year. “We have a long way to go before the events of early 2024, and we feel pretty confident.”

Regardless of when Nevada votes in 2024, the switch from caucus to primary could change the makeup of the electorate, since primaries make it easier for residents to make their voices heard. It’s not just Nevada either; increasingly, states are dropping caucuses for primaries. Between 2016 to 2020, the number of states that used caucuses dropped from 14 for Democrats and 13 for Republicans down to three for Democrats and five for Republicans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Nevada became an early primary campaign state in 2008 when its caucus became the first in the West. Former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been an active proponent of moving his state’s nominating contest earlier, and he told the New York Times in February that diversity, union membership and geography were the reasons why.

“Racial diversity, of course, is one thing,” he said. “Union membership is another thing we have in Nevada. Number three, the population center of America is moving west. It used to be that a majority of people in America were east of the Mississippi River. Now it’s just the opposite. So I think it’s important that people understand that the West is now heavily populated and is taking over being the center of our country.”