The latest contest in the United States presidential primary season is set to be a Republican doubleheader, with not one but two races in a single state.
The problem is, only one will carry weight in the battle for the party nomination.
This week, Nevada, a battleground state in the southwest, is set to host both a Republican primary and a Republican caucus — rival events poised to spur voter confusion.
The US already has a notoriously idiosyncratic election process. In the lead-up to a presidential election, candidates compete for delegates in state-level votes in order to receive major party nominations. Whoever wins the most party delegates becomes the nominee.
Typically, states hold either a primary or caucuses to determine how their party delegates are divided up.
But a clash between Nevada’s state politicians — and the Nevada branch of the Republican Party — has resulted in both a primary and a caucus being held.
But on February 6, Nevada will organise a state-run primary, as mandated by a recent state law. However, the Republican Party is protesting the vote and will award no delegates to the victor.
Two days later, however, the party will host its own caucuses: a series of meetings where registered voters gather, debate and decide which candidate to support. The winner will receive all of the state’s 26 delegates.
With former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley competing in the primary — and ex-President Donald Trump in the caucus — the top two Republican candidates are effectively in two separate state races.
Why are there two races?
The duelling events underscore a schism between the Republican Party in Nevada and state election officials.
In 2021, Nevada’s state legislature — which was dominated by Democrats at the time — passed a law that required the state to hold a presidential primary.
That represented a major break from tradition, as the state had held party-run caucuses for decades.
But officials argued the change was necessary: Caucuses are relatively rare and widely criticised for being inaccessible, as they require voters to attend in-person meetings to participate.
Democrats also pointed to delays in the announcement of the 2020 caucus results as justification for the switch.
The Republican Party in Nevada swiftly raised concerns that the state-run primaries did not require voter identification and allowed mail-in voting. It argued that both factors could lead to widespread fraud, a position that has been regularly disproven.
However, the new law mandating state-run primaries did not preclude parties from continuing to hold caucuses. So that is exactly what the Republican Party did.
“The caucus requires Voter ID and features paper ballots, completely transparent vote tabulation, same-day results and no mail-in ballots or same-day registration,” the state Republican Party said in a statement in October.
“It is a crucial event in the political calendar because it provides Nevadans with a unique opportunity to voice their preferences and play a pivotal role in shaping the direction of our country.”
What’s the benefit of having a caucus?
Critics have argued that the state’s Republican Party opted to hold caucuses because that style of contest is more likely to benefit Trump.
Caucuses require a significant time investment from voters. As a result, they tend to attract more committed political supporters.
Some observers have also noted the chair of the state Republican Party, Michael McDonald, is an avid Trump supporter. He and five other Republicans falsely certified a 2020 victory for Trump in the state, a move for which he was later indicted.
Under McDonald, the party has set strict rules for candidates to participate in the caucus.
Presidential hopefuls had to cough up a $55,000 entry fee to take part. The Republican Party also prohibited candidates from participating in both the primary and its caucuses.
Haley, who opted to run in the primary, said, “The caucuses have been sealed up, bought and paid for.”
“That’s the Trump train rolling through that,” she said in New Hampshire, adding her campaign will focus on the states that are “fair”.
Her campaign is instead focused on the fourth race in the Republican primary calendar, in her home state of South Carolina. She previously served as governor there.
Haley previously placed third in the Iowa caucuses and lost to Trump by 11 percentage points in New Hampshire.
Could both Haley and Trump win?
Yes, they could each win their own separate races. But only the caucuses matter for the eventual party nomination.
Haley is running essentially unopposed in the Nevada primary, although registered Republicans could opt for a “none of the above” option in the voting booth.
In the party-run caucuses, Trump is expected to crush Ryan Binkley, a Republican pastor leading a long-shot campaign.
So is it a done deal?
On the surface, the two Nevada races are relatively inconsequential, but a few scenarios could make the outcomes interesting.
The news website Axios reported disquiet in the Trump camp: Campaign officials fear that confusion and poor organising could result in a low turnout — which could, in turn, raise questions about Trump’s appeal in the key battleground state.
Meanwhile, if Haley performs comparatively well in the state-run primary, she could give Trump’s campaign a black eye.
For its part, Haley’s campaign has barely poured any resources into Nevada. That could be a mistake though, according to Nevada political analyst John Ralston.
“Truth is [Nevada] should have mattered, but Haley botched the opportunity,” he wrote on the social media platform X.
“Early states are NOT about delegates, but about momentum and narrative.”