Unpacking Nevada — and on to South Carolina

As expected, Bernie Sanders secured a big Nevada win on Saturday, and he remains by far the likeliest Democratic nominee. And yet, perhaps — just perhaps — anti-Bernie Democrats were offered a glimmer of hope all the same.

I’ll circle back to that soon. For now, let’s work our way up Nevada’s results.


PPFA has been near-perfect in projecting each state.

  • In opening Iowa, I predicted the exact order from 1 to 11 with one glaring exception: I had Biden finishing two spots too high.
  • In New Hampshire, my top five was near perfect; my mistake was to swap Warren and Klobuchar’s third and fourth place finish.
  • And now in Nevada, I again had all active candidates right with one exception: Biden and Buttigieg in the 2 and 3 spots. But we’ll get to that later.

Let’s start with what I had right. With 88% of the vote counted, here are the pre- and post-realignment vote percentages for each candidate:

7. Tulsi Gabbard — 0.3% –> 0.003%
6. Tom Steyer — 9.1% –> 4.0%
5. Amy Klobuchar — 9.2% –> 6.7%
4. Elizabeth Warren — 12.8% –> 11.2%

Gabbard in last was the easy one. She’s recorded only 298 state-wide votes before realignment and just 35 after. Andrew Yang, who’s out of the race, got 250 more initial votes than she did! She stays in the race because apparently she feeds off people’s anger. Though she shares that characteristic with President Trump, she will not hold his office.

The next three candidates, however, were bunched together in polls with Biden and Buttigieg. I’m relieved to have correctly predicted their order.

Steyer‘s sixth place cements his fate as a non-factor. After spending tens of millions of his personal wealth to buy near exclusivity on the Nevada and South Carolina airwaves while other candidates primarily spent in Iowa and New Hampshire, Steyer was hoping for a surprise showing here. He really should drop out at this point, but South Carolina polling just qualified him for tomorrow’s Charleston debate.

Klobuchar, meanwhile, has now finished in fifth, third, and fifth, the worst trio of results from the five candidates with delegates. Worse, South Carolina will be no better than Nevada. She’s my preferred candidate, but the candidacy is essentially over. As the pressure mounts on the moderate lane to sort itself out so one candidate can go head-to-head with Bernie Sanders, all other moderates have a decent claim to stay in it. Biden is coming off a second place and could well win South Carolina. Bloomberg has his resources and Super Tuesday polling. Buttigieg is second place in overall delegates. Klobuchar, however, only boasts the best proven resume in winning Republican voters while also being ideologically square in the center of the Democratic senators, two advantages which haven’t turned out to be advantages at all. I understand the calls for her to drop out.

On the other hand, counterintuitively, it might be in the moderates’ best interests for her to stay in through Super Tuesday. Her home state of Minnesota, with its 75 delegates, votes that day. She leads both recent polls there (no small feat, considering Warren, Bloomberg, and Buttigieg don’t lead in the states that know them best), but in second place both times was Sanders. If Klobuchar drops out of the race, Sanders probably wins a plurality of the state’s delegates, which means his overall primary quest for a majority would grow closer than if Klobuchar remains. In other words, if Klobuchar stays in to win the state, that actually keeps Sanders reeled in a bit. Therefore, I think she stays through tomorrow night’s debate, which she’s already qualified for, through South Carolina’s Primary, where she won’t be strong enough to play spoiler, and through Super Tuesday, when she should win her home state but finish in the single digits everywhere else. Then she bows out “for the good of the party.”

Warren is a wildcard. As stated earlier, the killer Bs — Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and obviously Bernie — each have a clear case to remain, while Steyer and Klobuchar are toast. But Warren? Hard to say. As I suspected, the early vote, which came before her strong debate and appears to have made up a majority of the overall vote, seems to have anchored her caucus percentage. For example, the New York Times‘s Reid Epstein reported that in the precinct he was monitoring, “Elizabeth Warren had 11 of 41 votes from people in the room at this precinct, but only 6 of 79 early votes, which were cast before this week’s debate.” That’s 27% on voting day but 8% beforehand — in the same precinct.

Consequently, despite her second straight fourth-place rejection, Warren can still claim a measure of momentum. At tomorrow’s debate, she’ll probably be aggressive again and see what happens. The question remains: will she be aggressive against the clear front-runner, or will she continue to bludgeon Bloomberg because it’s both easier and more fun?


