The few polls we have heading into the Nevada caucuses are clear: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is on the rise.
Political experts on the ground also say the Vermont senator is the favorite to win the caucuses, but many are watching to see if former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) can turn their campaigns around in Nevada, or if former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg can continue his momentum in a state far more diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire.
Much could change between now and when the caucuses kick off on Saturday, February 22, at 1 pm PT/3 pm ET. The field of candidates is still massive after Iowa and New Hampshire, and the chaos of Iowa’s caucuses earlier this month is a good reminder we could be in for a long day of counting votes.
There’s a dearth of polling in Nevada, compared to the first two states: There have been just three polls conducted so far in February (plus one poll of just Latino voters), compared to about 20 polling updates in the days before the New Hampshire primary. And it’s not just the lack of polls; the caucus system is complicated, and the transient state population is inherently difficult to poll accurately.
Still, let’s look at the data we have. The current RealClearPolitics Nevada average finds Sanders with a 13-point lead over his closest competitor, Biden. All February polls found Sanders in first place by enough to be outside the margin of error.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal poll of voters conducted from February 11 to 13 found him leading with 25 percent support, followed by Biden at 18 percent and Warren at 13 percent. The Data for Progress poll conducted from February 12 to 15 found Sanders with a double-digit lead with 35 percent of likely caucus-goers supporting him, followed by Warren at 16 percent, Buttigieg at 15 percent, and Biden at 14 percent.
Newer polls show a similar picture. Emerson College/8 News Now Poll of Nevada caucus-goers conducted February 19 and 20 found Sanders at polling at 30 percent, Buttigieg at 17 percent, Biden at 16 percent, Warren at 12 percent, and Klobuchar at 11 percent. And another Data for Progress poll conducted from February 19 to 20 shows Sanders at 32 percent, followed by Warren at 17 percent, Buttigieg at 15 percent, and Biden at 14 percent.
Taken together with previous polls from January, it starts to paint a picture, according to Jon Ralston, editor of the Nevada Independent and dean of the state’s political press corps.
“The polling to me is suspect, but since you have three or four polls showing the same thing, you start to have validation,” Ralston told Vox in an interview.
The race is tighter looking at a poll of just Latino likely voters. Latinos make up 30 percent of the state’s population and accounted for 19 percent of Democratic voters in 2016, so their votes matter. A February 10-13 Telemundo/Mason-Dixon Strategy poll found Biden in a narrow lead at 34 percent, compared to Sanders at 31 percent. The rest of the candidates were in single digits among these voters. There’s a distinct generational split here; young Latino voters prefer Sanders while older ones like Biden.
It’s worth repeating that these are just a few polls; furthermore, they give an incomplete picture of what could happen Saturday, when Nevadans will head to their local precincts to sort themselves into groups depending on which candidate they like. If, however, their favorite candidate falls short of the 15 percent threshold, they’ll have a chance to switch in a second “realignment.” Nevada will report both of those tallies, as well as the number of county delegates each candidate wins.
As Ralston recently tweeted, polls are just measuring the first alignment and not the second. In other words, things could and likely will change on caucus day.
One thing to remember about any polls in Nevada for a caucus: Not only do they mean very little because this turnout is in such flux, but they only measure the first alignment. It does not measure what might happen in precincts where a candidate does not reach 15% viability.— Jon Ralston (@RalstonReports) February 18, 2020
But interviews with campaign staff and political experts on the ground in Nevada show a growing consensus that with Sanders’s comfortable lead, the real race is for second or third place.
“I think we’re starting to figure out who is going to be first here — maybe,” said Rebecca Katz, who served as communications director for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “But we don’t know who is going to be second through sixth, and it could be almost any combination.”
Sanders is looking strong
All major caveats about Nevada’s lack of polling aside, the conventional wisdom on the ground is that Sanders is the frontrunner.
Beyond the RealClearPolitics state polling average showing Sanders at 30 percent, FiveThirtyEight’s primary forecast gives Sanders a 76 percent chance of winning the most votes in the Nevada caucuses.
There are a few reasons for Sanders’s dominance here. He’s riding a high from winning the popular vote in Iowa (albeit basically tying Buttigieg in that state’s traditional metric of success, state delegate equivalents) and narrowly winning the New Hampshire primary last week (though he also tied Buttigieg for delegates there). Furthermore, Sanders has built a strong operation in the state to capitalize on this momentum.
“He carried over most of those average supporters he had four years ago,” veteran Nevada Democratic strategist Billy Vassiliadis told Vox in an interview. “Those folks stayed active, they stayed loyal, they’re Bernie folks.”
Sanders’s campaign has been organizing for the past 10 months. With over 200 staff on the ground (more than the Biden, Buttigieg, or Warren camps), they’ve been calling, texting, and knocking on doors all over the state. And they’ve put special emphasis on organizing voters of color to turn out; organizing communities of color is “baked into everything that we do,” Sanders’s Nevada state director Sarah Michelsen told me.
“Going where people are, when they are, and organizing them at all hours — Las Vegas is a very working-class town,” she added. “It does take more to organize working-class people.”
