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Nikki Haley has pretty good odds of winning Tuesday’s primary in Nevada. Her prize regardless of the outcome: nothing more than a headline. That’s because Donald Trump won’t even be on the ballot. Two days later, the state’s Republicans will hold a caucus where participants will be able to vote for Trump, but not Haley.
The shambolic and distinctly undemocratic system is no accident. Republicans in Nevada—a swing state that is home to a competitive Senate race that could decide party control of the Upper Chamber—engineered this confusing outcome. The primary, which doesn’t include Trump and awards no delegates, is essentially meaningless. In political circles, there’s even a (sexist) term for such show events: “Beauty Contests.”
The real decision will be made at the Thursday caucus, where participants will decide the makeup of the 26 delegates who get to attend the GOP Convention in Milwaukee in July. Yet Haley, a former South Carolina Governor who is the last credible candidate standing between Trump and his third nomination in eight years, won’t be among the options.
So, how did this happen? The simple answer is Trump had a long lead-time, his advisers this go ‘round understood Republican National Committee rules and how state parties are run, and laid plenty of traps to make sure opposition didn’t have a fair shot at the state’s delegates—roughly 1% of the national pie.
Some backstory is also needed, as the kindling to this absurd outcome starts with the Democrats.
After the 2020 campaign, it was clear Joe Biden was looking to make his mark on his party’s nominating calendar. Caucuses were falling out of favor, given their non-democratic nature and tendency to reward loud-but-doomed candidacies. And New Hampshire’s very, very white primary wasn’t exactly beloved by Biden after his fifth-place finish there. South Carolina, which played a crucial role in Biden’s last bid, would be the first party-recognized primary. And Nevada, seeing a threat to its first-in-the-West standing, ditched its caucuses for a primary—albeit with a huge loophole that Republicans spotted with smirks.
Instead of falling in line with a 2021 law passed by Nevada’s Democratic legislature and signed into law by its Democratic Governor that requires a state-run primary to be held on the first Tuesday of February, Nevada Republicans decided to stick with caucuses and scheduled them for two days after the prescribed primary. The state party—seen far and wide as an unofficial arm of Trump’s MAGAverse—also barred any candidate participating in the state-run primary from also participating in the caucuses, demanded a $55,000 charge to try to challenge Trump, and decided it would avail itself of that loophole that left control of delegates in party hands. Yes, the state law required a primary, but it was silent on how the parties had to allocate nominating delegates.
And then, for good measure, the Nevada GOP set a Jan. 9 deadline for Nevadans to declare themselves Republicans to participate in those caucuses; the Iowa caucuses weren’t scheduled until Jan. 15, meaning Haley’s potential showing couldn’t inspire action in Nevada among anyone but hardcore Republicans.
So you can understand why Haley’s team views the events unfolding in Nevada this week with hardly veiled contempt. Trump, meanwhile, is expected to visit on Thursday to declare victory in a caucus where his only remaining challenger wasn’t allowed to compete. It is expected to be his first public campaign event since a rambling victory speech in New Hampshire.
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“We made the decision early on that we were not going to pay $55,000 to a Trump entity to participate in a process that was rigged for Trump,” Haley’s top aide, Betsy Ankney, said this week. “Caucuses generally tend to benefit Trump, given the fact that he’s the former President.”
Ankeney told reporters on Monday that the campaign had “not spent a dime or an ounce of energy on Nevada.”
And then there’s this risk: Nevada law requires “None of These Candidates” be an option for statewide offices and President and Vice President. It is not unimaginable that Trumpists could have a little fun at Haley’s expense during Tuesday’s primary. Heck, the state’s Republican Governor, Joe Lombardo, plans to do exactly this. (Because the caucuses are party-run events, there is no chance of running afoul of double-dipping prohibitions in the law.)
Publicly and privately, Haley’s backers are pushing ahead with South Carolina’s Feb 24 primary and Super Tuesday on March 5 circled largely on their mental calendars. A massive 36% of the delegates to Milwaukee will be doled out on the biggest day of voting yet.
But first, Haley’s team needs to navigate her own backyard. My TIME colleague Eric Cortelessa has a dispatch from inside Trump World about the plans to blunt Haley there. Haley’s team insists the South Carolina contest would not change her plans heading into Super Tuesday, win or lose.
But, just to be sure, Haley has about $4 million booked on South Carolina airwaves. Since Haley had a strong second-place showing during New Hampshire’s Jan. 23 primary, she has aired about $1.7 million in ads at home.
Haley can afford it. She began the year with $14.6 million in her campaign account. In January, she raised another $16.5 million. Even her most ardent supporters acknowledge she faces tough odds, but they are eager to see how Haley’s toughening criticism of her former boss—Haley was Trump’s representative to the United Nations—lands over the next month.
Beyond the horse race, there’s a bigger headline that deserves to be blared from Nevada: this too-cute-by-half two-step is far from what anyone would consider democratic (with a lowercase D). The Democrats were not incorrect when they finally acknowledged the problems with party-run caucuses. Elections that demand public declarations of fealty at specific dates and times—without options for mail-in or early voting—undercut democratic norms and, especially in Nevada, penalize hourly-wage workers who tend to be less affluent or white. Nevada’s elected legislature saw where national Democrats were going with their calendars and chose to adjust the state’s voting framework accordingly, and made it easier to register to vote and vote by mail.
Nevada Republicans, however, showed themselves to be like so many state parties around the country. Those organizations, typically filled with behind-the-scenes players, are so loyal to Trump and his allies that they opted to give the former President the game and grease his path back to the nomination. Haley’s team could have contested Trump in the caucuses—Vivek Ramaswamy planned to do so before ending his bid, after all—but her team’s home state focus last year made sense then as it does now.
In turn, Nevadans opening their mail found only Haley’s name on their ballots for the primary, sparking plenty of conspiracy theories that Trump allies were all too eager to embrace—despite their efforts to game the system for their preferred candidate. And, heading into what is expected to be a highly charged and fact-free election season, the sowing of any seeds of distrust in a democratic system should be causes for worry. After all, Jan. 6 didn’t just happen out of nowhere.
So while Haley is going to watch Nevada possibly give her a win in a primary and a corresponding goose egg in the delegate table, there’s an even bigger loser: Nevadans who fear the future of democracy is on the ballot this year. In fact, Nevada couldn’t even get the leading challenger to the frontrunner on the ballot to test that theory, and the frontrunner chose to set up his own alternative to a one-person-one-vote primary. That should be plenty worrying to those who value free and fair elections in which everyone has the same clout to decide the winners in a system determined by a commonly accepted set of rules.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com.