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A Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) supporter attends a campaign rally in Henderson, Nevada on March 16, 2019.
A supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attends a campaign rally in Henderson, Nevada, on March 16, 2019.
Ronen Tivony/LightRocket via Getty Images

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The 2020 Nevada caucuses — and growing political power of the West — explained

The diverse, working-class state of Nevada is a key 2020 battleground.

LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas, a town known for its glitzy casinos and 24-hour parties, is becoming a top destination for a deluge of Democratic presidential candidates. Already, Nevadans have received 68 visits from a flock of 2020 Democrats.

In past presidential cycles, Nevada has traditionally been an afterthought, sandwiched in the middle of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But with this year’s massive 24-person field, Nevada’s February 22 caucuses could be a game changer.

“With Nevada being the first in the West and California coming up, I think there’s going to be an inherent focus on the West,” a campaign aide for former Vice President Joe Biden told me. “We’re not taking that lightly.”

Nevada will be crucial for two big reasons. First, the state is younger and a lot less white than Iowa and New Hampshire. With a large Hispanic/Latino population as well as substantial black and Asian American constituencies, it will be the first big test of whether candidates can appeal to a diverse electorate. Second, Nevada is the first state in the West, followed by a Super Tuesday that will include delegate-rich and Latino-heavy Texas and, for the first time, California.

The caucus represents a bridge between the Democratic Party’s past and its future, and there’s a distinct chance it could become a breakout state for a woman candidate or a candidate of color.

“[It’s] important to have early primaries for states that look like America, so that when you have a nominee, you can have someone to motivate people across the country,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist and a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The swing state will also be a harbinger for the general election; while Nevada increasingly leans Democratic, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by just 2 points in 2016. Even though much of the national press is focusing on East Coast and Midwestern states, a number of political experts say Democrats’ political future lies in the West, and Nevada is the regional bellwether.

“If you want to do well in the West, you have to come to Nevada,” Reid told me recently, sitting in his Las Vegas office.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), poses for a picture with students from Cheyenne High School during a campaign event in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 28, 2019.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) poses for a picture with students from Cheyenne High School during a campaign event in Las Vegas on May 28, 2019.
Ronen Tivony/LightRocket via Getty Images

Nevada is the most diverse early voting state — and it’s heavily working-class

Reid was always blunt about his reasons for getting Nevada into the roster of early states in 2006. Simply put, he thought New Hampshire and Iowa were too white to pick the president.

“You go to New Hampshire. There are not any minorities there. Nobody lives there,” Reid told the Washington Post in 2015. “You go to Iowa. There are a few people there, but again it’s a place that does not demonstrate what America is all about, for a lot of different reasons.”

Reid believed diverse states in the mix would force presidential candidates to think about issues impacting nonwhite voters. He rankled party leaders in the other early states, but he also had a point — New Hampshire and Iowa are both more than 90 percent white. With a population that’s 30 percent Hispanic/Latino, 10 percent African American, and 10  percent Asian or Pacific Islander, Nevada is more representative of America as a whole.

“You’re going to get a lot of folks who have ideas of what America should look like from their perspective, instead of just the folks in Iowa or New Hampshire,” said Erika Washington, executive director of Make It Work Nevada, a nonpartisan organization focused on black women’s issues. “You’re going to get the voices of a lot of Latino and Hispanic folks by Nevada being the first in the West.”

Nevada is also heavily working-class. A huge chunk of the state’s population works in the service industry: cooking, cleaning, and bartending for the hotels and casinos that are Nevada’s economic juggernauts.

“It is very blue-collar, partially because we’re a hospitality state,” Washington said. “Everyone comes here to forget their problems and cause some ruckus ... but who is cleaning up after you? Who is making sure you are safe? These are all blue-collar, hardworking folks who are doing it in very hot weather and who have families.”

Unions are formidable players in Nevada state politics, and none more so than the Culinary Workers Union — the same group that organized a 1991 workers strike at the Frontier Hotel that lasted more than six years. The union is highly sought after during election years. If it backs a candidate, it turns into a veritable political army, working the phones and knocking doors in Las Vegas suburbs for months.

“[It] is not just a great turnout machine for workers, but it’s essentially the Hispanic turnout machine,” said Jon Ralston, editor of the Nevada Independent and the state’s political dean. “If you can get the Culinary Union to go out for you and go out for you hard, that can be a game changer.”

Presidential candidates who come to Las Vegas have been meeting with Culinary Union leaders in hopes of getting their coveted endorsement. The union’s secretary-treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said that won’t happen for a while, but added that her members are looking for candidates with concrete plans to protect immigrants, boost the minimum wage, and make health care cheaper — not just someone who is the anti-Trump. However, there’s also evidence Trump has been a good motivator in the immigrant-heavy state: Nevada saw near-presidential year turnout during the 2018 midterms, with Latino voter turnout accounting for an impressive 18 percent of that total.

“We know Trump is racist — we know that. He doesn’t like the immigrants,” said Argüello-Kline, herself an immigrant from Nicaragua. “They want to hear about the issues.”

Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) stands on top of his vehicle to speak to an overflow of supporters at a meet-and-greet at Pour Coffeehouse on March 24, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) stands on top of his vehicle to speak to an overflow of supporters at a meet-and-greet at Pour Coffeehouse on March 24, 2019, in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

How to campaign and caucus in Nevada, briefly explained

Besides Iowa, Nevada holds the distinction of being the only other early state with a caucus. Rather than voting directly for candidates in a primary, voters who want to participate in the caucus meet at schools, community centers, or other locations across the state. Over the course of three or so hours, they try to persuade undecided voters to support their preferred candidate.

