Iowa and New Hampshire have mattered for generations. Nevada is new. And more important this time than ever. There’s a ton to unpack here, so lets begin!
How this caucus works: Remember Iowa? Nevada has already decided to ditch the App of Doom, and should be able to announce results before 2028. Otherwise, this one will make the Hawkeye House of Horrors look simple.
About 15% of Iowan participants this year had never caucused before. Even if Nevada turnout is lowish, this percentage will be much higher. There’s more population turnover, more voters who became eligible after 2016. And just not many who have done this before. That goes for the administrating side too. At most, a precinct captain has participated twice (2008, 2016.)
Some of the precincts are enormous. They set up a few at the casinos. There will be several jam packed school auditoriums. Doing head counts and such was difficult in 2016. With only two choices. Oh, did I mention, they’re doing early voting at about a quarter of the precincts this time. From 2/15 to 2/18. It’s not a bad system, just an extra variable. Voters will list their top five choices, in order. When the regular caucus happens on the 22nd, any early caucuser whose first choice didn’t reach viability gets moved to their second choice, and so on, until they land with someone who qualifies.
Speaking of viability. In Iowa, it’s a straight 15% across the board, in every precinct. Nevada decided that was too easy. Remember the State Delegate Equivalents from Iowa? Nevada has those too. If the precinct is decent-sized and is awarding at least 4 SDEs, the 15% threshold stands. If it’s only good for 3 SDEs, viability goes up to 1/6th of attendees (16.67%.) In the smaller precincts, those with only two SDEs, viability starts at 25%.
Like Iowa, Nevada will report three numbers. The first alignment support for each candidate, final alignment, and SDEs earned. Given the higher requirements in smaller precincts, there’s likely to be more difference between first and final alignment than in Iowa. There, Buttigieg picked up almost 4 points, Yang lost 4 points, and nobody else was impacted +/- by more than 2. Here, if one of the moderates can consolidate support, you could see much larger jumps. And if they can’t, Sanders could surge even further.
In Iowa, Buttigieg turned a 1.4% final alignment deficit in to a 0.1% SDE advantage over Sanders. Nevada has room for a much larger swing. In 2008, Hillary Clinton finished several points ahead of Barack Obama in the final alignment, but trailed him in SDEs. There’s a universe where Mayor Pete is fifteen points behind Sanders on first alignment, trails by five in final alignment, and wins the SDEs. At which point Buttigieg gives his second victory speech and the Berners lose their collective minds.
The power behind the scenes: This isn’t Iowa. There aren’t 99 county chairpersons who have earned tribute from striving campaigns for decades on end. There aren’t a couple hundred thousand voters who will go hear 12 different candidates speak live, going back an extra time or two for their top choices. One big county (Clark) in the south, with Las Vegas and suburbs. About four people who are paying attention to the campaign. Another semi-big county (Washoe) in the north, with Reno and suburbs, where another two people are paying attention.
There are two forces of nature. Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader Emeritus, and the guy who made Nevada happen in 2008. And the Culinary Workers Union #226. Reid is still the puppet master extraordinaire whilst in retirement. And an absurd amount of casino employees belong to Culinary #226. Reid endorsed Obama. He saved Clinton from the shadows. We know he likes Warren, but not much else. He’s keeping his cards close to the vest.
Culinary announced a non-endorsement yesterday. They don’t like Medicare for All, but don’t hate it enough to put their chips behind Biden, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar. Besides the many other variables we’re discussing, not knowing how the two most powerful players are truly feeling behind the scenes and how much they might or might not push their allies in a given direction, we’re operating in a serious fog here.
Debate timing: Early caucusing ends on the 18th. The debate is on the 19th. So the early birds will have filled out their entire 1 through 5 preference sheet without benefit of seeing the final pre-Nevada joust. For the majority of caucus participants though, the debate will be very influential.
