Nevada Caucuses 2020: Preview

We’ve arrived at the third contest of the 2020 Democratic Primary: the Nevada caucuses. Just three days removed from a testy debate — one in which the most targeted candidate is not on today’s ballot and the least targeted candidate is the strong favorite to win the nomination — we’re eager to see how the exchanges were interpreted by voters.

The churlish debate, however, is not the only thing that makes today’s contest unpredictable. For the following reasons, Nevada is a notoriously quirky contest:

  • Only this century had it become promoted to the third voting state. Nevada has yet to manifest a proud tradition, a la Iowa and New Hampshire, of carefully considering its role on the process.
  • It’s a caucus state, which, even if its Democratic Party is no longer using a new app (ahem, IOWA), can lead to confusion and mayhem.
  • Caucuses are also inherently controversial because they are a public vote. Particularly in Nevada, where labor leadership is unusually strong, that can lead to implied pressure.
  • Nevada is among the more difficult states to poll. It’s heavily Hispanic population can be the victim of a language barrier. Moreover, the population of the state is constantly in flux, with many people moving there for quick work. They lack roots in the area, and residents frequently move in and out.
  • Like Iowa, results will include A) an initial vote before realignment, then B) a final vote, which will convert into C) delegate allocation. Unlike Iowa, however, Nevada allows early voting. That leads to unfamiliar ballots for a population that, again, is frequently Hispanic and/or transient.
  • Las Vegas has a… reputation.

While the polls suggest there’s little drama for tonight’s winner, the race for second, in tandem with the fact that we’re in Nevada, suggests the night won’t escape without some theater.

As a reminder, candidates earn delegates only with 15% viability state-wide and/or in Congressional districts. Nevada’s delegation to the party’s national convention is apportioned like so:

  • Congressional District 1: 5
  • Congressional District 2: 6
  • Congressional District 3: 6
  • Congressional District 4: 6
  • State-wide: 13
  • Total: 36

And here are the current delegate standings:

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All other candidates: 0

All right, we’re ready. Below are four questions, and my attempt at answers, for today’s Nevada caucuses.


1. In the race for 7th, can write-in votes (Bloomberg) outpace Tulsi Gabbard for 7th place?

It is not an important question. Bloomberg is not on the ballot, and Gabbard might as well not be. Anyway, my answer is no.

8. Write-in Bloomberg
7. Tulsi Gabbard

2. Who finishes in fifth and sixth? And, more importantly, would they then drop out to help clear the field?

Forgive me for giving away the obvious prediction, but Bernie Sanders is going to win tonight. The race behind Sanders, however, is incredibly close. I can see a case for the next five candidates to finish as high as second and as low as sixth. For those who finish toward the bottom, it may be hard to defend staying in the race. Biden and Buttigieg are certain to stay in, as Biden is banking on South Carolina and southern-dominated Super Tuesday, while Buttigieg is currently in the delegate lead and will almost surely remain in the top two overall after tonight’s result.

As for the others — Warren, Klobuchar, and Steyer — it’s harder to make a case to stay in with a fifth or sixth place finish. They certainly might stay in. After all, there’s another debate just three days away; six people have already qualified for it, and Steyer would join them if he wins a delegate tonight. Still: those would be dead campaigns walking.

The question remains: who will finish in the ignoble fifth and sixth spots? Let’s go to the polls. Though we can’t totally trust them in Nevada, it can be a starting point for working this out. Here are their rolling Real Clear Politics averages in Nevada over the last month. (Note the angular graph, which is a reflection of the few Nevada polls conducted.)

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(See what I mean about the close race behind Sanders?)

My prediction for sixth place goes to…

6. Tom Steyer

His case for second is that he’s been spending millions there longer than anyone else, and a lot of the polls that show him competing in the top tier weren’t counted by the DNC.

