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Nevada Democratic caucus 2016: When it's happening, and what to expect

Alex Wong / Getty, Win McNamee / Getty
Alex Wong / Getty, Win McNamee / Getty

You'd be forgiven if you didn't know today Nevada is holding its Democratic Caucuses, since, not a whole lot of attention has been paid to the state compared to Iowa or New Hampshire.

That's because it was supposed to be an easy win for Hillary Clinton. It turns out it is very much not. The race could be as close as the Iowa caucuses (which were nearly tied). Or Bernie Sanders could outright win.

The reason that this has taken so many people by surprise is the same reason that Nevada is an early state to begin with. It has a bigger Latino population than any other early primary state. In this election, that meant it was supposed to be solidly pro-Hillary. This is the first major test of Clinton's and Sanders' ability to appeal to the Latino vote — an increasingly crucial Democratic constituency — and even beyond the results of the caucus itself, close attention should be paid to whether they pass that test.

What time are the Nevada Democratic caucuses?

The 2016 Democratic caucuses will start at 11am Pacific time (that's 2pm Eastern) on Saturday, February 20.

Nevada's the third state for Democrats in the presidential primary season (it's the fourth for Republicans, who will caucus there after they hold their South Carolina primary). It doesn't have the long tradition of the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary; in fact, the only other time Nevada's Democrats have held an early primary was 2008, when it was won by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (more on that in a moment).

But Nevada is first in one important respect: it's the first Democratic contest whose participants will actually look like the electorate that Democrats hope to turn out in November.

Iowa and New Hampshire don't look like 21st-century America — and they look even less like the 21st-century Democratic Party. In 2008, the last time there was a contested Democratic primary, 93 percent of Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa and New Hampshire were white. Once the general election rolled around, whites made up only 58 percent of the party's general election coalition.

The Nevada caucuses — as well as the South Carolina primaries, which take place for Democrats next week — were deliberately added to the early calendar in 2006 as a way to ensure representation from more racially diverse states. Perhaps inevitably, that's turned the Nevada caucus into a test of the candidates' ability to win over Latino voters (even though, as I'll explain in a bit, it's unclear how diverse the caucuses will actually be).

That's why, for most of the campaign, it's been assumed that Nevada was Hillary Clinton's state to lose — it was assumed that Bernie Sanders would have only limited appeal even in white states, and no appeal outside them. But Sanders has made this a much closer race than anyone expected.

The Nevada caucuses are explicitly designed to be diverse

The basic structure of the Nevada caucuses is similar to the Iowa caucuses: Republicans gather in a room and vote via secret ballot, while Democrats physically get up and form groups based on their preferred candidate. There are some differences (Nevada doesn't let supporters of one candidate "raid" the group supporting another by persuading someone to leave, for example), but the underlying principle is the same.

But the Nevada caucuses are deliberately designed to make it easier for working people to participate — and to ensure a diverse turnout. For one thing, they're during the day on a weekend, which makes it easier for some people to attend. For another thing, while most people caucus close to their homes, the Nevada Democrats have set up six "at-large" caucuses at casinos on the Las Vegas Strip — to make it easier for casino workers to participate. (Employers aren't required to let employees take a caucus break, but the powerful Culinary Union has persuaded many casinos to grant permission.)

But even with these measures, it's not clear how diverse turnout will actually be. In 2008, about two-thirds of Nevada caucus-goers were white; 15 percent were Latino. Even though the state has gotten more diverse since 2008, the caucuses could still be less diverse, for a number of reasons.

If that happens, it will be very bad for Hillary Clinton. Her campaign knows that — that's why it's been trying to set expectations low. But it will also be bad for Nevada and the Democratic Party.

Nevada's status as an early presidential state might be in trouble after this cycle anyway; its most powerful protector, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, is retiring this year. If it fails to meet its reputation as a diverse caucus state, its placement will be even harder to defend to the party.

But it could be a wake-up call to the national party as well. The Latino vote is often referred to as the "sleeping giant" — the number of eligible Latino voters is growing quickly, but they don't consistently turn out to vote. In recent years, this has generally been a problem in midterm elections — it's one major reason that contemporary Democrats are so much more equipped to win presidential elections than congressional ones. But if neither Sanders nor Clinton can inspire many Latinos to turn out to vote for them, it'll raise questions about whether either candidate — or the party itself — can expect them to turn out in November.

Who's going to win the Nevada caucuses?

There are three different ways to answer this question, depending on how you want to define "winner." So to interpret the results of the caucus, you'll need to think about all three.

1) The popular vote. This is straightforward. The Nevada Democratic Party will release how many delegates each candidate won in their precinct caucuses (again like Iowa, they don't release raw vote totals).

But while the popular vote will be easy to interpret — the candidate with the bigger number won it — it's kind of hard to predict. The polls that exist show the candidates nearly tied. Furthermore, there has been so little polling in Nevada that poll analysts aren't terribly confident in the polls that do exist. And again, who turns out to caucus is a big question mark.

2) The delegate count. Like Iowa, Nevada's caucuses are actually the first step in a multi-step process to decide the makeup of the state's delegation to the Democratic National Convention this summer. In Nevada, each region of the state is guaranteed a certain number of convention delegates — who then get allocated based on each candidate's support in that region.

That's how, in 2008, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in Nevada — but Obama ended up winning more of the delegates, thanks to extremely strong organization in the northern part of the state.

Obviously, in 2016 — when we don't even know who's going to win the popular vote in Nevada — no one can predict whether something similar will happen again. The Clinton campaign appears to have learned its lesson since 2008, and put a lot of effort into organizing throughout the state. On the other hand, northern Nevada is whiter than southern Nevada, so if white voters continue to support Sanders in large numbers that could be bad.

3) The Latino vote. Since a lot of the reason Nevada matters is because it has a substantial population of nonwhite voters — in particular, Latino voters — expect a lot of analysis of how each candidate did with the Latino vote.

It's expected that Clinton will outperform Sanders with Latino voters, just like she outperformed Obama in 2008. If Sanders does better than Obama did among Latinos, it might be for generational reasons (nearly half of Nevada's Latino voters are under 35), but Sanders' supporters will likely claim it as a victory. And if Sanders manages to win a majority of the Latino vote in the caucuses — or even make it close — things will look dire for the Clinton campaign.

No, seriously, which candidate is going to win?

You know how this game is played: holistically, who "wins" an early primary is based on expectations as much as anything. So here's how the results will probably be spun:

Hillary Clinton needs a win in Nevada. She has not had a solid win in 2016, and while she needs Nevada to prove one of the central tenets of her electoral strategy: that she is the candidate of the nonwhite Democratic base.

The Clinton campaign has attempted to tamp down those expectations in recent weeks, but mostly, they've just given the impression that they're getting worried. Expect a close win — within 5 points — to be seen as disappointing for the Clinton campaign, and a momentum boost for Sanders.

Bernie Sanders could win Nevada. (He could also lose by 15 points; we just don't know.) If he wins, expect the race to get even more contentious as the candidates head to South Carolina next week.

The worst-case scenario, for a party hoping to avoid inter-candidate drama, is a scenario in which Sanders wins Nevada in the overall popular vote — but Clinton wins more delegates, and also wins the Latino vote. That kind of split victory would exacerbate both sides' leading lines of attack. Clinton would be able to continue attacking Sanders for failing to represent the needs of nonwhite voters, and Sanders would be able to continue attacking Clinton and the DNC for trying to rig the race in her favor.