If Warren hopes to get any traction, she’ll need to have her first very strong debate since summer. If Klobuchar can make Buttigieg look too young, Biden too old, and Bloomberg too craven, she’s got a chance to surprise some people on caucus day. A decent performance for Biden would resuscitate him. Buttigieg could really shine if some of the negative focus shifts to Bloomberg.
With the exception of Sanders, who’s always at least decent, rarely says anything new, and has by far the most certain supporters, this will be high stakes for all. It doesn’t matter if the majority of Americans are suffering from extreme debate burnout. The media is watching, and while most Nevadans won’t, many of those who are bothering to caucus will. Even improving to a second or third choice matters in the caucus format.
Polls (or lack thereof): There are zero Nevada polls less than a month old. Zero. There are three taken after Thanksgiving. We only have 15 total, going all the way back to before Biden was an official candidate. No one pollster has surveyed Nevada more than three times. We’ve got very little to go on. Whatever data we do get over the next week will lack the context that final stretch polling gave us in Iowa and Nevada.
It’s extra hard to reach Nevada voters. They’re younger and less likely to have a land line. Much of the population is in the Las Vegas metro area. Many of those individuals work in hospitality and are asleep or at work at odd hours. The previous two Democratic caucuses were sparsely attended by Iowa standards. It’s very difficult for pollsters to build a likely voter model here. And the electorate skews in the direction of those (younger, of color) who are traditionally less likely to participate. But neither we nor the pollsters can be sure that Sanders won’t get his base of people who often don’t vote to turn out.
So we won’t have much data. What we will have will be out of context. And it will be tough to trust it regardless. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s tough to poll a caucus. But in 2016, when the few available surveys were mostly accurate, both candidates were known entities, and both were going to reach viability in almost all caucus precincts. Here, there’s no telling what might happen on final preference. And Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Steyer are new enough to the audience (even those who have seen hundreds of Steyer ads) that there’s no telling how well their poll answers will hold up under pressure in the caucus room a couple/few days later.
Only assume this is over if Sanders is polling so high that even combining his next three closest competitors won’t get a candidate past him after everyone re-shuffles. Only assume one of the others can’t finish second if other non-Sanders options are 20 points ahead of them.
What the candidates need: We’re going to stick to what’s possible, maybe even probable here. At this point, for most, the game is to survive and advance to the next state, ideally in better shape than they started the Nevada sprint in. No candidate can put a chokehold on the nomination before South Carolina votes. Only Sanders can leave Nevada as a clear favorite. But only a couple of candidates can get their 95th percentile outcome at the same time. And Nevada is going to really matter this year. It’s the first time the state will participate in a Democratic caucus where there are more than two possible nominees.
Bernie Sanders: A victory. At a minimum, an Iowa-style win, where he at least wins the first alignment popular vote. That’s the equivalent of a primary, and he could say he won this measure in each of the first three states. If one of the semi-moderate candidates is on a roll, they could easily best him on the final alignment. Had Biden or Klobuchar done a little worse in Iowa, Buttigieg would have surpassed Sanders here too.
If Sanders can sweep all the calculations, including SDEs, and Biden finishes far behind Buttigieg again, setting up a situation where Bernie is the clear winner, but Biden underperformed again, South Carolina starts looking really good. And whatever Bloomberg has in store for Sanders on or after Super Tuesday, if Bernie has won all or most of the first four states, it would be unprecedented for him to miss out on the nomination.
Right now, FiveThirtyEight has Sanders at 39% to win a majority of delegates before the convention and 67% to win Nevada. It doesn’t take a lot of inference to determine he’s over 50% if Nevada falls in to place. You can add another 20-25% chance that nobody has a majority, but he’s got a plurality. Things look very, very good for Bernie with a win.
But should he lose, especially in a situation where he doesn’t even get the first round popular vote, and all hell breaks loose. If it’s somehow Warren, he’s doesn’t have the left side of the board to himself anymore. If it’s Biden, then the miraculous recovery happened early, Joe is going to have a good South Carolina, and all of a sudden, he’s back to being the favorite. If it’s Buttigieg or Klobuchar, they’ve answered the critics who figure they can’t appeal to voters of color. That winner would be a strong contender in South Carolina, and a huge threat on Super Tuesday.