In the race for second, Biden appears to have comfortably defeated Buttigieg:

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That denies Buttigieg the ability to emphasize his three “top two” finishes, which would have been evidence that he’s the best positioned moderate against Sanders. Still, he’ll certainly be in second in national delegates after Nevada’s dust clears.

That being said, he’s fixing to get blown out in South Carolina by Sanders and Biden’s Palmetto State Showdown. After winning just 2% of the black vote in Nevada — worse than Klobuchar and Steyer! — I don’t think Buttigieg gets any South Carolina delegates. (I’m guessing he finishes fifth.) As a result, Biden will blow by him in overall delegates. Buttigieg needed a more dominant first two stays to earn enough juice heading into the next two, but Sanders, Klobuchar, and all the attention on Bloomberg ruined that game plan. I doubt Buttigieg survives beyond Super Tuesday. Expect both him and Klobuchar to clear the moderate lane by the morning after.


And now we get to Joe Biden, and here’s where it gets interesting moving forward. Allow me to lay out some information:

  • Biden will finish second to Sanders in all three Nevada categories. He can reasonably claim second place and momentum.
  • This narrative resembles closely, if not perfectly, the scenario I laid out in my Democratic Primary Prediction from the morning of the Iowa caucuses. I acknowledged that Sanders was likely to win the first three states, and then I added, “I think Biden loses tonight, finishing second, third, or even fourth. Then he’ll be top three in New Hampshire. Then top two in Nevada and top one in South Carolina, states with minorities that are sick of being told what to do by indefensibly earlier states that are neither demographically nor ideologically representative of the party. At that point, it’s Biden as the candidate moving on an upward trajectory, just as we hit Super Tuesday.” I badly missed his New Hampshire finish (though I predicted fifth place on the morning of the primary), but the rest has played to form, including finishing second in the penultimate early state.
  • Now it’s on to South Carolina, Biden’s first must-win state, where he still has a narrow edge in polling, albeit among polls conducted before Sanders’s Nevadan triumph.
  • In the 2016 South Carolina Democratic Primary, African Americans made up a strong majority (61%!) of voters.
  • In Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, which came after Biden had finished a humiliating fourth then fifth in the opening two states, entrance polls tell us Biden still had the plurality support of the black vote by 9 points over Sanders (36-27). Now coming off a second place win and momentum-builder, it stands to reason he’ll maintain his lead in African American support in the contest that will likely be majority African American again.

In short, despite Sanders’s early successes, I think South Carolina is a toss-up. I can be convinced of a victory for either Biden or Sanders. With such a clear two-person race, there will be a lot of lining up behind them in the next six days. They’ll pull away from the field in polling, perhaps even keeping everyone else under 15% viability and shutting them out of delegates.

And here’s another layer: South Carolina has 54 pledged delegates, comfortably the weightiest early state. (Iowa had 41, Nevada 36, and New Hampshire 24.) If Biden and Sanders win all the delegates and Biden wins the state, Biden picks up 30 or so delegates and rockets past Buttigieg into second place overall. (Pre-Nevada, Buttigieg had 22 delegates to Biden’s 6, a deficit of 16 that will be even smaller with Nevada’s results.) With this kind of upward momentum — not just moving into a clear second in delegates but also by finishing in fifth, second, then first in the prior three states — Biden would very competitive on Super Tuesday. As Klobuchar and Buttigieg fall by the wayside, he’ll strengthen even more after that.

Yes, South Carolina is high noon for the Biden Campaign.


Nevertheless, Saturday night belonged to Bernie Sanders. He’s better than even money to win the nomination and can put the primary to bed with a mere South Carolina win. (A limping PPFA would be grateful, as would its followers sick of the relentless spam in their inboxes.) Everything I wrote about was all best-case for Biden, but the reality is that Bloomberg still lurks as a moderate-divider, and no matter what we can expect Sanders to build up a huge delegate lead on Super Tuesday thanks to California’s gargantuan 415-person pledged delegation. Whether Bloomberg or Biden can come back after that, even if only one of them remained, is unlikely. The primary would have allocated about 40% of its total delegates, leaving only 60% left and a supercharged Sanders with a big lead.

So, the question is: does the field finally realize what’s going on, and will they gang up on Sanders at tomorrow night’s debate? (Looking at you, Senator Warren.) It might be too little too late, as it was with Trump four years ago, but it’s their only chance.

4 thoughts on “Unpacking Nevada — and on to South Carolina

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