vision 2020

What to Expect From Nevada’s Caucuses

One of 55 early caucusing sites in Nevada this year. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The next big cookie on the plate in the 2020 Democratic nominating process is Nevada, the third state to vote and the next-to-last (just prior to South Carolina on February 29) before the 14-state orgy of Super Tuesday on March 3. With Iowa effectively ending in a Sanders-Buttigieg tie and New Hampshire being won by Bernie Sanders with Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar running second and third, Nevada could well place Sanders even more clearly into the front-runner’s position. At the other end of the spectrum, it presents an urgent challenge to show some success for the candidacies of Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, who finished third and fourth in Iowa and fourth and fifth in New Hampshire. Beyond all that, Nevada is the first state on the calendar with the kind of diverse population (among adults, roughly one-fourth are Latinx, and more than one-tenth are African-American) one normally associates with the Democratic Party.

Yes, Another Party-Run Caucus!

If you hated the complexity and procedural problems surrounding the Iowa
caucuses, I have bad news for you. Nevada uses a party-run caucus system modeled on Iowa’s. That means caucusgoers (with an important wrinkle that I’ll discuss later) will show up on Saturday morning, February 22, at a designated place (though it may be a casino-floor site set up to accommodate shift workers), will separate (or “align”) into “preference groups” for their favored presidential candidate, and will then “realign” if their candidate doesn’t hit a 15 percent “viability threshold” in that precinct. As in Iowa, the state party and the media will report three things: first-alignment raw numbers, second-alignment raw numbers, and perhaps some estimate of national delegates won (these won’t actually be selected until later in the process). Unlike in Iowa, the custom in Nevada is to treat the first-alignment raw-vote leader as the winner.

The Early-Caucus Wrinkle

The big new wrinkle this year was that Nevada Democrats were offered an option of “early caucusing” at 55 sites over four days, beginning February 15 and ending February 18. No, they didn’t line up early caucusgoers in preference groups and then realign them; they were offered ranked-choice voting ballots on which they could simulate a caucus by designating, in order, three to five favored candidates. An amazing 75,000 Nevada Democrats chose that option (total caucus attendance in 2016 was only 83,000). So the biggest imponderables going into February 22 are: (a) how many people are left to show up, and (b) whether the state party and its volunteers can pull off the process of blending the preferences of all those early caucusgoers.

This second concern is shrouded in mystery, with the details of how Nevada Democrats plan to calculate and report the votes changing right down to the last minute, as this report from the New York Times on Friday afternoon indicates:

Nevada Democrats, in a move to bolster the upcoming presidential caucuses and avoid Iowa-style chaos, said Friday that they would not rely on a Google form for reporting results and would instead use a traditional phone-based system — the way results had been reported for decades in caucus states.

Precinct leaders will report results from Saturday’s caucuses to the state party through a dedicated phone hotline and by text message, rather than relying on a Google application intended to help volunteers and officials calculate delegates, according to a memo the state party circulated to the presidential campaigns …

A Nevada Democratic official said the party and its volunteer precinct leaders would still use the Google application to calculate results and commingle early-vote and in-person caucus totals. But the results the party plans to publicly report Saturday, the official said, will come from the numbers sent by phone and text message from the state’s 2,097 precincts.

It’s unclear whether this is a reassuring sign that the party is taking no chances or a disturbing indication of last-minute improvisation. Nevada does have two things going for it in avoiding the Iowa reporting chaos: four days after the end of early caucusing to tabulate the results and transmit them to precincts so they can be “blended” with the live caucus results, and a lot of help from a national party that is terrified of a second disaster like Iowa’s.

The Campaigns

In the early months of the cycle, word on the street was that Biden had the bulk of institutional support while Warren had the best ground organization and Sanders had his usual army of volunteers — plus a head start since he’d finished a close second to Clinton there in 2016. Kamala Harris from next-door California also had a robust presence in Nevada but dropped out of the race in early December. Nevada is one of the states in which billionaire Tom Steyer has bought a lot of ads. And after his strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg moved significant resources into the Silver State; he’s trying to replicate his successful Iowa strategy of dominating rural areas where other candidates aren’t competing.

One subplot of the Nevada campaigns involves the powerful Culinary Workers Union, the state’s largest (it represents 60,000 food-service workers employed by the state’s hotels, restaurants, and casinos). Its leaders got into a very public spat with the Sanders camp over the possibility that his Medicare for All proposal would dismantle the prized health-care plan the union had negotiated. According to Culinary Union officials, Sanders supporters (not his campaign, by any means) engaged in heavy-handed online harassment of them, which Sanders himself ultimately had to condemn. In the middle of all this, the union announced it would not be endorsing any candidates for this year’s caucuses. But some observers wondered if union officials might surreptitiously organize for Biden, just as they allegedly did for Clinton in 2016 despite an official stance of neutrality.

The Debate

The designated Nevada debate was held on February 19 at the Paris Theater on the Las Vegas Strip and became instantly legendary for the level of combativeness onstage (reflecting how crucial Nevada has become for some campaigns), specifically for Warren’s dominant performance, much of it at the expense of Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire isn’t competing in Nevada but will be on ballots beginning with the Super Tuesday states, where he is spending more money than any candidate in history. The general feeling is that Sanders and Biden did fine, even as Buttigieg and Klobuchar went after each other with tire irons.

The bigger question about the debate is whether it will have much impact given its timing: a day after early caucusing ended. It’s another reason the number of live caucus participants on February 22 is so important. If there is going to be some last-minute shift of sentiment toward Warren, for example, a lot of people need to have withheld their votes until Caucus Day.

The Polls and the Expectations

The race in Nevada has suffered from a dearth of public polling for quite some time, but a late surge of data this month showed Sanders pulling into a comfortable if not insurmountable lead, with the rest of the field bunched up behind him. According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Sanders is at 29 percent with Biden at 16 percent, Warren and Buttigieg at 14 percent, and Klobuchar and Steyer at 10.5 percent. Using its own analysis of polls, FiveThirtyEight gives Sanders a four-out-of-five chance of winning the state. It would definitely represent an upset if he were to lose, but the order of finish behind him could be significant (see above). Warren and Biden really need to move up in the order this time around.

When Will We Know the Results?

One of the nice things about holding the caucuses on a Saturday is that they can begin early. Registration begins at 10 a.m. PST, and voting commences shortly afternoon. In 2016, Clinton was able to claim victory in a close (two-candidate) race by Saturday afternoon.

That could happen again if Nevada Democrats don’t encounter a glitch in combining the early-caucus preferences (as expressed on ranked-choice paper ballots) with the live-caucus preferences (as shown in real-time alignments and realignments). If all the early caucusing data is indeed on hand, the new wrinkle could even speed things up by reducing the crowds on Saturday.

But if there’s going to be a problem with the new system, it should be apparent pretty quickly. By Saturday afternoon, we should either know most of the results or know that it’s again time to be patient. That may be difficult, as it was on February 3, for all of us who are paid to report and analyze the results. But it’s another reason 2020 will likely be the last presidential year when states are given the option of holding caucuses instead of primaries.

What to Expect From Nevada’s Caucuses