What to Expect at Saturday's Nevada Caucuses

As Sanders surges, Dems prepare for the worst

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Las Vegas Ahead Of Nevada Caucuses
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February 21, 2020

Two words sum up the Democratic approach to Nevada's Saturday caucuses: damage control.

Fearing a repeat of the Iowa disaster, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez has said he will not commit to releasing results the day of the caucus. He emphasized the need for "accuracy" over speed. The state party has dumped the app that failed catastrophically in Iowa, although caucus volunteers have described rushed and confusing training on the replacement system. The caucus's timing—a Saturday, when the public will be focused on weekend relaxation—may shield against possible fallout.

Democrats' third attempt at a statewide contest will succeed if the party simply manages to count the votes, although that is far from guaranteed. At the same time, as it scrambles to ensure the integrity of the vote, the Democratic establishment seems to be doing little to counteract the other danger it faces: the likelihood that Saturday's vote will further cement outsider Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) as the frontrunner.

Nevada is the second of just four states to hold a Democratic caucus in the 2020 cycle (the U.S. protectorates of Guam, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa will also hold them). The Silver State's caucuses work much like Iowa's. Voters will gather at precincts and organize themselves into groups by candidate (first preference). If a candidate meets the 15 percent threshold to earn delegates, his or her support is locked in; those supporting nonviable candidates realign themselves to viable candidates (final preference). Delegates are finally allocated based on viable candidates' share of the precinct vote.

Nevada has, however, introduced a wrinkle this year: early, ranked-preference voting. Between Saturday, Feb. 15, and Tuesday, Feb. 18, Nevadans could go to their local polling place and record their ordered preference vote for at least three and at most five of the candidates. On Saturday, absentee votes will be incorporated at the caucus during the final preference allocation process.

It is quite possible that the majority of voters will be absentee. The Nevada Democratic Party estimated about 75,000 early votes, a total comparable to the 84,000 who turned out for 2016's caucuses. As with other reforms, the addition of absentee voters adds another point at which the process could fail, as precinct captains will be forced to deal with a complicated new system for incorporating absentee ballots.

This new complexity has Perez and others ultra-focused on making sure things go smoothly. That may be why the Nevada Democratic establishment has done so little to influence the vote's outcome.

All the available evidence suggests Sanders will run away with Saturday's vote. With one exception, he has commanded the lead in every poll of Nevada over the past month. The most recent, from Emerson College, has him 13 points ahead of Pete Buttigieg and 14 points ahead of former vice president Joe Biden.

Sanders's lead is aided by the state's demographics. Nevada is the first state in the Democratic primary cycle with a substantial Hispanic population—29 percent, compared with Iowa's 6 percent and New Hampshire's 4 percent. Sanders trounces his opponents among Nevada Hispanic voters, a recent Univision poll found, leading Biden by 11 points. He may also benefit from Nevada being a caucus state—his campaign dominated caucuses in 2016.

At the same time, Sanders's lead shows how the Democratic establishment has struggled to find someone, anyone, to unify behind besides the septuagenarian democratic socialist who is not technically a Democrat.

This was part of the goal of the New Hampshire primary, but results there—which boosted Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) while Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) fell behind—only muddled the "anyone but Bernie" lane. Nevada is unlikely to add clarity, as Buttigieg and Klobuchar both do poorly outside their base of college-educated whites. The Emerson poll showed all four of the major alternatives within 6 points of each other, far behind Sanders.

Further complicating the picture is former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is not on the Nevada ballot. Despite not yet competing in a contest, Bloomberg seemed set to consolidate the "moderate" lane, until a less-than-stellar debate performance on Wednesday stunted his odds. Election watchers will need to wait until Super Tuesday (March 3) to see if the billionaire can convert $400 million in spending into actual votes.

In spite of the Sanders wave, opposition to the Vermont senator in Nevada has been anemic. The state's powerful Culinary Workers Union, generally considered the tastemaker among blue-collar voters in the Democratic strongholds of Reno and Las Vegas, feuded with Sanders over Medicare for All but declined to endorse anyone. The Las Vegas Sun labeled Sanders a "clear non-starter" but split its endorsement between Biden and Klobuchar. Former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, the kingpin of Nevada Democratic politics, has boosted Biden but stopped short of endorsing him.

In other words, the anti-Sanders effort has been far weaker than it could be. The Culinary Union's non-endorsement may signal a split between union leadership and the rank-and-file, at least some of whom are circulating a petition supporting Sanders. That division may also be why Reid is playing his cards close to his chest. While he has all but called for the DNC to deny Sanders the nomination in July, Reid may realize that officially backing an alternative would damage his reputation among voters and sow division within the party.

That is the real damage control Democratic elites have struggled to conduct. While endorsements from party leaders have flowed to Biden and, increasingly, Bloomberg, voters do not seem to care. The establishment may want someone else, but, as is becoming increasingly apparent, the people want Bernie.