LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Las Vegas-centric Clark County is home to more than 75 percent of all Democrats in Nevada, but Bernie Sanders is choosing to spend the last day before Saturday's critical Nevada caucus in tiny Elko, a six-and-a-half-hour drive north of here, where there are just 4,137 registered Democrats in the entire county.
Just a few days ago, Hillary Clinton, too, made a pilgrimage to Elko, a deeply conservative area that voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama 75 percent to 22 percent.
The fact that the candidates are spending precious time in the small city speaks to both the closeness of the race in Nevada – the candidates were separated by just one point in the most recent poll -- and the quirks of the state’s caucus process, which gives voters in rural areas more sway than they might have in a primary.
It’s a lesson from the playbook Barack Obama ran in 2008 to edge Clinton on delegates, even though she turned out more supporters than her rival.
Clinton has learned her lesson from 2008, venturing up north and deploying organizers to rural areas. But it’s Sanders especially who is focusing on the sparsely populated northern reaches of the state, which also tend to be whiter and thus more favorable to his candidacy.
On Friday, he’ll head to Elko, Carson City, and hit Reno again less than a week after holding two events there. “The Biggest Little City” was also his first stop on a two-day swing to the state in late December, when he held a 2,000 person rally in town. And when he visited Nevada in August, he split his time between Las Vegas and Reno.
That hardly means he’s abandoning Las Vegas and the 436,000 registered Democrats in Clark County. But it reveals a different set of priorities from Clinton, who is using her final days before the caucus to more narrowly target casino and hotel workers on The Strip.
Clinton and her top allies have been fanning out to many of the city’s largest hotels to meet with workers in employee-only areas at the so-called “back of house,” even though the powerful Culinary Workers Union that represents the workers declined to endorse Clinton or any other candidate this year.
If this were a primary, Sanders’ time might be better spent focusing on maximizing turnout in heavily populated areas, especially since there’s plenty of room to improve on the roughly 20 percent turnout seen in the state’s contest eight years ago. But Nevada is a caucus and that means a supporter in one place is not necessarily worth as much as a supporter living somewhere else.
Nevada has 23 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, divided somewhat evenly among the state’s four congressional districts. The First District, which includes most of Downtown Las Vegas and The Strip, gets 5 delegates, while the remaining three districts get 6 delegates each.
“The name of the game is collecting delegates and all of [the Second Congressional District] and a large part of [the Fourth Congressional district] are outside Clark County, and that represents half the delegates,” said Chris Wicker, the Reno-based vice-chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party, who is staying neutral in the contest. “If you do well outside of Clark County, you can still collect a significant number of delegates going to the national convention.”
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In 2008, Obama’s team understood this better than Clinton’s team. Clinton beat Obama statewide by a solid 5 percentage points when it came to county delegates, the closest approximation of raw votes.
But Obama earned one more national delegate in part by winning almost all of the northern reaches of the state -- including Elko and Reno. Clinton dominated in Clark County and the two neighboring southern counties, which are more diverse than the north, and she's will likely do well in Clark again.
“Senator Clinton has been through Clark County many many times and so has President Clinton,” said Wicker.
But the Democratic Party set up the caucus system to help grow its strength in rural and conservative areas, in part by encouraging candidates to invest time and organizational resources outside of major cities.
The party does this by giving rural counties a disproportionate number of delegates. In small rural counties that have 400 or fewer registered democrats, the party assigns one precinct delegate per five registered Democrats. In more populous counties that have 4,001 registered democrats or more, it’s one precinct delegate per 50 registered Democrats.
That boost doesn't make the small counties count more than the larger ones, but it helps make them count at all.