A Raucous Caucus

What are we to make of the Republican contest to date? We’ve got Rick Santorum winning Iowa after the fact and failing to gain any momentum from it, Mitt Romney crushing it in New Hampshire in a result that surprised no one, Newt Gingrich winning in South Carolina in a result that surprised everyone, and now Florida pushing Romney back to the front of the line as the Republicans head west for the Feb. 4 Nevada caucus.

One thing is for sure: Unlike other contests to date, in Nevada each of the frontrunners has his backers. Take Romney and the Mormons, for example. His support transcends religious affiliation, but there’s considerable pull for him among LDSers. In the 2008 Nevada caucuses, Romney whipped Ron Paul and John McCain, getting 51 percent of the vote compared with 14 and 13 percent for Paul and McCain, respectively. According to exit polling, 90 percent of LDS members voted Romney, and they made up a quarter of all caucus voters.

Then you’ve got Gingrich and Sheldon Adelson, who singlehandedly brought Gingrich’s campaign back from the dead with a $5 million donation to his superPAC Winning Our Future. That contribution helped Gingrich win South Carolina—and then Adelson’s wife, Miriam, kept the former Speaker of the House rolling with another $5 million for the battle in Florida. Of course, $10 million is chump change to a man whose worth Forbes recently pegged at $22 billion, and who is influential enough to get his own caucus held at a private school bearing his name so observant Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists can participate. How far is Gingrich willing to go with this one-man financing option? At some point it’s going to get embarrassing.

And, of course, Paul has his own allies in Nevada—our vaunted army of small-government, independent-minded, quasi-libertarian voters. He’s also panting for the Mormon vote, with volunteers walking neighborhoods and making phone calls to church members to sell his ideas of limited government and strict adherence to the Constitution, which most Mormons believe is divinely inspired. And he’s locked down the all-important hooker vote, proving once again that politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. And while his choice to run as a Republican rather than a third-party candidate has rankled some in the Nevada Libertarian Party, Paul is still the affinity candidate for the get-the-government-off-my-lawn wing of the Republican Party. (Our caucuses are closed, so registered independents and Libertarians can’t vote.)

Then there’s the caucus system itself, which Nevada can’t quite seem to master. In 2008, the Republican contest turned into a chaotic mess of long lines and voter confusion. The Democrats didn’t do any better: Hillary Clinton supporters sued the Democratic Party to prevent caucus meetings at Strip hotels, fearing that the location would be a boost to Barack Obama.

This year, things may get even weirder.