From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones and NBC's Chuck Todd and Mark Murray
Just as the doors opened for the Nevada Democratic caucuses, the Clinton campaign held a conference call to begin downplaying their chances -- sort of.
Communications Director Howard Wolfson said the Obama campaign considered the endorsement of the Culinary Workers' union tantamount to victory and that the existence of nine at-large caucus sites on the Strip could make a 5-point difference in the results today. "There are some idiosyncrasies involving the caucus sites that were set up for the members of the Culinary Union and their disproportionate impact in the awarding of delegates that we believe will give Sen. Obama a clear advantage walking in the door today by as much as five points. So we will see whether the polls accurately can predict that kind of activity," he said.
The Obama campaign released its own memo downplaying expectations. "Barack Obama is very proud of the effort that he and his campaign have made in Nevada. As people head to their caucus sites this morning, we have closed over a 25-point gap in a state where Hillary Clinton was the choice of much of the political establishment and enjoyed huge advantages in terms of name identification," campaign manager David Plouffe said in the memo. "We expect to do well today and a win in Nevada for Obama would be a significant upset. As University of Nevada Reno political science professor put it - 'If she loses Nevada, it's not just a loss. It's a collapse.'"
Plouffe added, "Our hope is that today's caucus comes off without a hitch and as many people as possible participate, however we remain concerned that the tactics of the Clinton Campaign and their allies in recent days have confused voters and could lower participation... Beginning with the lawsuit filed by their allies to suppress turnout among union members, the Clinton campaign has been engaged in a systematic effort to discredit the process - a process which was pushed, developed, and approved by their supporters at the Democratic National Committee and in Nevada. It wasn't until Obama began gaining strength in a state they expected to win by at least 20 points that they began their attempts to delegitimize the process."
The Clinton conference call was designed to add to the confusion on exactly what the at-large precincts mean to this process. In it, senior adviser Karen Hicks spelled out four basic differences between the Nevada and Iowa caucus process. In Iowa, the state delegates assigned to each precinct are based on historic turnout whereas in Nevada, the state delegates in most precincts – the non at-large precincts -- are based on number of registered voters. She said voters had only one chance to realign – or change their candidate of preference -- and only if the candidate they chose the first time around is not viable. Nevada has a paper trail because caucus attendees list their preferences on a card. Hicks said the big difference with Iowa was the existence of these at-large caucus locations.
"There are 10,500 delegates that will be awarded in the non-at-large precincts. The number of delegates for the at-large precincts is unknown and so that will be based on turnout today. So that is a key distinction between the non at-large caucus locations and the at-large caucus locations. Delegates in the typical caucus locations are awarded based on registration. In the 9 at-large locations they're actually based on turnout today," she said, before going into the complicated formulas used to determine the number of delegates awarded at the at-large sites and the criteria for participating at these sites.
Hicks listed the challenges of organizing at the at-large sites. "Unless you're part of Culinary union, you would not know who's a shift worker or if they're going to be on duty on Saturday, for example, and when the specific shift changes are and the access to the pre-registration lists was not allowed by party rules nor did the party release the actual location of where these caucus sites were within the specific casinos. Those were not released to us until yesterday, so it's been very, very challenging to try to build a base of support. We have a lot of popular support at these locations but it's not clear exactly how that translates into participation in the caucus and the awarding of delegates," she said.
Both Hicks and Wolfson made sure the entire process sounded very confusing (and, frankly, it is). But there definitely was an emphasis on the confusing. They did say they felt "very strong" about their overall effort in the other 95% of caucus sites where delegates would be awarded.
Asked directly about President Clinton's charge of voter intimidation and whether a formal challenge would be issued by the president or the campaign, Wolfson said he wanted to wait until he spoke to the president about what he said he saw at the casinos yesterday.