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Move Over, Iowa, Nevada Has A Caucus Problem Too

Jan White, left, Brenda Robertson, center, and Janet Freixas, right, count paper ballots at the headquarters of the Douglas County Republican Party Saturday in Minden, Nev., following county-wide Nevada caucus meetings.
Ted S. Warren

Imagine this: You're the Super Bowl host city, and you've gone to a lot of trouble to get the big game in your town. Now everyone's watching as the game comes to an end, and you can't get the scoreboard to work. Suddenly no one's sure who's ahead or how much time is left to play.

That nightmare scenario probably could not happen. But we have seen some highly improbable events lately that embarrassed the host states in the presidential nominating process.

Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn resigned this week, taking the hit for the botch that was made of the caucus count in his state last month. Mitt Romney was initially declared the winner, then told he had finished second by 34 votes behind Rick Santorum. But the party admitted it was not really sure, and some votes might be missing. Ouch.

Take the Republican caucuses in Nevada this weekend. Most of the community meetings at more than 100 sites were held in the morning or early afternoon and had their tallies in by evening. But no official results were released for hours, and the official count went on well into the night.

Why? There appeared to be delays from Washoe (Reno) County and a few other venues. But the main holdup was in Clark (Las Vegas) County, home to more than 60 percent of the Republican vote. Clark had said it would hold its release until its last caucus site reported, and at one point the state GOP said it would not release data either.

This got confusing as the evening wore on, and Clark waited on its last caucus site, at the Adelson Educational Center in Vegas. Here, the doors did not open until after sundown, so that Orthodox Jews and Seventh Day Adventists could vote after their Sabbath ended.

Awkward. The networks and other news organizations had "entrance polls" taken at caucus sites during the day all over the state. They knew Romney had won in a walk. But it's been catechism for decades that major news organizations do not name a statewide winner until all the polling places in that state have closed.

But this time the networks got impatient. Waiting seemed especially silly given the apparent margin of victory being run up by Romney. Why hold everybody up for one caucus?

They didn't. Shortly after 7 p.m. Nevada time, the call went out. And it was indeed nearly three hours before the late caucus finally finished. It was delayed because scores of Ron Paul supporters showed up, and some balked at signing an affidavit saying they had to vote at night for religious reasons. Some walked away. Others stayed, signed and prevailed.

Paul, who entrance polls showed won a clear majority of voters professing no religion at all, wound up winning handily at the late-night caucus specifically arranged for religious voters.

In the end, however, the slow count in Nevada should have no effect on the contest. Romney was declared the winner in prime time all over the country, and his speech reached as many voters as one can hope will be watching on Saturday night. The losers were simply that.

The Iowa mess, by contrast, wound up costing Santorum his best shot at the winner's circle. Sure, he got a decent bounce from finishing in a virtual tie with Romney that night (Jan. 3). But it was nothing like what might have happened if he'd been called the winner when all the cameras were on and much of the country was watching.

So far this year, we have had two caucus states and three primary states. It should be noted that the vote count in the latter states was swift and without controversy. We shall see how proceedings go in the caucus events in Minnesota and Colorado next week.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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