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Opinion | Nevada Caucuses: Lessons Learned

RESULTS (87,55% of precincts reporting): Sanders 47,1%; Biden 20,1%; Buttigieg 13,6%; Warren 9,7%; Steyer 4,7%; Klobuchar 3,9%. 

Mr. Sanders won a decisive victory in the first diverse state to vote in the 2020 Democratic Primary, showing great improvement from his 2016 performance, and dominating the field across nearly every demographic. His win came as a muddled field failed to produce a challenger to Mr. Sanders. While Mr. Biden carried the African-American vote, his performance was nevertheless disappointing for a former Vice-President in a state that saw him lead in polls for months before the caucuses. Mr. Buttigieg, in a state he has invested heavily in, struggled with minority voters and garnered just enough votes to expect delegates. Despite a widely-praised debate performance, Ms. Warren underperformed, while Ms. Klobuchar, despite momentum from her strong New Hampshire finish, and Mr. Steyer, despite his investments in the state, both did poorly. 

Here’s what we took away from the results of the Nevada Caucus:

  1. All Welcome to the Political Revolution

In 2016, Nevada was the state that cemented the narrative that Mr. Sanders was a candidate unable to marshal the minority support necessary to win the Democratic Nomination. Ms. Clinton’s victory was largely fueled by older and minority voters, while Mr. Sanders won mostly younger, whiter, and more liberal voters. However, in 2020, Mr. Sanders has turned this trend around entirely: “Tio Bernie”, as he has affectionately been baptized by his star surrogate Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, has made Latino outreach a cornerstone of his campaign. In Nevada alone, the Sanders campaign has hired 66 Latino campaign staffers, held events called “Tamales with Tio Bernie”, and stressed the word “multiracial” in his campaign’s mainstay explanation of the “multi-generational, multi-racial, working class political revolution” he hopes to stage. Mr. Sanders’ ability to attract minority support (which will soon again be tested by South Carolina’s large African-American population on February 29th) is fixing the key weakness of his 2016 challenge to Ms. Clinton, and sets him on a clear path to the nomination. 

What makes Mr. Sanders’ win even more impressive was his support that transcended other demographic lines: he won a plurality of women, voters between 17 and 29 years old, voters between 20 and 44 years old, and voters between 45 and 64 years old. He was able to win voters with a college degree, and those without. He also carried union and nonunion households – and he even was able to win moderate and conservative Democrats. Most impressively, despite the powerful Culinary Union’s attacks on Mr. Sanders and his Medicare-for-All proposal, he won a majority of union households and did very well in caucus sites on the Vegas Strip, where service workers dominate the population. Mr. Sanders effectively won nearly every category of voter in Nevada, proving that he has widespread appeal and the ability to galvanize and earn the support of nearly every segment of the Democratic base. 

This growing broad support is behind his good poll numbers and might carry him in South Carolina, California, and Texas – three delegate-heavy states voting before March 3rdin which Mr. Sanders has been gaining ground thanks to his increasing share of minority support. Crucially, this also neutralizes Mr. Biden’s main path to the nomination: if Mr. Sanders can also attract African-American and Latino support, then Mr. Biden’s path to the nomination, which runs through the diverse states in which Mr. Sanders is picking up more and more support, seems increasingly unlikely. If Mr. Sanders is able to continue to command widespread and broad support as he has in Nevada, Mr. Sanders will not simply be the front-runner – he will be a convincing nominee. 

  • The (Failing) Search for the Anti-Bernie

While Mr. Sanders seems closer and closer to building a commanding lead that could win him a plurality of delegates before the convention, he lacks an immediate challenger, or an “anti-Bernie”.  This is not for lack of trying: three candidates have increasingly sought to paint contrasts between themselves and Mr. Sanders in the hope of creating a two-way race: Mr. Buttigieg, Mr. Biden, and Mr. Bloomberg. 

All three of them have attacked Mr. Sanders on similar grounds. Mr. Buttigieg has ramped up his criticism of Mr. Sanders recently, decrying his “inflexible ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans”. Mr. Biden also used his concession speech in Nevada to paint a contrast between himself and Mr. Sanders, stating:“I ain’t a socialist. I’m not a plutocrat. I’m a Democrat,” – taking a swipe at Mr. Sanders’ registration as an Independent, and his seemingly divisive “democratic socialist” tag. And Mr. Sanders was the target of Mr. Bloomberg’s few successful attack lines in the Nevada debate, arguing the Democratic Party “shouldn’t throw out capitalism”, and attacking Mr. Sanders’ millionaire status.  

