After months of reassurance that they could play with the big boys despite a trail of mishaps, the Nevada GOP played all of its cards Saturday and lost big time in a messy, disorganized election that saw low turnout and complaints of voter fraud and unexplained ballots.
But the biggest tell that the volunteer-run caucuses didn't go as planned was that well over 24 hours after voters finished casting their ballots, no one officially knew who had won.
The final tallies were released early Monday. The holdup was Clark County, the state's most populous county and home to the Las Vegas Strip, where officials stayed up until the wee hours Sunday counting ballots but still couldn't finish the task.
To be sure, the winner was never in doubt. Various media outlets called the race for Mitt Romney soon after it was over, and he gave his victory speech Saturday night in Las Vegas. Romney won the state in 2008 and had the most organized campaign here of any candidate.
But the fate of the state GOP's 28 delegates had remained unknown.
On Monday morning, GOP officials posted final results that had Romney with 50 percent, Newt Gingrich in second place with 21.1 percent, followed closely by Ron Paul with 18.7. Rick Santorum finished last with 9.9 percent.
"It is just layer upon layer of issues that we are trying to work through," said acting GOP chairman James Smack. "We are not dragging our feet on it. We just want to make sure we get it right."
Executive Director David Gallagher said each of the candidates had representatives observing the count and all agreed to the process.
Party rules required that the results be counted by midnight, but they weren't posted on the party's website until well after midnight. Gallagher said the results had been tallied by hand and were typed into a computer file.
"Obviously we are not like the government," he said. "These are volunteers that count them. They are not professional."
Only 32,963 voters participated in the caucuses, far short of the 44,000 Republicans who voted in the 2008 GOP caucuses. That contest was largely considered a flop and party officials had vowed to do better.
"They had the mistakes of 2008 to learn from," said Chuck Muth, a tea party organizer in Las Vegas. "They apparently didn't learn from those mistakes and they created new ones."
In comparison, turnout was up slightly in the first three states to vote, New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. Nevada was fifth, after Florida.
Northern Nevada GOP leaders blamed the dismal showing on early-morning cold weather, the lure of good skiing and Romney's projected dominance in the state.
"A lot of people felt the state was in the bag for Mitt Romney," Smack said. "If the other candidates had more time here, it would have made a difference."
The tedious hand-counting process had volunteers up until 4 a.m. after the Saturday caucuses and missing Sunday church services to tally ballots. Unlike most elections, the caucuses were not overseen by professional voting officials or the government, but rather the state and county GOP parties. There were 1,835 precincts and 125 caucus sites statewide.
"There is no modern technology when it comes to how the voting took place and the counting," said Clark County GOP spokeswoman Bobbie Haseley.
The caucus led to complaints of disorganization and confusion. Each county had its own caucus rules and some voters were unaware that they could not walk in and out and vote, as in a primary, but had to arrive on time and sit through some debates on behalf of the candidates. There were reports that GOP leaders found unaccounted votes. Paul supporters complained of fraud and several people posted their complaints on the Clark County GOP's Facebook page Sunday.
Former GOP Chairwoman Sue Lowden said there were no problems reported at the caucus site in Las Vegas where she volunteered as a site manager Saturday. Voting was done before noon.
Lowden, who oversaw the 2008 GOP caucuses, said she wasn't sure why the results had not been made public, but was careful to add that she was not being critical of the process.
"My goal in 2008 was to give the national press the number for their six o'clock newscast, and that goal was accomplished," she said. "It wasn't perfect, but we got the job done and I am still waiting for these results."
In the months and weeks leading up to the caucuses, it was clear that the Nevada GOP was not running the most experienced shop. Party officials moved their caucus date twice before settling on Saturday, and some campaigns fretted that too little had been done to educate voters about the messy caucus process.
Party officials frequently readjusted expectations, initially projecting 100,000 voters would show up, then 70,000, then 60,000, then 55,000 before some predicted late Friday that turnout would not exceed the 2008 results.
That year, Nevada Democrats and Republicans held caucuses ahead of most states for the first time ever. Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, drew 110,000 voters in a competitive contest that saw Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigning earnestly across Nevada.
In contrast, Republicans drew less than a third as many voters to their non-binding contest that most candidates skipped.
To give the contest more clout this time, party leaders made the caucuses binding and promised to proportionally hand out delegates according to the election results in a bid to entice candidates to campaign here and give voters more incentive to show up.
But only Romney and Paul, who placed first and second in the 2008 caucuses, set up campaign operations in Nevada. Santorum and Gingrich largely ignored the state until the contest's final week, when they showed up and held a few public events.
Adding to the uncertainty was a last-minute decision from party officials to release the election results not as they came in, but all at once late Saturday. The exception was the Clark County tallies, which were held to accommodate a special late-night caucus, the only one in the state.
The result was that long after most media organizations called the race for Romney, no one was quite sure until early Monday how many votes he or any of the other candidates had won.
For some, the delayed results were not an indication of any greater trouble.
Former Nevada Gov. Bob List said the caucuses were a success with few issues.
"There was lots of good planning in ensuring we had accurate results before they were announced," said List, a state Republican committeeman. "That's the most important thing, a trustworthy process."