National polls show Sanders is leading among Latino voters — which make up a substantial chunk of Nevada’s population. A February Morning Consult tracking poll found Sanders at 42 percent among Hispanic voters, followed by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg at 20 percent and Biden at 14 percent. The Nevada Telemundo poll showed a much closer race between Sanders and Biden among Latino voters, but nationally, Sanders’s natural strength with young voters is boosting him in this demographic — which tends to be younger.
Even though the all-powerful Culinary Union has made clear it is not a fan of Sanders or his Medicare-for-all plan (which they fear would take away their union health insurance), it has not weighed in and endorsed another candidate. That means no one else is benefiting from the powerful political army the Culinary Union can be.
“If the Culinary [Union] was really, really mad at Bernie, they would have endorsed Biden and gone all out for Biden,” said Ralston. “Even if they had done that, I’m not sure they would have been able to stop Bernie.”
The rest of the field is tightly clustered behind Sanders
The RealClearPolitics tally shows a tightly bunched race among the rest of the candidates: Biden in second at 16 percent, Warren in third at 14.5 percent, and Buttigieg in fourth at 12.5 percent. Bloomberg is not on the ballot here, but billionaire Tom Steyer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) are still in the mix.
Biden and Warren badly need things to go right in Nevada.
A loss here could be especially damaging for Biden, who came in fourth place in Iowa and fifth place in New Hampshire. He has little room for error in Nevada, especially because it’s the week before South Carolina. His campaign has emphasized that Biden’s path to victory runs through diverse states with nonwhite voters, and this is his first chance to prove it. A Biden campaign aide in Nevada said they feel good about their “competitive” operation in the state.
Biden’s team “knows this is the make-or-break time,” Ralston said. “If he’s an also-ran in Nevada after being an also-ran in the first two states, his ‘firewall’ is gone.”
Warren is also looking for a second wind after placing a decent third in Iowa and a disappointing fourth in New Hampshire. Her campaign is riding a new wave of momentum from her searing debate performance in Las Vegas Wednesday night, where she roasted Bloomberg and pretty much everyone else onstage — raising an eye-popping $2.8 million from supporters by the end of the night. Allies are hailing it as the start of her comeback, but we won’t know until Saturday if it actually worked.
Even candidates who are riding momentum out of New Hampshire could hit a snag in Nevada. Klobuchar saw a surprise bump out of the New Hampshire primary on February 11, but she’s scrambling to size up a small campaign in the state. Even with large crowds, polls show her 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.”
Buttigieg faces a similar problem with nonwhite voters, but his advantages lie in his substantial staff and organization in the state. Multiple experts said Buttigieg has put real work into Nevada in the past year, and he has the most to gain if he wins here and disproves the narrative that he can’t garner support from nonwhite voters. Ralston said he wouldn’t be surprised if Buttigieg comes in second.
A successful Nevada win “underscores he’s top tier,” Vassiliadis said. “He has money, he’s got solid organization in Super Tuesday states.”
Buttigieg is trying to make as many introductions to nonwhite voters as he can. He has barnstormed the state with a dozen events in the past 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.”
There’s a big caveat: Nevada is notoriously difficult to poll
Nevada’s caucus system is a big part of what makes it a difficult state to poll. As Ralston tweeted, polls are just measuring what might happen on a first alignment, but won’t capture what the caucus results will look like after the supporters of low-performing candidates realign to their second choice.
There are plenty of other reasons the state is tricky, which Vox’s Cameron Peters recently explained in depth. One of the big ones is that the Nevada caucuses are new on the scene, and it takes more time for pollsters to accurately model caucus results. Peters writes:
The Iowa caucuses are a well-established tradition dating back to the 1970s, but Nevada’s caucuses are relatively new. The relative newness of the caucuses means that pollsters have not had time to build the sort of infrastructure and state expertise that was developed over decades in Iowa.
Not only is the polling infrastructure tough to develop in Nevada, but the state’s population itself is hard to reach. Tourism and entertainment make up a massive part of the state’s workforce, which lends itself to a somewhat transient population as workers move in and out depending on the season. Here’s more from Peters:
Ralston says that is because the state has a “fluctuating population,” in large part due to its heavy reliance on the tourism and casino industries. Nevada’s population can be transient, and can wax and wane seasonally. Telephone polls become difficult to conduct in these conditions because as FiveThirtyEight points out, a sizable segment of likely voters does not have local cell phone numbers, numbers in public records may belong to those no longer living in the state, and newer residents are less likely to be registered — or even eligible — to vote.
Even those who live in the state year-round can be tough to reach because they’re not necessarily keeping traditional 9-to-5 shifts, and could be working early mornings or late nights in the casinos, restaurants, and bars that make up the Las Vegas and larger Nevada workforce.
Of course, that difficulty gets amplified when there are additional factors to take into account, like the nearly 75,000 Nevada caucus-goers who have already cast a ballot through early voting.
All of this is a long way of saying that Nevada is the most difficult early state to poll, and the polls we have likely aren’t capturing everything that’s happening on the ground.