In past years there’s typically been one caucus day, but Nevada is hoping to expand that in 2020 with some major proposed changes. In addition to the main caucus on February 22, the state Democratic Party wants to add four days of early voting caucuses the week before, as well as two days of virtual caucuses.

“That’s going to be a significant piece,” state Democratic Party Chair William McCurdy told me, adding that the goal is to spur new voter registration and participation in 2020. The Democratic National Committee is reviewing the proposed changes and is expected to give its decision soon. McCurdy added that the state party hasn’t yet hammered out exactly how virtual caucuses will be conducted (it could either be through an app or over the phone), but said the process will be figured out later this summer.

Presidential candidates in Nevada and Las Vegas have a unique challenge: They need to figure out how to win over voters in a town Reid’s former spokesperson Jim Manley once described as “largely apathetic to politics.” It could be difficult. Political experts in the state readily admit that there’s a large population of Nevadans who are checked out of the political process.

“People have never met presidential candidates and now they’re swarming here to meet people,” said Nevada Democratic Party spokesperson Molly Forgey.

Politics here isn’t the spectator sport it is in states like New Hampshire and Iowa; campaigning in Nevada is very different from Iowa’s relentlessly covered state fairs and New Hampshire’s political pancake breakfasts and town halls. The work of swaying unions, Latino activists, and workers that make up the state’s political “shock troops” means candidates literally have to go meet workers while they’re on the job, McCurdy added.

“They have to meet voters where they are,” he said. “Our state is wide open; Nevada will make candidates work a little bit harder.”

Nevada could make or break some presidential campaigns

In past presidential elections, Iowa and New Hampshire have been the states that winnow out large fields of candidates. In 2016, six GOP presidential candidates dropped out after disappointing showings in the first two states; out of the 17 original candidates, 12 didn’t even make it to Super Tuesday.

To be sure, the first two states will still play this role for 2020 Democrats, especially with a 24-person field. But some top-tier candidates are already making the calculation that they won’t win Iowa and New Hampshire, and are gaming out national strategies that largely leave out the first two states in favor of staking out a different path in the West instead.

These candidates are putting a lot of priority on the Silver State. The most obvious of these is Sen. Kamala Harris, who is banking on strong showings in Nevada and South Carolina to propel her to a Super Tuesday win in her home state of California — which has a prize of a whopping 475 delegates. Last week, she was campaigning the Nevada way: marching with striking McDonald’s workers in Las Vegas for a $15 minimum wage.

“If we want to talk about these golden arches being a symbol of the best of America, well, the arches are falling short,” Harris said during the protest. “We have got to recognize that working people deserve livable wages.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), speaks to protesters asking for higher minimum wage outside of McDonald’s in in Las Vegas on June 14, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks to protesters asking for higher minimum wage outside a McDonald’s in Las Vegas on June 14, 2019.
John Locher/AP

The most recent polling in Nevada shows a mirror of the national race: Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Bernie Sanders lead the state, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.

The poll shows Biden with a strong lead among likely Nevada Democratic voters that deem themselves moderate or conservative and a narrow lead among those who call themselves “somewhat” liberal, and Warren and Sanders carrying the percentage of “very” liberal caucus-goers.

Biden so far is clearly at the front of the pack. But Nevada political experts noted there’s plenty of room for Warren or another candidate to break through. The 2016 primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Sanders was unexpectedly competitive, in part because Sanders’s populist message resonated strongly with Nevada’s working-class voters.

Warren is now aggressively staking out her territory as the populist candidate. She has had staff on the ground in Nevada since January, and now is up to about 30 full-time staff, per campaign spokesperson Terrence Clark. Warren’s national strategy “means competing in all 50 states and seven territories — including Nevada,” Clark told me.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) greets attendees after speaking at the National Forum on Wages and Working People on April 27, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) greets attendees after speaking at the National Forum on Wages and Working People on April 27, 2019, in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Biden is also building up his campaign infrastructure in the state, according to a campaign aide.

“This campaign is taking Nevada very seriously,” the aide said. “It’s an important early state; it’s one of the most diverse states and has an important and engaged African American, Latino, and AAPI [Asian American or Pacific Islander] population. The vice president and the campaign plan to engage with all Nevadans, including making inroads to rural Nevada.”

As the race in Nevada heats up, all eyes are on Reid, the powerful former Senate majority leader, party boss, and arguably the catalyst for the creation of the caucuses. Reid’s appointment book these days is filled with 2020 names; Sen. Amy Klobuchar was waiting patiently outside his office as Reid and I concluded an interview in April. Beto O’Rourke, in town for a candidate forum on labor that weekend, mentioned he’d also met with the former Senate leader.

But Reid is keeping things close to the vest for now, telling me he won’t make an endorsement until the caucuses are over. He readily admits he encouraged Warren (whom he “thinks the world of”) to run for president, and still considers Biden a “friend.”

“[Warren] knows I can’t endorse her, I can’t endorse Joe or anybody else,” Reid said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell everybody how good they are.”

Reid’s endorsement will be key to whoever wins the 2020 nomination. But that person needs to win over the rest of Nevada Democrats first.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 16 on May 7, 2019 in Henderson, Nevada.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 16 on May 7, 2019, in Henderson, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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