By MARTIN GRIFFITH, ASSOCIATED PRESS
RENO, Nev. -- With its 24-hour casino gambling, legalized prostitution and drive-through wedding chapels, Nevada seems anything but conventional. When it comes to voting in presidential elections, it's as mainstream as it gets.
Nevada hasn't made much of a difference in selecting the nominee for president or on national politics in general. State officials are hoping that Saturday's Republican caucuses change that.
Despite its renegade image, some analysts think Nevada is more representative of the U.S. than other early voting states because of its diverse population. While two-thirds of its population is white, 26.5 percent is Hispanic, 8.1 percent is black and 7.2 percent is Asian. The state does have a large Mormon population, which is expected to help Mitt Romney, a member of the church.
Faced with poor turnout and high costs for its presidential primary in 1996, Nevada moved to a caucus system with voting in March. Candidates began paying more attention in 2000 after the state became a battleground and a major source of campaign contributions, particularly from Las Vegas casino moguls such as Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson.
Still, caucus attendance remained sparse until 2008. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid persuaded his fellow Nevada Democrats to move the voting to January that year. Reid wanted to make candidates pay greater attention to issues facing his home state and the West as part of a larger Democratic strategy to capture swing states.
The race between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton drew a record turnout of 116,000 Democrats. While Clinton won the caucuses 51 to 45 percent, Obama ended up with 14 national delegates to Clinton's 11.
Nevada Republicans also set an earlier caucus date for its candidates that year. But few candidates competed, including eventual nominee John McCain, and Romney easily won. Only about 44,000 Republicans turned out to caucus.
This year, Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have campaigned around the state in what is the first nomination contest in the West and the fifth in the nation.
Another lure for presidential candidates: With 2.7 million residents, the fruit of a population explosion over recent decades, Nevada now has six electoral votes, up from three in 1980. They could become valuable in a close election in November.
While Democrats hold a 95,000-voter edge over Republicans in registration, analysts say Nevada voters' relative lack of partisanship makes them open to candidates from both parties. The state's large number of independent voters decides many elections.
Nevada has the best record of any state since 1912 for siding with winners, voting for the victor in 24 of the past 25 presidential elections. The lone exception was when Republican Gerald Ford won Nevada over Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Saturday's caucuses face a potential snag that could dash its hopes of making a mark on the race. Although voting takes place in most areas through midafternoon, a special late-evening caucus set up for Jewish voters means complete results won't be released until after 10 p.m. EST. The lag has raised concerns about the validity of the count.