Still, not being invited to debate should depress his numbers. I do wonder if he focused some of his considerable resources on a particular Congressional district in order to pick up a single delegate and qualify for the next debate, though.

As for fifth place…

5. Amy Klobuchar

Her case for second is that polling is tight and she closed strongest in the first two states. If we combine Iowa (3.7) and New Hampshire (8.1), she jumped a total of 11.8 points from her RCP average to her actual result. Only Buttigieg rivals that (7.7 combined). No other contender beat their polls in both states.

Of course, the circumstances are far different this time around. As I wrote on Thursday, that was her worst debate at the worst possible time. She let Warren lie about her health care plan and Buttigieg dig so deeply under her skin that he was burrowing in bone. Consequently, I don’t think she has a late surge like she had in New Hampshire. Nevada is a terrible state for her; as Noticias Telemundo correspondent and Nevada debate moderator Vanessa Hauc made clear with several pressing questions, Klobuchar has an immigration record that’s too centrist for the Left’s liking. That should hurt Klobuchar in a heavily Hispanic state.

Probably hovering around 10% when it comes time for realignment, she’ll almost never be viable, and her final vote percentage will plummet to the low single digits. The result: zero delegates tonight, and soul searching tomorrow. She might stay in for the South Carolina debate and Super Tuesday’s Minnesota Primary, but that would be the end of it. She’ll withdraw, perhaps with a justification that she’s taking one for the team, helping clear the moderate lane before the party nominates a democratic-socialist and jumps off a bridge.

3. And how about the muddled 2, 3, and 4 spots? Who finishes in that valuable second place?

The race for second is the most relevant question of the night, because no matter who pulls it off, it’ll be seen as beating expectations and give them momentum for South Carolina, where a good result sets up a Super Tuesday showdown against Sanders and Bloomberg. Consider the following scenarios:

  • If Biden finishes in second, we’re in full “Comeback Joe” mode, and he might be able to hold off Sanders in South Carolina and the south. He would start to reabsorb recent losses to Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar. More than Bloomberg, a restrengthened Biden remains the best chance to deny Sanders the nomination.
  • If Biden finishes out of the top three, that’s three straight embarrassing results by a former Vice President. I don’t see how he holds on through Super Tuesday.
  • If Buttigieg finishes in second, that’s his third consecutive top-two result, all with Sanders making up the other half of it. What else can he do to show he’s the one around which moderates should rally?
  • But finishing out of the top three reveals that though exceedingly Caucasian Iowa and New Hampshire were tailor made for him, the diverse Democratic Party rejects him nonetheless.
  • If Warren finishes in second, it validates her debate performance as a gamechanger and her case that she’s the best shot the establishment has at holding off Sanders while not alienating the party’s left wing.
  • But coming off a fourth place, single-digit performance in neighboring New Hampshire, a disappointing result in Nevada would show Sanders strangled her campaign in its cradle. It might also show that Democrats didn’t care for the self-proclaimed “unity candidate” throwing hay-makers at fellow Democrats while leaving the independent, democratic-socialist alone.
  • (Obviously I don’t see Klobuchar or Steyer competing for second. If either surprisingly nabs, it, that’ll keep them very much alive in South Carolina.)

As for their predicted order of finish, I predict:

4. Elizabeth Warren

Her debate earned high marks, but it also occurred after 75,000 early ballots were cast. (By comparison, 84,000 votes were cast in the one-day 2016 Democratic contest.) Before the debate, Warren was the victim of poor coverage coming out of her third and fourth place finishes. “A candidate heading in the wrong direction”: that would have been the evaluation of most early voters. She’ll need a lot of caucus-day support to make up her likely deficit.

Plus, her realignment chances are bad. Sanders will clear 15% everywhere, denying her second-ballot progressive votes. We can bank on Buttigieg outsmarting the field in delegate math, giving Warren little to siphon from him. Biden voters are not Warren voters, and I see little evidence that Steyer voters are either. Her best bet is to win a majority of Klobuchar’s crossover “college educated woman” vote, but there won’t be much of that to begin with.

