Nevada Expectations: Rory Reid v. David Axelrod

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The Bourbon Room caught up with Rory Reid, son of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and head of Hillary Clinton's Nevada campaign, and senior Obama adviser David Axelrod to discuss Saturday's Nevada caucuses.

Reid: "Anyone who tells you knows what turnout is going to be is lying because nobody knows. We believe Democrats are energized and this is an exciting process for Nevada Democrats, but we just don't know how that is going to translate on caucus day. Hillary Clinton has a strong identity in Nevada and has attracted a lot of support because of her work on Yucca Mountain (the nuclear waste repository the vast majority of Nevadans don't want) and her push for an economic stimulus bill that will help southern Nevadans deal with the mortgage crisis. We feel very good about where we are in this campaign."

Axelrod: "I've always felt that we were fighting from behind here because she has most of the establishment with her. We're the challengers, we're the insurgents, we're taking on the party establishment. I've heard (turnout) estimates from 25,000 to 100,000 so it's almost impossible to predict. There's no voter history here. But I do believe she has structural advantages here that are formidable and we will have to overcome them."

Handicapping Saturday's Nevada caucuses would be difficult under the best circumstances. Considering the turbulence of the fight for the Democratic nomination so far, predictions about Nevada are riskier than any wager in a state famous for them.

The biggest variable here is turnout. No one knows what it will be. In 2004 energized Democratic turnout was 9,000 for caucuses that everyone knew would have no affect on the race because John Kerry was clearly en route to the nomination.

A long time ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the biggest players in Nevada capturing its coveted third-in-line status among early caucus and primary states, said turnout could be as high as 100,000. Talk about betting the farm. There are about 412,000 registered Democrats here and a 100,000 turnout would constitute caucus attendance of roughly 25 percent of registered Democrats.

I am not aware of a precedent anywhere in American history of a state achieving turnout that high in its first competitive presidential caucus. Most Nevada pros are assuming caucus attendance will follow the Iowa model, in which about 10 percent of registered Democrats participated when Iowa's nominating caucuses first became competitive and nationally meaningful.

Considering the energy and excitement this race has generated among Democrats, it wouldn't be illogical to assume turnout could be as high as 15 percent of registered Democrats. If you accept the 10 percent to 15 percent turnout model, you would then expect between 41,000 and 62,000 Democrats to participate. But there are other factors that could keep turnout down, among the distractions embedded in a three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend; confusion about where to caucus, and the simple lack of a caucus culture that motivates people to take an hour out of their Saturday morning to attend.

All this makes campaigns uneasy because the only thing more nerve-wracking than bad polls numbers is poll numbers you can't trust because you can't confidently create a reliable turnout model. That's where the Clinton and Obama camps find themselves now.