Las Vegas

Like many structures in Las Vegas, the angular, ultramodern Rancho High School on the city's working-class northeast side looks like it was designed, built and airdropped onto the desert sometime last week. On Saturday, January 19, at 11 am, the building played host to five Democratic precinct caucuses, the first of their kind in the state's history.

In 2006 the Democrats, looking to capitalize on electoral opportunities out West and to diversify the early electorate, granted Nevada a coveted early spot on the calendar. But since the party originally intended that Nevada precede New Hampshire, the state couldn't stage a primary without threatening the tender ego of Granite Staters. So the DNC decided to import the complicated Iowa caucus model instead. (The state has had caucuses in the past, countywide and late in the cycle, but they were very sparsely attended.) Jayson Sime, who helped run the Iowa caucuses in 2004, moved to Las Vegas a year ago to start building the infrastructure from scratch to make it all work. "It's like planning 1,763 weddings," he told me, "and they all have to go off at the same time."

Three precincts were supposed to be caucusing in the cafeteria, but instead there was chaos. Confused crowds surrounded several large tables strewn with registration sheets and preference cards. A black woman named Violet Dorn sat at the middle table, festooned with Hillary stickers and lording over the official registration papers. Across the table, a black man in a white-collared shirt and suit with an Obama button stood berating her. "Stop telling people this table is only for Hillary!" he shouted. "You cannot do that!" A small wrestling match commenced over the paperwork. Then a white man approached. "What kind of politics is this?" he yelled. "Is this the politics of change?" His shirt featured a picture of Obama and the words He's Black and I'm Proud.

Meanwhile, the caucus attendees circled and paced, looking for some sign of order and finding none. Hobbling behind a walker, one woman explained that she'd come with fellow residents of a nearby senior citizen center looking to vote, but their names hadn't been on the rolls. (That shouldn't have stopped her, since the caucuses offered same-day registration.) Eventually she was allowed to caucus. Some people left; others just watched and steamed, frustrated and powerless. The confusion stretched on, twenty minutes, half an hour...

"This is so unorganized," one man exclaimed. "This is so unorganized!"

"Well, it doesn't help when you yell!" answered a woman in a Clinton shirt.

"You call this organized? It's a mess!"

The atmosphere grew more panicked as everyone realized no one was in charge. Because of my press credentials, people mistook me for a party official, asking where they were supposed to go, what to do if their name wasn't on the rolls and which precinct they belonged in. I took to looking up precinct locations on my phone. The room seemed to teeter on the precipice of a general melee. Volunteers scurried off to call for backup. I phoned the state Democratic Party and told them they had to send someone to Rancho High School immediately.

About fifteen minutes later, Andres Ramirez, the party's Hispanic outreach director, showed up. With great effort and lots of shouting from a tabletop, he miraculously managed to get everything running smoothly. Afterward, he told me he'd been prompted to come by live coverage of the debacle on television.

Ultimately, much of the chaos and rancor resulted from Dorn's dual role as temporary caucus chair and precinct captain for Hillary Clinton. As temporary caucus chair she was the only official party presence there, charged with administering the sign-in in a nonbiased manner and making sure everything ran smoothly. As a precinct captain for Hillary, her job was to deliver votes for the candidate. Dorn conflated her two roles, telling attendees they could sign in only if they were supporting Hillary, while prechecking the preference cards she dispensed with a mark next to Clinton. This (understandably) sent Obama supporters into hysteria. After the caucus, Dorn admitted that "there was some confusion" on her part as to her role. Subsequent conversations with caucus-goers and campaign organizers convinced me that disorder was commonplace: the smooth functioning of the caucuses depend almost entirely on the competence and good faith of the volunteer temporary chair.

The Democratic campaigns in Nevada were far more orderly than caucus day but no less contentious. Although the tone was sharpening, the two front-runners seemed to be converging on rhetorical rhythm. Clinton now not only presents herself through the lens of change but at a rally in a junior high school on the eve of the caucus, she peppered her speech with numerous allusions to "hopes" and "dreams" and made Obama-esque nods to bipartisanship: "It wasn't a Republican problem or a Democratic problem," she said of her advocacy for better healthcare for wounded veterans. "It was an American problem." Obama in turn has dialed his speech down about three notches on the rhetorical abstraction scale, stuffing in more laundry list-style issue specifics in the Clinton vein. And Michelle Obama, in introducing her husband at a rally at Rancho, spent the entire time stressing his "experience"--as an organizer, a civil rights lawyer and a state legislator.

In the absence of substantive ideological differences and rhetorical contrasts, what's left to divide the two candidates and their supporters is more or less identity, and the appeals and attacks of the candidates themselves. All politics are tribal to a certain extent, but the degree to which this is the case in the current Democratic primary is striking: young hipsters favor Obama; retirees, Hillary Clinton; black men, Obama; white women, Clinton; and so on. These demographic differences were apparent at campaign rallies and caucuses alike, and were subsequently borne out by Nevada entrance polling. Among actual everyday voters, though, these affiliations are mild, marginal preferences. Even Violet Dorn said that while she was supporting Clinton because Obama "doesn't have enough battle scars," she had favorable impressions of the man.

Before Nevada, the big demographic group that seemed to be in play were the state's Latinos, but it was never really close. Clinton assiduously cultivated the endorsement and support of nearly every Latino elected official in the state. And, of course, she had the endorsement of Bill Clinton, who continues to be enormously popular among Latinos and served in Nevada as a nonstop attack dog. The ex-President's ubiquity seemed to signal a return on the part of the senator's campaign to its original message, rooted in the promise of restoring a bygone era.

Many Latino voters I spoke with in Las Vegas were supporting Senator Clinton out of something akin to brand loyalty, without necessarily knowing a whole lot about her record or positions, similar to the way Chicagoans will pull the lever for a Daley without necessarily knowing what his proposals are for the city budget or parks department. In the case of the Clintons it's an entirely rational heuristic: things were a lot better in the 1990s, so why not give it another shot?

But this machine-style loyalty can have perverse effects. Before I happened upon the chaos in the cafeteria, I spent some time talking to people in the two more orderly precinct caucuses in the adjoining gym. Ricardo Ramirez, 24, was sitting in the bleachers with his mother, Ramona Hernandez, holding Hillary signs. He shrugged nervously when I asked him why he was supporting Clinton, but his mother told me in Spanish that she was there because she wanted "a change for my country." She told me she was concerned about the war, and when after a few minutes I was about to leave, she tugged my sleeve and said there was "one more issue" she felt strongly about: people without papers.

"They just come here to work, and they suffer," she said. She told the tale of her 18-year-old grandson, born in Mexico but was brought to the States by his mother when he was 1. Last year he and two others were arrested for robbing a man of his sneakers. He pleaded guilty, and a few weeks later Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up at his door, cuffed him and deported him. He's now in Jalisco, in a country he's never lived in in his sentient life. "He doesn't know anyone there," Hernandez said, her voice shaky, her eyes welling with tears.

Just one month ago at an event in Tipton, Iowa, Hillary Clinton was asked what should be done with undocumented immigrants who commit a crime. "We have to deport them immediately," she said. "No questions asked. No legal process. Put them on a plane. Send them back to wherever they came from." I didn't remember that specific quote at the time, but I did ask Hernandez if she thought electing Clinton would help her grandson.

"Eso esperamos," she said. That's what we hope.

Viva la restauración.