Finishing second (and it’s hard to fathom him doing worse than that), would only cost Sanders a few delegates at most. It wouldn’t immobilize him, or mortally wound his campaign. But it would give someone else a huge boost forward. Whomever that would be.
Pete Buttigieg: Winning Nevada would do for Pete in 2020 what Iowa did for Barack Obama in 2008. It’s the attainable but difficult prize that changes how skeptics view his electability. This wouldn’t clinch the nomination for him. Nothing will this early. He’s still got plenty of competitors and even more to prove. Bloomberg isn’t going away.
He’s still in a good place. Biden is wounded. Steyer isn’t taken seriously as a potential nominee. Klobuchar is playing catch-up. Warren is looking marginalized. Most importantly, he does better with Latino voters than the media realizes. Not saying great, but decently. And Sanders is going to get a big plurality there. He’s done outreach non-stop since 2016. And Latino voters skew heavily into the age cohorts Bernie is scooping up.
Not all Latinos feel the Bern though. Especially those who are small business owners. African Americans aren’t an overpowering share of the caucus electorate. And Buttigieg polls better with them than Klobuchar and not *that* far behind Warren. Yes, Nevada is diverse. But about 60% of Nevada Dems are white. And one thing Pete proved in Iowa and New Hampshire is a wider range of white voters will pick him than any of his competitors.
In Iowa we saw him take advantage of SDE rules to work more rural counties and make the system give him extra weight. Guess what? His team is doing the same in Nevada. Unlike Iowa, Klobuchar hasn’t tried to match him yet. She will, but only has a week or so. Finishing second would act almost as a win. It would beat expectations, and put him ahead of Warren, Biden, Klobuchar, et al in all three contests.
He can barely survive finishing third to Sanders and Warren. Anything beyond that is a big problem. If he can’t beat Biden in a caucus in Nevada, he’s losing to him by plenty in a primary in South Carolina. Same goes for Klobuchar. And Steyer. Mayor Pete is gunning for second at worst. And if I were placing bets today, I’d guess it happens.
Joe Biden: A win would be miraculous at this point, and I’m not going to entertain it. He’s the front-runner again if it happens. More practically, he could finish second. The Culinary Union didn’t endorse Sanders or Warren. They’re opposed to Medicare for All. Which is another way of saying this was Biden’s endorsement if he’d shown up in Iowa or New Hampshire. Still, he’s got advantages on his direct competitors.
Biden beat Steyer soundly in the first two states. Klobuchar is mostly starting from scratch in Nevada and her supporter demographics are backwards from the state. Buttigieg hasn’t exceeded low-double digits in any Nevada poll, and his Iowa and New Hampshire results, while strong, didn’t exceed his best November/December survey numbers. In order to beat Biden, these opponents will need to do things that weren’t necessary to best him in New Hampshire. At this point the media will treat a second place finish, within 7 to 9 points of Sanders as a win. I’d call him a favorite for South Carolina at that point.
So second is the goal. Third is the worst he can handle. If he’s going to trail someone besides Bernie, Warren would be best. He *must* finish ahead of Klobuchar and Steyer. If Buttigieg beats him again, it needs to be very close.
Elizabeth Warren: A victory would be great. And you never know what can happen in a caucus, especially if Harry Reid decides to help his pal from behind the scenes. But she has zero momentum. Doesn’t do especially well with voters without college degrees. Is doing ok with voters of color, but not great. And wasn’t helped by the various caucus rounds and calculations in Iowa. Any of the following outcomes would boost her:
Finishing second. Even if she trails Bernie by 10 to 12 points, that would put her ahead of Biden in all three contests, and show she can do better than Buttigieg in more diverse states. The rest of the way looks a lot more like Nevada than Iowa. It would give her two out of three against Klobuchar, making Warren the better bet for those seeking a female nominee. She’d have a ton more work to force herself back to true contention, but one step at a time.
