Jonathan Easley 2/22/20
LAS VEGAS — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is looking for a clear-cut victory at the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, one that could supercharge his campaign heading into the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday.
The delegate hauls coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire were split between Sanders and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, raising questions about whether Sanders will be able to grow his base of support enough to pull away from the field and win a majority of delegates before the convention.
Sanders appears strong heading into Election Day in Nevada, where a victory would inflame worries among the anti-Sanders crowd that the progressive senator is on a path to lock up the nomination by March 3, when 14 states will vote and one-third of the delegates will be allocated.
Early voting turnout this week in Nevada was really high, and Sanders leads by double digits in the three most recent polls of the state. Those surveys found Sanders pushing up against the 30 percent support mark, which no one surpassed in either of the first two states to vote.
Sanders’s diverse base of support in Nevada is led by Latino voters, who make up about one-third of the electorate.
“If Bernie can bring in a diverse electorate of brown and black voters in Nevada, it will cement his status as the front-runner,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist. “If he wins Nevada with an electorate that looks completely different from Iowa and New Hampshire, the conversation will shift dramatically in his favor.”
The Vermont senator is projecting confidence, campaigning outside of Nevada for most of the week leading up to the caucuses, with a focus on Texas and California, which represent the most delegate-rich states to vote on March 3.
That raises the stakes for Sanders in Nevada, as anything less than a breakaway victory will ignite a new round of questions about his strength as a front-runner.
Complicating matters for Sanders: Nevada is a notoriously difficult state to poll. All of the candidates have reasons to believe they can outperform expectations and possibly cut into his lead on Saturday.
The latest surveys find Sanders’s closest rivals — Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and businessman Tom Steyer — all bunched closely in the 10 to 15 percent range and hoping that a late burst of momentum will propel them closer to Sanders.
“It’s going to be a very close race,” said Annette Magnus, the executive director for Battle Born Progress, a liberal group in Nevada. “It’s hard to poll Nevada and notoriously difficult to predict the outcome of the caucuses. I don’t know that anyone knows what will happen.”
For the first time, the Nevada Democratic Party allowed four days of early caucusing. More than 70,000 people turned out to vote early, nearly matching the 84,000 who turned out in total for the Nevada caucuses in 2016.
The ranked choice voting, where supporters for candidates who fail to reach the 15 percent support threshold can realign behind another candidate, injects a layer of uncertainty into the process.
That dynamic appeared to hurt Sanders in Iowa, where he won the raw vote total but came in second in the delegates race after supporters for low-performing candidates realigned behind Buttigieg in subsequent rounds of caucusing.
Early voters were asked to give their top three preferences in order. Voters can also list the same candidate three times, or they can write in “uncommitted” if their first choice is not viable.
The state party is offering same-day registration for those who want to participate in the Democratic caucuses, potentially bringing in a flood of new voters in a state that is known for its transient labor force.
“It does look like Bernie will have the lead in the beginning, but that could shrink a bit after the realignment happens,” said one progressive strategist in the state.
Warren will be looking for a late surge after an electric debate performance that helped her raise an astonishing $5 million in a 24-hour period.
Warren has been drawing sharper contrasts with Sanders in recent days, suggesting that she can get things done.
“I don’t want to be president just to yell at people,” Warren said Thursday on MSNBC. “I want to be president to change things.”
The Massachusetts Democrat is seeking inroads with the state’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population, releasing an agenda this week to combat income inequality within that community.
Clark County has the nation’s fastest-growing AAPI population, leading the state party to add Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, to the voter preference ballot, alongside English and Spanish.
Biden is hoping that his strong support among black voters and Latinos, who together make up about 40 percent of the voting population here, will propel him to a stronger-than-expected finish.
Polls find Biden is the only candidate other than Sanders with significant support from Latinos. The latest Nevada survey from Telemundo found Biden and Sanders in a statistical tie for first place among Latino voters.
The liberal group Latino Victory Fund endorsed Biden on Thursday, giving him a boost heading into the caucuses.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg has been Sanders’s strongest competition to date, but he faces real questions about whether he can reach voters of color — something he must do to be competitive in a diverse state like Nevada.
One Buttigieg Spanish-language campaign ad running in Nevada instructed viewers on how to pronounce his name, underscoring the degree to which many Spanish speaking voters are hearing about him for the first time.
In Clark County, about a quarter of residents speak Spanish at home.
Buttigieg has focused on the rural parts of the state outside of Clark County, traveling to Northern Nevada for events that his campaign says drew more than 1,000 people.
Rural voters can be tough for the campaigns to reach in a state where more than 10 percent of people don’t have an internet connection.
The dark horse candidate in Nevada is Steyer, who until this month effectively had the airwaves all to himself in the state.
“He’s spent a lot of money here, he’s visited a lot and he’s invested in a team,” said Magnus. “He’s definitely one to watch on Election Day.”
The candidates will be looking to organize their labor supporters in a state where 14 percent of workers belong to a union.
The Culinary Union, which counts 60,000 members and is the strongest political force in the state, declined to endorse in the primary, although union leaders warned their members that Sanders’s "Medicare for All" plan would eliminate their current plan.
But Sanders could have an edge among the labor union rank-and-file.
The National Nurses United, which is one of Sanders’s strongest allies, is on the ground here canvassing for Sanders.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), meanwhile, did what many are doing in this divided field of candidates — urging supporters to back more than one candidate. That strategy could come into play during the realignment at the caucuses.
“While several candidates in this race share our values, three in particular—Vice President Biden, Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren have significant support within our membership,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten. “There is a real connection with these three candidates because of their record of working with us over the years on public education, higher education, healthcare, labor and civil rights.”