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The Nevada caucuses’ importance, and potential chaos, explained

The caucuses will be a big diversity test for candidates, and an organizational test for the Nevada Democratic Party.

Nevada caucus voters wait in line to enter an “Early Vote Event with Joe Biden ” in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 18, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Next up, Nevada.

The Nevada caucuses are the typically glossed-over third contest in the presidential nominating process. But with the disaster of the Iowa caucuses in the rearview and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on the rise, the western state has more influence — and potential drama — than ever.

Nevada caucuses take place on Saturday, February 22; voters will head to caucus sites at 10 am PT/1 pm ET and will start voting around 12 pm PT/3pm ET. We’re no longer in extremely white Iowa and New Hampshire; Nevada is the most diverse of the early states and candidates must appeal to Latino, African American, and Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, many of whom are also union members. Importantly, a good deal of ranked-choice early voting has already happened — nearly 75,000 caucus total early ballots cast as of Wednesday.

“It’s a really interesting and diverse state. If you want to look at Super Tuesday and how a candidate is going to do, look at Nevada,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist and former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (right) waits in line to cast his vote in early voting for the Nevada Caucus on February 15, 2020.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

In past presidential cycles, Nevada has been an afterthought, sandwiched in the middle of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t do much to winnow the Democratic field; just three Democratic candidates dropped out after New Hampshire — Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO), entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

“Nevada is the only state that is representative of our country: 30 percent Hispanic, 9 percent African American,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told me in an interview last May. “Our balance is so interesting. We have a heavy Filipino population here. So the caucuses are just remarkably good for the country.”

Nevada could also be a harbinger for the general election; while the state increasingly leans Democratic, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by just 2 points there 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.

But first, the caucuses have to actually go well — especially after the Iowa disaster. Reid and state Democrats are laser focused on ensuring a smooth process to protect Nevada’s early state status. Despite the Nevada Democratic party rolling out a live “caucus calculator tool” to tally the votes, Democrats in the state are still nervous about the impact human error could have the night of the vote.

How the Nevada caucuses will work

The Nevada caucuses will partially follow Iowa’s caucus framework, but there will be some differences as Democrats here try to avoid a similar catastrophic outcome.

First, the similarities. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop has written, Nevada Democrats will also report three sets of results on caucus day: the initial vote total, a final vote total taken after realignment and the elimination of candidates who didn’t get to 15 percent of the vote, and lastly, a delegate number. Prokop writes:

Those three sets of numbers added complexity to the tallying in Iowa — and provided many more opportunities for human error to become evident. The New York Times estimated that there were “inconsistencies in the reported data” for at least one in six Iowa precincts. And the same could well prove true in Nevada.

The big difference between Iowa and Nevada is there will be no third-party app; both state parties were initially using the same app by Shadow Inc., but Nevada Democrats quickly dropped it after multiple precinct chairs in Iowa couldn’t log on, or complained of crashing (which led to further problems like jammed phone lines for those trying to call in their results).

The Nevada Democratic Party decided it’s also going to rely on phones to report caucus results. In doing so, the state party is ditching an “iPad-based calculator tool,” which local outlet the Nevada Independent reported was essentially a Google Form page linked to a Google spreadsheet.

Still, human error was one of the biggest flaws in Iowa’s process. Besides making sure precinct chairs are trained and ready to report three sets of results, there’s not a lot Nevada Democrats can do to ward off that element of uncertainty. Reid’s party is a well-oiled machine, but as Iowa demonstrated — anything can happen.

There’s also a new layer to the caucuses in the form of early voting. Democrats established early voting locations around the state to encourage more voting, and so far we’ve seen tens of thousands of people take advantage of it. These voters were asked to rank rank up to five candidates depending on their preferences.

As Prokop writes, come caucus day, these ballots will be sorted by precinct and incorporated into the in-person caucus before realignment.

As in Iowa, any supporters of candidates with more than 15 percent support in the precinct (including both in-person and early votes) get locked in. Supporters of candidates below that threshold, though, get to realign. They can back a viable candidate, combine forces to make a nonviable candidate viable, or refuse to support anyone.

Once this in-person realignment is done, then the early votes who backed nonviable candidates as their first preference get realigned. They are allotted to their highest-ranking choice who is now viable in the room.

Nevada Democrats are projecting confidence they can avoid Iowa’s mistakes, but there are a lot of additional elements to deal with. We’ll see how they handle them on Saturday.

Who needs to win in Nevada

Polls and political insiders alike predict Sanders as the favorite to win the Nevada caucuses — but a lot could change between now and then.

First of all, there are still a ton of candidates still in the game; the great winnowing that was supposed to occur in Iowa and New Hampshire never really happened. There are still eight Democratic candidates, including the top five of Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Sanders’s momentum out of New Hampshire helped boost a large, months-long campaign operation in Nevada. His campaign has been organizing there for 10 months; they’re up to around 250 dedicated staff and 11 field offices. State and national polls show Sanders doing very well among Latino voters; a February Morning Consult national poll showed his support among these voters growing as Biden’s fell.