If you consider Steyer as a fluky Bloomberg-lite, and Warren finished ahead of everyone but him and Sanders, that’s survivable. A bunch of third place finishes, accumulation of delegates more places than not, and then cross her fingers the party chooses her as a compromise between the Billionaire and the guy who detests them. You can argue it might be ok if Biden finishes narrowly ahead of her.
If Klobuchar or Buttigieg finish ahead of her in a more diverse caucus state, I don’t see where Warren has a place. If they both finish ahead of her again, regardless of where Biden winds up, she should, but might not, drop out.
Amy Klobuchar: This isn’t super likely to end well. A whole lot of outcomes lead to her finishing fifth or sixth in Nevada, having failed to reach viability in most precincts. If that happens, she goes flailing in to South Carolina and is out of the race by Super Tuesday, either officially or practically. There’s a reason FiveThirtyEight gives her a 1:1,000 chance of winning a majority of delegates before the convention.
Finishing fifth in Iowa wasn’t supposed to provide her with a springboard in to New Hampshire either. Back in 2016, Marco Rubio’s team had a much mocked 3-2-1 plan. Third in Iowa (check), second in New Hampshire (oops), first in South Carolina. I’ll go to my grave positive he would have done this had Chris Christie not blown Rubio’s circuits in the New Hampshire debate. Well, Klobuchar could pull off a 5-3-2-1. Don’t bet on it unless you get good odds, but with the first two steps done, it goes like this:
Klobuchar wins Nevada debate. Sanders wins Nevada. Warren, Biden, Steyer, and Buttigieg aren’t always viable in caucus precincts. Klobuchar picks up the scraps and finishes with 24-26% of the SDEs. With Bloomberg unavailable in South Carolina, Buttigieg exposed as being unable to close when he’s not on friendly turf, and Biden’s campaign in full rigor mortis, the Never Berners consolidate around her and she squeaks out a 27% to 25% win over Sanders.
Still wouldn’t bet on her as a nominee at that point, but you could have gotten ridiculous odds on her winning South Carolina only a couple of weeks ago. This is her dream scenario. The surviving one has her finishing ahead of Buttigieg and Steyer, plus either Warren or Biden. AKA in third place. Of the various choices, Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Steyer, Buttigieg, Biden would be the best order.
Tom Steyer: There’s no nomination path here. Unlike Andrew Yang, he’s not taking any real money from outside contributors, so no conscience issue in persisting with something that will raise his profile as a fall anti-Trump surrogate, make him a stronger candidate for 2024, or help if he ever wants to run for governor in California. He can’t do well enough to have any chance of elbowing Bloomberg aside as the Billionaire Savior on Super Tuesday.
If anything, he’s Bloomberg’s proxy. While not registering much at all in national polls, with voters of any demographic, he has managed to poll a couple times in double digits in Nevada, and as high as second in South Carolina. In both cases, he’s doing relatively well with white voters of moderate incomes and education, along with African Americans. His demographic breakdowns are similar to Bloomberg and more of an immediate threat to Biden in some ways than Klobuchar or Buttigieg.
Should he reach viability in a number of caucus precincts, it’s very possible he could finish ahead of more than one of the moderates. Which, especially if Biden has a weak Nevada, would make him a legit factor in South Carolina. At this point, a win in the Palmetto State isn’t impossible. And given where Steyer started, winning a single primary would be a huge accomplishment.
Michael Bloomberg: If Bernie wins and nobody else gets that close, it’s another win without being on the playing field for Bloomberg. He does need to worry about Sanders getting enough momentum to end this before Super Tuesday, but mostly, all forms of chaos benefit him. As long as non of the non-Bernie choices have a great day, he remains well-positioned to pick up the pieces on March 3. No candidate (even Sanders and Buttigieg) benefitted as much from Iowa and New Hampshire. If he doesn’t duck the debate or have a particularly poor one, Bloomberg will likely have a better Nevada than most of the official participants.