There’s also the issue of the powerful Culinary Union advised its members to not vote for her or Sanders. Sanders can survive such a recommendation, as he’s profoundly popular with young people and the working class. Warren, however, is not as fortunate. She’ll be teetering on viability’s edge all night, and if labor is watching its members closely, her realignment quest can suffer.

As a result, Warren is denied a top-three result tonight. Beating her out will be…

3. Joe Biden

He had a decent debate, particularly by the low standards we now have for him. He’s popular with the working class, including organized labor. (I suspect he would have earned the Culinary Union’s endorsement — an endorsement it ultimately gave to no one — had his campaign not resembled a dumpster fire coming out of New Hampshire.) He trails only Sanders in popularity with Latinos. It all makes for a solid showing. In fact, it points to a second place finish, especially considering he’s second by about three points over third in the average of polls.

And yet, we must learn the lessons of the recent past. Biden underperformed his polling in both opening states — badly in New Hampshire. There’s mounting evidence that suggests he’s a bad organizer who hasn’t learned how to mobilize his supporters or win over supporters of other candidates, which is so important in a caucus.

Those weaknesses are not shared by…

2. Pete Buttigieg

It stands to reason that, even with a demographically dissimilar state, the caucusing in Iowa foreshadowed the caucusing in Nevada. Buttigieg probably again picks up moderate Biden and Klobuchar support in the precincts they fall short of viability. Even Buttigieg and Warren have shown some disproportionately white, college-educated overlapping voters.

Buttigieg has also best gamed the system so far. In Iowa, he turned a popular vote loss to Sanders — both pre- and post-realignment — into a delegate victory. In New Hampshire, Sanders again won the popular vote, this time in a next-door state, and yet Buttigieg snared a delegate tie. All of this has been above-board, using the rules in place to find the advantage. (Somewhere Bill Belichick smiles approvingly.) I don’t see why it shouldn’t happen again.

4. Sanders will win, but can he finally have a margin that surpasses polling?

Sanders is running away with this thing, but few people seem to see it that way. One problem is that he’s been a victim of his own success: since he came into the first two states with high expectations as a result of a campaign peaking at the perfect time, it was hard to meet those expectations. Therefore, what should have been spun as wins felt like disappointing results.

In today’s caucuses, realignments will again occur, and again most voters will vote against him and realign where possible to blunt his momentum. However, I do think that this time he’ll gain the most from realignment. Look at the Nevada polling averages again. Besides Sanders, only Biden is averaging over 15%, and he’s just at 16. (And, again, he notoriously fades come voting time.) Heading into Iowa, Sanders was joined by three candidates with polls that averaged between 15.5 and 19.3 percent. It was expected that those candidates would regularly hit viability and therefore not lose supporters on realignment too often.

In Nevada, however, we’ll see all non-Sanders candidates frequently fall short of viability in voting precincts, whereas Sanders never will. As a result, only Sanders will consistently poach caucusers, whereas other candidates will frequently be unable to. Sanders’s opponents, in fact, will often earn zero delegate equivalents in precincts. Supporting this logic is a piece from FiveThirtyEight that calculated Sanders is most likely to gain about 5% of statewide support from pre- to post-realignment, whereas no other candidate’s average scenario has them adding more than three tenths of a point, and more than half of the field is expected to lose statewide votes as a result of realignment.

Still, while I expect Sanders runs away with the initial and final popular vote, I wouldn’t be surprised to again see his delegate haul not as strong compared to that popular vote, proportionally speaking. Sanders’s popularity remains, and always will remain, in densely populated settings. Like our Electoral College, rural areas, for better or worse, are propped up when parties apportion delegates.

But hey, these are guesses! Nevada is bonkers. Let’s see what happens, and I’ll do my best to report in by Monday. Enjoy the caucuses!

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