‘The Trump train is a-comin': Nevada Republicans descend on GOP caucus sites
At 4 p.m., an hour before the Republican caucus began, the line into a caucus site at Washoe County’s Spanish Springs Elementary School in Sparks was 40 people long.
Almost an hour later, the line ballooned to more than a thousand people, with more voters on the way.
“The Trump train is a-comin',” voter John Sylvester II said, pointing at the sea of Donald Trump paraphernalia voters wore, from hats to T-shirts and even socks. One young person in line sported a red, white and blue striped unicorn headband.
“Everything’s upside down. What used to be right is wrong,” Sylvester said about his decision to caucus for former President Trump. “I didn’t go to the primary. This is what it’s all about.”
Though the lines were long and temperatures frigid, the crowd at the elementary school was in good spirits, with one caucusgoer remarking that the lines felt like Disneyland.
Sylvester and other voters who spoke with The Nevada Independent said that they came to caucus because they liked the in-person, community feel and the GOP caucus’ voter ID requirements. And, as many voters noted, Trump wasn’t on the state-run primary ballot.
As for the other candidate on the caucus ballot, CEO and pastor Ryan Binkley?
Voter John Michael, 60, summed it up with a joke: “Who is Binky?”
Thursday’s vote is the second in as many days in Nevada, and comes after months of confusion — from top Republicans to rank-and-file voters — over the decision by state Republican Party leaders to hold the caucus in tandem with a nonbinding state-run primary required by state law. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was the only major candidate on the primary ballot, but lost to the protest “none of these candidates” option.
Among the confused voters was Carol Ward, 81, a Carson City resident who left before she even voted. It was her first missed election, she said, since she turned 18. She told The Nevada Independent that she wanted to vote for Trump — but “this has got to be the ungodliest whole thing.”
At issue for Ward was the growing line and the worsening winter weather, coupled with raw confusion over the process itself.
“When I got the first [caucus mailer], you couldn’t make heads or tails out of it,” Ward said. “I even went so far as to call the secretary of state, and the lady that answered the phone laughed … And I called the Republican Party, they asked me to come to work [for the caucus]. I would be embarrassed to work there right now. There’s no way.”
Mike Mead, 67, another Carson City caucusgoer, had volunteered in local elections for 16 years. The 2 1/2 hours designated for the caucus would not be sufficient time for the number of people, he argued. There to support Trump, he had to arrive an hour early to get in, he said, standing in a snowstorm the whole time.
“This is a mess,” Mead said.
Still, he agreed with the decision to hold a caucus — he did not vote in the primary — and hoped future caucuses might run more smoothly.
Mary Bowers, also from Carson City, said she too came out to support Trump — to “do the right thing for a change, to get the right person in office.” As for whether she prefers a caucus or a primary, “I truly, honestly, don’t understand the difference between the two.”
“I’m here to vote, and they voted on Tuesday,” Bowers said. “The one thing I do know, why I chose the caucus, is because this is where Trump will get the delegates. This is the one that matters.”
How we got here
From the moment Nevada’s Republican Party announced it would forgo the state-run primary in favor of a caucus to determine how the party’s presidential delegates would be allocated, some top Republicans and many voters have questioned the decision.
In an October interview, Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo called the dueling contests “detrimental to candidates,” “confusing” and “unacceptable” — statements he stood by when he announced that he would be caucusing for Trump and voting “none of these candidates” in a symbolic state-run primary.
The confusion also led to a slew of social media questions about why Trump wasn’t on the primary ballot, long waits on GOP office phone lines and unfounded conspiracy theories that certain candidates were being kept off the ballot.
But the Nevada GOP moved in September to hold a caucus in tandem with a 2021 state law mandating a presidential preference primary election so long as two candidates have filed. After the party sued to block the primary, a state judge ruled last July that both contests could move forward.
That primary election ended Tuesday with “none of these candidates” routing the only active major candidate, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, by more than 30 points. Fueling that result were a number of Trump voters for whom “none of these” became a stand-in for Trump.
That included Clark County resident Peggy Kilian, 81, who on Tuesday called Trump’s absence from the primary ballot “ridiculous” and said she cast her primary vote for “none of these candidates.” A longtime Trump supporter, Kilian added she would be caucusing for the former president Thursday.
Another Southern Nevada voter, Rudy Roybal, 43, showed up at an election site on Tuesday only to discover that Trump would not be on the ballot. He decided not to vote that day but said he would participate in the party caucus.
“To me, it was pointless. I don't think it's right. Trump should be on both ballots,” Roybal said.
