RENO, Nevada — Susan Sarandon is worried about Saturday’s Nevada caucuses.
“I'm so begging you to be tough during these caucuses and to know your rights and know how it works,” the actor told a crowd of Bernie Sanders supporters at The Nugget casino on Friday afternoon. “Because I can't figure it out.”
“This is so complicated as far as I'm concerned,” she said.
Sarandon turned her critiques into a dark joke, delivered with a movie star’s smile. “You know what they say! Democracy's messy so that's the way it goes,” she said. “But everybody eat ahead of time, apparently. Don't let your blood sugar drop."
Ahead of Saturday’s caucuses, people are worrying about something really going wrong here in Las Vegas. First the party was concerned about having enough volunteers. Now, conspiracy theories abound, and the fear that Nevada will look like the mess earlier this month in Iowa is haunting both Democratic campaigns. In Iowa, the complicated structure and tight result led to the image of an election being decided by a series of coin flips.
Nobody wants Nevada to look like that, and state campaign officials bristle at the suggestion Iowa is a preview of the Nevada caucuses.
“This is part of a campaign playbook to distract from the caucus results,” Zach Zaragoza, executive director of the Nevada Democratic Party, told BuzzFeed News. “For months now, the state party has been educating voters, training precinct chairs, and modernizing pre-registration tools, all while running an extensive digital and mail program. Since Iowa, we knew the campaigns might push out this false narrative and try to hedge their bets.”
But everyone else has something to worry about.
Clinton supporters were chattering Friday about rumored Republican efforts to take advantage of a loophole in the system to register and caucus with the Democrats for Bernie. The state party and the Nevada Secretary of state warned that Republicans attempting to pretend they’re Democrats to caucus could disqualify them from caucusing with the GOP next week.
Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign, burned by an Iowa caucus process they still say wasn’t fair, has built a robust “election protection program” for Bernie volunteers to fall back on if things go sideways. The system was built, based in part, on lessons learned in Iowa: It includes a handful of attorneys on hand and a hotline for Sanders precinct captains — the trained Sanders partisans on hand to wrangle the rest of his supporters during the raucous caucus process. The team includes experts on the Nevada system, ready to pounce and contest things they think are not going well.
Caucus are always hotbeds of partisan conspiracy, but after Iowa, things are even more torqued up than usual. Part of it is Nevada and the craziness of last time. In 2008, Clinton won the popular vote, but President Obama won the most delegates. That led to headlines declaring two Democratic winners — something that still stings here, and has led many to expect a less-than-smooth Saturday once caucusing gets rolling.
Chris Newman, a lawyer and immigration activist from Los Angeles who once monitored a Hugo Chavez election in Venezuela in 2007, is coming to Las Vegas in his personal capacity to monitor the polls.
He said he doesn’t personally suspect foul play from Clinton, but said "widespread reporting" that a number of precincts came down to coin tosses in Iowa contributed to concern that there could be attempts to game the system, which would lead to distrust over the results.
“You could see that there were a lot of concerns and even some conspiracy theories about what happened in Iowa and this is the best way to avoid that type of situation and ensure the legitimacy of the process,” he said.
The central report in recent days has been that the Sanders campaign is calling lists of Republican voters and telling them to change their registration and vote Saturday in the Democratic caucus, according to a source familiar with the Clinton operation in the state.
“They are the ones inviting Republicans,” the source said.
The source also said that there is concern in the Clinton orbit that Sanders supporters will try to intimidate young Clinton precinct captains because “their attitude is going to be to challenge people.”
Andres Ramirez, a Nevada superdelegate and longtime Democratic operative who endorsed Clinton at a rally Thursday after the MSNBC/Telemundo town hall, said that — if it’s true — the Sanders campaign is within its rights to do what it’s doing, but is misinforming Republican voters.
Ramirez, who is helping the Nevada Democratic Party on Saturday, said the list of voters for the Republican caucus was locked in on Feb. 13, 10 days before the GOP’s caucus. While those Republicans can indeed change their registration and take part in the Democratic caucus Saturday, he said they will not be able to then turn around and vote in the Republican one.
“I’ve talked to the elections department and the Secretary of State, that’s not true,” he said.
But he said the Sanders campaign is the one recruiting lawyers to come and “protect voting rights,” calling the effort “bizarre.” He said a caucus is not like a primary, there will be no casting ballots on a voting machine, and Democrats have same-day registration.
“I don’t understand what the fuck they’re talking about,” he said. “I think the Bernie people are so unaware, so inept about how this caucus works, that they’re going to go and try to create chaos. You’re either registered to vote or not. “
Pundits were already declaring the Nevada caucus a failure hours before they began, citing the swirling rumors and the Sanders campaign request that a volunteer be at each site recording the caucus in case later review is needed.