RENO, Nev. — A thinned-out primary field and a group of Nevada Republicans loyal to Donald Trump have put the former president on an easy path to sweep the state’s Republican delegates and made the third state in the GOP primary calendar a national non-factor.
Nevada will have two contests in February. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley will run in the Feb. 6 primary that the Nevada secretary of state is required to operate. Trump will run instead in the Feb. 8 caucuses operated by the state Republican Party, which has decided that only its caucuses will count for the purposes of awarding delegates.
The changes, which could confuse thousands of voters who receive primary mail ballots without Trump on them, also diminish the influence Nevada would have as any early, competitive nominating state.
Trump allies within the state Republican Party engineered changes last year that set them up for caucuses and imposed restrictions that rivals including Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis felt made the process unfair.
Haley, the last major contender against Trump, is bypassing Nevada altogether and instead campaigning in her home state of South Carolina, which holds a Feb. 24 primary.
“Talk to the people in Nevada: They will tell you the caucuses have been sealed up, bought and paid for a long time,” she told reporters in New Hampshire. “That’s the Trump train rolling through that. But we’re going to focus on the states that are fair.”
Back in 2021, Democrats who controlled state government passed a law requiring the state to hold a presidential preference primary. The state’s elections are some of the most expansive in the country, with a universal mail ballot system sent to every registered voter unless they opt out.
But close allies of Trump in the Nevada GOP decided to bypass that process and hold their own caucus two days later — complete with on-site voter ID requirements, paper ballots and only same-day voting in a two-and-a-half hour window on a Thursday evening.
Michael McDonald, the Nevada GOP chairman, has told The Associated Press that the party pushed the caucus since Democrats in the state Legislature did not consider Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo’s election measures, particularly voter ID. Nevada Republicans have also held caucuses in the past when deciding their nominee.
Lombardo criticized the state Republican party’s decision to hold a caucus as confusing to voters, as have other Republicans across the state. But he still plans to caucus for Trump.
The state Republican Party also gave candidates an ultimatum: candidates who sign up for the Feb. 6 state-run primary would be barred from the Feb. 8 party-run caucus. Haley opted for the primary, while Trump chose the caucus.
While Trump is left off the primary ballot sent to Republican voters, he is the only major candidate eligible for Nevada’s 26 delegates. He’ll face longshot Ryan Binkley in the party-run caucus, who received about 0.1% of the New Hampshire vote.
“It’s been very confusing to me for quite a long time,” said Henry Vanderleest, a resident of Sparks, which neighbors Reno. “But as we get closer I’m starting to figure some of it out. But it shouldn’t be this confusing at this stage.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen Tim Scott will also be on the primary ballot, since they declared for that contest before they dropped out. DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie chose the caucus before they left the field.
Caucuses, which typically reward base support and organizing, are expected to benefit Trump given his solid grip on the GOP’s most loyal voters. While campaign staffers are allowed to try and sway voters during the caucus meetings, the state party passed rules when the primary field was more crowded to restrict super PACs, like the one DeSantis had been relying on, from trying to bolster support for candidates in a caucus.
The primary mail ballot without Trump is sitting unopened on Vanderleest’s “semi-junk pile” on his desk, he said. None of the candidates appeal to him, and the voting process has stumped him. He knew that Trump would not be on the ballot but was not sure if he was allowed to vote in both contests — which he is.
“I just think for people that don’t follow this or don’t have time to follow this, it’s very confusing,” he said, laying blame on both the quality of candidates and the voting process for why he will sit this election out.