As caucus sites opened Thursday afternoon, turnout for a race with no real competition two days after a primary election remained an open question.
Caucus turnout is traditionally low — Republicans set a record caucus turnout of 75,000 in 2016. This year, there are nearly 560,000 registered active Republicans statewide according to the secretary of state’s office, of which more than 79,000 voted in Tuesday’s primary.
What does the caucus actually look like?
To participate in the caucus, Republican voters needed to travel to their respective precinct locations and receive a paper “Preference Poll ballot.” The state party required participants to show a government-issued ID, and allowed voters to mark a paper ballot, submit it and then leave, instead of the normal caucus process.
Government-issued forms of identification are not typically required in Nevada to vote, but many Republicans, including Lombardo, have argued that voter ID requirements lead to more secure elections. Officials said the party implemented the ID requirement for the caucus because it's a popular policy and they wanted to ensure that only legal citizens voted. Opponents of the practice say it could create barriers for people who don’t have easy access to an ID or can’t afford one.
Voters who attended the caucus said that the ID requirements played a significant role in why they participated in the caucus.
“I think caucusing is important, number one, to cast your vote for the primary candidate that you wish,” retired law enforcement officer Roger Vind, 66, said at Washoe County’s Spanish Springs caucus site. “But the other and probably most important aspect of caucusing is voter identification … one person, one vote and verifying [the identity of the person] who is voting.”
Once voters were signed in, depending on the caucus site, they were instructed to elect a precinct caucus chair, or an official who establishes a link between a party and its voters at the precinct level. Voters then handled various party-related needs, such as nominating and electing delegates to the county convention.
After party business wrapped up, participants had the opportunity to caucus or debate about the two candidates on the ballot: Trump or Binkley. Once the debate ended, voters could submit secret written ballots.
A general agenda for the caucus on the state party website noted that all meeting attendees were encouraged to participate or observe the ballot count, which could not start before 7:30 p.m.
Following the end of the ballot-counting process, officials would announce vote totals to attendees and report the totals to the county central committee, which would then report the votes to the Nevada GOP.
Though the press has historically been allowed to observe the debates over candidate choices and vote counting, the state party stipulated that individual county parties could set their own policies regarding press admission, including banning the press altogether.
In Southern Nevada, the Clark County GOP opted to ban members of the press from observing the caucus altogether, while the Washoe County GOP set up one site where certain members of the press could watch the process.
“I will only invite journalists and reporters, I will not allow propagandists,” Washoe County GOP party Chair Bruce Parks told The Nevada Independent about the decision to prohibit certain members of the press from attending.
Representatives from both county parties said members of the press could speak with voters outside the caucus location.
What caucus voters in Las Vegas are saying
At two caucus sites in Las Vegas — Calvary Red Rock Church and Cimarron-Memorial High School — hundreds of people stood outside in winding lines on Thursday.
Eight caucusgoers said in interviews that they were particularly passionate about securing the southern border and lowering costs. While some said they did not care for how Trump conducts himself, all of those interviewed described his presidency as far more successful than Biden, who they described as senile and corrupt.
“We are not respected throughout the world,” said Joanne DeMarco, 63.
Marcia Spew, 70, was one of hundreds of people at the Calvary Church Red Rock in Las Vegas. Wearing a “TRUMP WAS RIGHT” shirt, Spew said she had not been politically involved until the past couple of years — 2024 was her first-ever caucus. She said she believes former President Barack Obama is running the country.
“Everybody knows,” Spew said. “Look at Biden. He doesn't even know he's president.”
Foreign policy was a concern for Curtis Schmit, a 22-year-old UNLV student caucusing at Calvary. He criticized Biden for American involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Palestine conflict (Biden is a vocal proponent of giving more aid to Ukraine and Israel, both American allies).
“I think Russia did the wrong thing, but at the end of the day, we need to focus on what we’re doing here,” Schmit said.
Some voters acknowledged that they can be put off by Trump’s comments at times — but that didn’t hold any weight in who they would throw their votes behind.
Linda Berger, 78, moved to the U.S. from London when she was 12 and called the day she became a naturalized citizen “the best day of [her] life.”
Trump, Berger said, loves the country, which matters most to her.
“I know that he has a lot of things to say that people don't like and find him very abrasive,” Berger said. “But my feeling is he loves this country, and the things that he does for this country benefit all of us.”
Reporters Jacob Solis and Eric Neugeboren contributed to this story from Las Vegas. Reporter Tabitha Mueller contributed from Reno, and Tim Lenard from Carson City.