These attacks have gained in intensity recently, but they have not enabled any of the three most likely moderate challengers to Mr. Sanders to place themselves as his primary opponent. Arguably, this is the main story that emerged from Nevada: while Mr. Sanders’ is emerging as a frontrunner, he lacks a clear challenger, with all 3 of his potential challengers unable to overcome their weaknesses. Mr. Buttigieg has made little to no headway with minority voters, Mr. Bloomberg’s debate performance was so underwhelming that it dented his rise in polls, and Mr. Biden lost Latino voters to Mr. Sanders and only $ 7M left in the bank (Mr. Sanders has around $ 17M). 

This multi-candidate field is undoubtedly to Mr. Sanders’ advantage, and makes his path to the nomination more straightforward: he could emerge from a divided field consistently winning delegates from most primary states, while the rest of the candidates could cannibalize each other’s chances to compete with Mr. Sanders and consistently reach the 15% viability threshold statewide and in congressional districts in order to clinch delegates.   

  • Caucuses Don’t Work

Harry Reid, an influential baron of the Nevada Democratic Party and former Senate Majority Leader, suggested after the caucuses: “All caucuses should be a thing of the past. They don’t work for a multitude of reasons”. He joined a growing chorus of voices in the Democratic Party calling for an end to the caucus system after technical glitches and democratic critiques have clouded both the Iowa and Nevada caucuses. 

This comes after Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign has appealed the results in Nevada, citing “material irregularities”. There have been some reports that the incorporation of early voting to the caucus system in Nevada created confusion, and may cloud the results in some precincts. And, in addition to these issues, as of Monday (and the time of writing of this article), the Nevada Democratic Party has only been able to report 87% of precincts (the caucus took place on Friday, and 60% of the results were known on Sunday). These failures come after the debacle in Iowa, which has still not been called, and where a recount will begin on Tuesday. Nevada is the second caucus in a row to experience technical difficulties, and to be contested. The arcane caucus process, with its quirks and specificities, has proven itself unable to deliver results without technical glitches.  

In addition to the fact they are unreliable, caucuses are by their nature undemocratic: they require voters to be physically present and standing at a caucus site for hours for their vote to count, and as a result of this commitment, they usually only garner small voter turnout (Iowa caucus turnout was 12% of the eligible population). This burden on the voter has historically excluded people of color, people with disabilities, working people who are unable to commit the time at night, and people who don’t speak English. Moreover, the lack of anonymity in a caucus often adds a layer of social pressure and control that distorts the democratic process.  

The conclusion? The caucus system is a flawed system. The Democratic and Republican Parties need to replace all caucuses with primaries to fully engage as many voters as possible in primaries and restore faith in the democratic process.

  • The Great Winnowing That Never Came: Towards a Contested Convention?

After Nevada, it has also become clear that candidates like Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren have no path to the nomination: FiveThirtyEight’s model gives them 0,1%, 0,1%, and 2% chances of winning a plurality of pledged delegates. Their results in Nevada were all disappointing, especially for Ms. Warren after her sizzling debate performance. While Mr. Steyer has the ability to self-fund, Ms. Warren and Ms. Klobuchar have nearly exhausted their campaign funds ahead of the most expensive stretch of the campaign: Super Tuesday. Ms. Warren has $ 2,3M left in her campaign account, and Ms. Klobuchar has an equally paltry $ 2,9M left. While the field remains historically large, it is beginning to become unsustainably so. The expensive and sprawling task of campaigning and competing in Super Tuesday states will likely have the long-awaiting winnowing effect on the field. 

Even if this is the case, it remains unclear whether the size of the field will allow any candidate to win a majority of pledged delegates to clinch the nomination. That same FiveThirtyEight model predicts a 40% chance of no single candidate able to win a majority of pledged delegates – the second most after Mr. Sanders. Every candidate except for Mr. Sanders indicated that they would not want to give the nomination to a candidate with a plurality of pledged delegates (this would likely be Mr. Sanders) but without the required majority. 

This could lead to a contested convention – a scenario for which multiple candidates, including Mr. Bloomberg have been strategizing already according to reports. This would give super delegates, party elites, a role in determining who the candidate should be at the convention on the second ballot of voting. If the race is unsettled and undecided by July, with the field still large and divided, the convention in Milwaukee could play a real role in choosing, and not just formalizing, the identity of the nominee. 

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