“We canvass all day long ... we canvass, text and call at all hours because we know people are home at different hours,” Sanders Nevada state director Sarah Michelsen told me. “I’m very confident in our program. We’re not taking anything for granted and we’re not leaving anything on the field.”

Joe Biden campaigns in Henderson, Nevada.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

But Sanders could hit some pitfalls; he’s received something of an anti-endorsement from Nevada’s powerful Culinary Union, which is afraid of what his Medicare-for-all plan could do to their union insurance. Medicare-for-all was just the start of a nasty fight between Culinary and a contingent of Sanders’s online supporters.

The Culinary Union has made it very clear they don’t like Sanders, but they also aren’t endorsing anyone. That’s not good news for moderate candidates who were hoping to receive a bump from the group.

Biden and Warren ultimately could have the most to lose from a poor performance in Nevada; after lackluster performances in earlier states, both are banking on a show of strength here to propel them forward. A loss here could be especially damaging for Biden, who came in fourth place in Iowa and fifth place in New Hampshire. Biden’s big argument is he’s strong with nonwhite voters, so a loss here could hurt him in South Carolina — where his campaign has been banking on a win. He has little room for error in Nevada.

“We feel competitive about the place we’re in and good about our operation,” a Biden campaign aide in Nevada told Vox.

Warren is also looking for a second wind after placing a decent third in Iowa and disappointing fourth in New Hampshire. The addition of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at Wednesday night’s Nevada debate gave Warren an opening to be far more fiery than we’ve seen in previous debates. She came out swinging at Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Biden (among others) — and didn’t stop as the night wore on. Her campaign reported raising $425,000 in 30 minutes during the debate, a good indication of newfound momentum.

Warren’s campaign has already laid out their strategy to stay in the race until Super Tuesday and beyond, but she needs a good night in one of the early states.

Even the candidates who are riding momentum out of New Hampshire could hit a snag here in Nevada. Klobuchar saw a surprise bump with her close third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, but she’s scrambling to size up a small campaign in the state. Even with large crowds, polls show Klobuchar falling behind with nonwhite voters.

“The uphill battle is introducing her to people who weren’t familiar with her,” a Klobuchar staffer told Vox. “We’re trying to be as aggressive as we can.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigns in Henderson, Nevada.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images
Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. Amy Klobuchar campaigns in Las Vegas.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Buttigieg, who has a much larger campaign staff here, faces fundamentally the same problem with nonwhite voters. A recent Data for Progress Nevada poll showed Buttigieg’s unfavorables were higher than his favorables among Latinos, 48-32, with 20 percent saying they hadn’t heard enough yet to say. A recent national poll by Univision showed just 5 of Latinos said they intended to vote for him, with 21 percent saying they hadn’t heard enough about him.

Buttigieg is trying to make as many of those introductions as he can. He has barnstormed the state with a dozen events in the last week, and his campaign said they’re getting more people signing up to volunteer or work as precinct captains on their behalf.

“We were a little bit late to the game here relative to other candidates,” a Buttigieg staffer told Vox. “We definitely feel the momentum here on the ground.”

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

Reid was instrumental in getting Nevada into the roster of early states in 2006. Simply put, he thought Iowa and New Hampshire were too white to have such an outsized role picking the next 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,” Erika Washington, executive director of nonpartisan group Make It Work Nevada told me in an interview last year.

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.

Voters line up outside the Culinary Workers Union on the first day of early voting for the Nevada caucus in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 15, 2020.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“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.”

That presents unique challenges to campaigns trying to reach voters, especially ones working various shifts at hotels, restaurants and casinos. Helping organize that community takes a machine, which is why unions are such formidable players in Nevada state politics.

There are none more powerful 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.”

No campaign is getting the benefit of the Culinary Union’s turnout machine in the 2020 primary; nor is anyone getting the coveted endorsement of Harry Reid.

Harry Reid is also sitting on the sidelines — for now

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.

But Reid is keeping things close to the vest for now. He recently showed up to an early voting location to cast an “uncommitted” caucus card. Reid told me in an interview last year he won’t make an endorsement until the caucuses are over. He readily admitted he encouraged Warren (whom he “thinks the world of”) to run for president, and still considers Biden a “friend.” When Sanders had a heart attack in Las Vegas in October, Reid visited him in the hospital.

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

Former Sen. Harry Reid talks to reporters after voting on the first day of early voting for the Nevada caucus in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 15, 2020.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A person close to Reid told me he is staying on the sidelines when it comes to the candidates, and is instead focused on making sure these caucuses run smoothly.

Still, Reid’s influence is being felt in many other ways. A number of top staffers in multiple campaigns got their start in his Senate office, and candidates including Sanders are attempting to replicate his playbook for winning elections in Nevada: organize heavily and turn out Latino voters en masse.

“Harry Reid unlocked this system in Nevada where you have a young population, you have a population that is integrated into labor unions, and Reid uses particularly labor unions to get Latinos out to vote,” Stephen Nuño-Perez, a senior analyst for the Latino polling firm Latino Decisions told me in a recent interview. “This is the playbook, and it’s a natural fit for Sanders’s style of how he envisions politics.”

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.


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