February 5, 2016; RGJ Seth A. Richardson.
Caucuses and primaries are vastly different processes. The voting is different, the voter is different and in many cases, like Nevada, campaigns have to develop specific strategies for how to best sell a candidate.
Primaries are often considered much easier for voters than caucuses because they work essentially the same as a general election. Voters walk into a booth, fill out a ballot and turn it in. Caucuses are more akin to a community meeting. They also take longer.
The campaigns have to plan accordingly for how to court potential supporters. Emily Benavides, a spokeswoman for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Republican campaign, said the main difference lies in how to reach voters.
“It’s at a very personal level making sure people understand the process of a caucus and what is required to participate,” she said.
It’s one of the reasons the campaigns spend so much time interacting with voters in different ways. Town halls, surrogates campaigning on their behalf, rallies or meet and greets, they’re always looking to create a personal connection between the voter and the candidate.
But Benavides said one of the main focuses of the caucus ground game is making sure voters know how to caucus. It’s one of the reasons campaigns as well as both parties hold caucus training sessions, teaching the process to 50 people at a time.
Robert Uithoven, state director for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s Republican campaign who has worked in both primary and caucus states, said successful caucus organizations can’t simply throw money at the contest.
“In a primary situation, you can run a campaign almost without any real organization, coalition building or grassroots mobilization by simply running millions of dollars of TV ads, digital ads and direct mail pieces,” he said.
Simply making sure people remember the dates of the caucus is one of the first challenges Uithoven said he tries to address. When he speaks at functions around the state, the first thing he tells people to do is pull out their cell phones and mark Feb. 23 – the date of the Republican caucus – in their calendar. Democrats do the same to remind voters of the Feb. 20 event.
“The last thing you want is to get these people committed to you willing to support your candidate and a week out comes along and they say, ‘Oh I forgot, I planned a vacation and have to go out of town,’” he said.
Rural districts are often overlooked in lieu of large cities in primary states where a popular vote is used to count delegates, but Joan Kato, state director for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Democratic campaign, said that’s not the case even in a state like Nevada where Republicans dominate the rural vote.
“Every part of a state counts,” she said. “It’s not just about your big population centers. In a caucus, you can have places across Nevada that will have a big influence on the outcome of the caucus because of how delegates are counted. It’s about the whole state, not just the population centers.”
The campaigns have paid attention to the rural areas. Sanders has offices in Elko and Winnemucca. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has an office in Pahrump.
Jorge Neri, Nevada organizing director for Clinton, said campaigns have to be more surgical in determining where they place their resources.
“When you look at a caucus, like Nevada, we have to pay a lot more attention to precinct by precinct,” he said. “Certain precincts are weighted more, so we’re making sure we have a good strategy where we’re reaching out to everybody and being strategic in where we place our resources.”
As important as rurals are to Democrats, they could be even more crucial to Republicans. A large field means a small amount of votes could determine the final results.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio became the first candidate ever to visit Yerington, a town of around 3,000 people. Cruz, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – who has since suspended his campaign – all visited a ranch in Gardnerville to address a crowd of around 1,200. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul visited Ely, a town of around 4,000.
“It’s much more people to people, coalition member to coalition member and it’s labor intensive,” Uithoven said. “It requires a lot more personal engagement.”
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