Why Nevada might not matter in the GOP presidential race

Trump and Haley won't square off in the state's primary or caucuses.

February 5, 2024, 6:20 PM

This week, Nevada Republicans will test whether having two of something truly is twice as nice.

Nevada's state-run presidential primary takes place today, but the Republican vote won't affect the GOP's national delegate contest. Instead, the state's delegates will be allocated based on the results of caucuses run by the Nevada GOP on Thursday. And as it turns out, the only two serious contenders left in the Republican nomination race — former President Donald Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — will not face off in the Silver State. That's because Trump filed for the party-sanctioned caucuses while Haley entered the discounted primary.

This double-election situation may seem odd, but it's not unheard of for a state party to forgo a government-run primary and instead use a party-run election or other method to award national convention delegates. The history of presidential primaries is replete with "beauty contests" — elections that have no direct bearing on how the state party apportions the state's national delegates to presidential candidates. More unusual is that Nevada's separate contests will occur in such close proximity — the same week — and that there will be no overlap between the candidates on the ballot in each race. And more broadly, the lack of a Trump-Haley matchup has likely reduced Nevada's influence in the Republican nomination race. Instead of facing off this week, the pair aren't scheduled to meet in another major contest until South Carolina's primary on Feb. 24. (Republicans in the U.S. Virgin Islands will also caucus on Thursday.)

That Nevada's dueling contests would keep the state from hosting a key initial clash in the 2024 Republican race was far from a given last fall. Ahead of the mid-October candidate filing deadlines for the Republican caucuses (Oct. 15) and primary (Oct. 16), it appeared that each contest would involve at least three "major" Republican contenders, based on 538's criteria for major candidates.

The Nevada GOP's desire to continue using a caucus system created these split circumstances. Nevada has held a spot in the early part of the presidential nomination calendar since 2008, with each party using caucuses to vote. But in 2021, as part of a package of measures intended to expand voter access, the then-Democratic-controlled state government passed a law to reestablish a presidential preference primary — the state held one in 1976, 1980 and 1996 — that would potentially replace the caucuses. After a failed legal suit to stop the state from holding the primary, the Nevada Republican Party decided to proceed with its preferred party-run caucus system to allocate national delegates, setting the dual system in motion. To discourage participation in the primary, the state GOP then prohibited candidates from filing for the caucuses if they ran in the primary.

But to the surprise of some Nevada Republicans, a handful of notable contenders still filed for the primary even though doing so ruled out any chance to win delegates. Two factors likely played into that decision. First, some of Trump's rivals viewed the state party's choice to use caucuses as a move to help Trump, who has strong support among the most conservative GOP voters more likely to dominate a lower-turnout caucus event than a higher-turnout primary. Second, with Trump's commanding lead in the state giving him a near-certain caucus win, some candidates may have decided that the Trump-less primary gave them a better shot at winning something in Nevada, even if a victory would produce nothing more than a few positive headlines. Additionally, paying the $55,000 filing fee for the caucuses — reduced to $35,000 if a candidate participated in a party fundraiser — was a concern for campaigns struggling with money, such as that of former Vice President Mike Pence.

Today's Republican primary ballot will include Haley, Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and four minor candidates. With Pence and Scott no longer running, and Trump not on the ballot, Haley is basically assured of finishing ahead of every named candidate. However, another option might create a few embarrassing headlines for her. That's because Nevada is the only state that offers voters a choice to vote for "None of These Candidates." Although pro-Trump primary voters can't write in Trump's name — Nevada prohibits write-in votes under most circumstances — they could choose that option to voice their lack of support for any of the contenders available to them. And some high-profile Republicans have encouraged that approach, such as state Gov. Joe Lombardo and Lt. Gov. Stavros Anthony.

As for Nevada's Republican caucuses, Trump has just one minor opponent on the ballot, pastor Ryan Binkley, who earned 0.7 percent of the vote in Iowa and 0.1 percent in New Hampshire. It's worth noting, though, that caucus turnout could be paltry and far lower than the number of voters who participate in the primary. Although voting for each contest is limited to registered Republicans, Nevada uses a vote-by-mail system for its state-run elections, with an early-voting option, whereas the caucuses are a completely in-person event on a weekday evening. And the difference in turnout could be even larger because the lack of serious competition may further reduce interest in the caucuses. As of Monday morning, nearly 58,000 Republican votes had been cast in the primary, according to data from the Nevada secretary of state. By comparison, 75,000 Republican voters caucused in Nevada in 2016, but this year may look more like 2008 and 2012, when 44,000 and 33,000 Republicans participated, respectively.

More broadly, there are many past instances of a party using caucuses to award national convention delegates even though the state also held a primary. For instance, Washington Democrats regularly used the results from February or March caucuses instead of the subsequent state-run primary vote to allocate delegates until 2020. Montana Republicans used caucuses instead of the state's primary results to allocate delegates in 2008, and didn't formally allocate their national delegates in 2012, once again ignoring the primary. (Because of the 2024 GOP calendar rules, Montana Republicans won't use the state's primary results this year, either.) The history of "beauty contest" primary results having no bearing on how a state awarded delegates extends beyond caucuses too. Take Illinois Republicans, who cast separate votes in the state primary on presidential preference and on the election of individual delegates to the national convention. Up until 2016, the preference vote had no effect on allocated delegates at any level. Since 2016, district delegates are still directly elected, but the statewide preference vote allocates at-large delegates. There are even other examples of separate elections being held in close proximity: Until 2016, Texas Democrats had long used a system known as the "Texas Two-Step" that allocated a majority of delegates with the primary results and then awarded most of the others via party caucuses held the night of the primary.

But while most past beauty contests or even dual systems like the old Texas Two-Step usually had a similar set of candidates on each ballot, Trump and Haley not going head-to-head on any ballot in Nevada has made today's beauty contest distinctly ornamental. It's a situation an early-voting state like Nevada hasn't been in before. Iowa and New Hampshire have long viewed their events as sacrosanct — although Democrats have threatened their status recently — while South Carolina's primary has been a regular cog in the early part of the GOP calendar since 1980 and for Democrats dating back to 2008. Nevada also joined in as an early state starting in 2008, but didn't have a state-run primary option until the law changed in 2021.

The broader reality is that Nevada's quirky split contest and lack of a matchup between the last two major Republican candidates has taken some of the shine off of the Silver State's importance. Haley is a long shot to defeat Trump at this point, but Nevada's diminishment has both reduced the importance of a Trump victory there and pushed the next major decision point to South Carolina, her home state. This has given Haley more time to make up ground in the Palmetto State, where she trails by around 30 percentage points in 538's polling average. Nevada's dueling contests have instead become more of a curiosity, while South Carolina is the place where Haley will make what might be her last stand against Trump in the battle for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.