CARSON CITY, Nev. — Democracy was on full display in Nevada's state capital Saturday. Despite fears of an Iowa-style meltdown, caucusgoers here enjoyed a caucus experience that largely was low on technological glitches and high on spirited discussions.
“Hanging out here this morning, we have had some wonderful debates with Bernie (Sanders) supporters and we all agreed that the number one goal is to beat Donald Trump in November,” said Jamie Hutchinson, a precinct captain who supported former mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Hutchinson spent her day at Eagle Valley Middle School, one of three caucus locations in this town of 55,000 that is just south of Reno and east of Lake Tahoe. As with Eagle Valley, Carson Middle School and Pioneer High School had no lines as doors opened to caucus voters around 10 a.m. PT.
That stands in stark contrast with reports from caucus veterans here who say lines in 2016 wrapped around the block and lasted hours, causing some people to give up. This year, Nevada allowed early voting, which wound up accounting for some 75,000 votes, in contrast to the 84,000 who caucused in total four years ago.
Supporters of a range of Democratic candidates set up shop in the early chill, some offering coffee and donuts along with T-shirts and signs.
Unlike a simple private primary vote, caucusing amounts to a gathering of neighbors aligned by precincts. During the actual caucus — which as anticipated lasted from noon to 2 p.m. PT — caucusgoers have the opportunity to try to convince supporters of less viable candidates to align with theirs.
But passions ran hot among those hoping to capture any last minute hearts and minds.
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"We are talking to people who maybe aren't sure who to vote for yet, giving them the message that with his entrepreneurial background, Tom is the best person to take on Trump and the economy," said Ivet Contreras, Nevada press secretary for billionaire businessman Tom Steyer.
Brandishing cookies and buttons outside Eagle Valley Middle School, Contreras and her team had just finished giving a hug to 92-year-old Hal Sayler. “I like that Steyer supports term limits,” said Sayler, sporting a Navy veteran hat. “All those guys in Washington worry about is getting reelected, while they’re there spending our money.”
Sayler, who served in the military everywhere from Hawaii to Alaska before turning to a career in education, added that he was “tired of corporations running the show and making politicians millionaires.”
Asked why Steyer and not some of the other Democrats who have found more success with voters so far, such as Sanders, Sayler said someone like the Vermont senator was “a bit too far to the left.”
As Sayler walked inside the school caucus site, Justin Vest, a precinct captain for Sanders, dismissed the concern that if Sanders wins the Democratic nomination Republicans would derail his bid by seizing on the senator’s most liberal views.
“I think if you look at younger voters they’re going to look at his positions on climate change and the economy and the whole socialist label will fall flat,” Sayler said.
Bundled up against the cold as she waited for the caucus site doors to open at Pioneer High was Alyssa Jensick, 45, a middle school teacher who was acting Saturday as precinct lead for the campaign of Pete Buttigieg.
Jensick had already made her caucus preference days before but agreed to help when the campaign said it needed her. “On election night in 2016, I cried” when President Donald Trump was elected, Jensick said.
“I was raised believing that we are all in this together, on a community level, state level, national level and world level," she said. "But I don’t feel that many in Washington today understand what it means to truly be a citizen. It seems to just be all about, what can you do for me?”
Although she is a lifelong Democrat, she admits that she has not yet put a bumper sticker on her car that still sits in her kitchen reading, “Proud Democrat.”
She says that's because of the party allowing former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg to jump into the race late on the back of millions of dollars of campaign advertising. “I don’t want the White House to be bought,” she said as the doors opened to let caucusgoers inside. "Is there going to be heat in there?" she asked as others cheered.
At Carson Middle School, a woman who previously had been sitting with caucusing Nevadans, stood in silence in the makeshift “Observers” section of the gym. Asked why she’d left the group, Erin Epperson smiled and whispered, “Shhh, I’m a Republican."
Epperson, 39, had come to the school with her Democrat boyfriend – the two work at the same small manufacturing company in Carson City and have been dating since before Trump took office. She says she and her boyfriend differ in many ways – he’s an atheist and she’s a practicing Christian – but have learned to manage the vast political gap between them.
“He likes Bernie Sanders, because the idealistic side of him that I love wants fairness for all people,” says Epperson. “I’m glad he’s participating in this process. As for us, we have learned to manage, otherwise we would be fighting all the time and who wants to do that.”
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She says she’s not a fan on Sanders' more socialist policies as that approach “doesn’t let people stand up for themselves.”
For Epperson, her support of Trump boils down to one word: economics. She calls herself “a capitalist, I have stocks,” and says she appreciates how things have been going financially. “And I like his brashness, I’ll admit it. But he can also seem like a blustering idiot.”
As the actual caucus got underway, a far more grassroots version of the electoral process took shape. After an initial grouping that saw people select their first choice, volunteers carefully explained that those candidates who received too few votes were deemed not viable. Those caucusgoers then had a chance to switch groups, selecting a candidate that had hit the viability threshold.
There were the inevitable delays, as precinct captains reiterated how the rules worked and some caucusgoers grumbled about the process. When it came to tabulating results, some captains found there were issues with the iPads issued by the state's Democratic party: They were having a tough time getting reception inside the schools.
But there was hand-tabulating going on as well, and eventually votes were tallied as a picture began to take shape of who Democrats in this state would like in the White House next year.
This caucus was the first-ever for 23-year-old Sydney Fillippini, who was practically skipping out of Carson Middle School as the proceedings came to a close.
"This was just amazing, it was a place your opinion mattered compared to the voting booths where you hide your face," she said. "This is all about being loud and proud, and that's what Nevada is, loud and proud."
Fillippini says she supports Sanders, for whom she canvassed last summer, even getting a milkshake thrown at her by a Trump supporter. She plans to keep volunteering, and would love to be a delegate from the state at the national convention. Fillippini says she's a cancer survivor, and is particularly moved by Sanders' MediCare for All plan.
"I'm tired of having a panic attack every month, worried that I won't have the medications that I need," she says. "This election is about the young in particular. Because it's our future on the line, so why not get involved and take control."
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nevada caucuses largely avoid tech issues, as early voting brings calm