With Bernie Sanders's drubbing of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire in the rearview mirror, the Democratic race for president heads west -- to Nevada, which holds caucuses on Feb. 20. As in most post-New Hampshire states, polling suggests Clinton has a big lead in the state that she won narrowly over then-Sen. Obama in 2008. But most sharp political observers see the race as closer than the polls show. The sharpest of those observers in Jon Ralston, the undisputed king of political journalism in Nevada. I reached out to him to talk about the state of the race and whether Sanders has a chance to pull (another) upset. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: Polls give Hillary Clinton a huge lead over Bernie Sanders in the Nevada caucus. The Clinton folks say it could be close. Who’s right — and why?
Ralston: I don't consider those polls reliable or recent. The Clinton folks are saying it could be close and distorting Nevada's demographics (suddenly we are as white as Iowa and New Hampshire!) because they are worried about the Bernie surge. And I think they should be. Team Clinton has an infrastructure advantage, and its staff here is first-rate and knows the state. Some worked here in '08. They also arrived six months before Team Sanders, whose folks do not know the state nearly as well. But he is outspending her on TV -- this may be changing -- and same-day registration on Feb. 20 may allow a lot of new, Sanders voters to change the course of the election. Hillary knew a long time ago she would need a firewall in Nevada; that's why she set up here so early. The firewall isn't breached yet, but it may be buckling soon.
FIX: Clinton won the Nevada caucuses narrowly over Barack Obama in 2008. How much of her '08 organization is still around? And who is the key player in the state for her?
Ralston: Clinton has hired people from her own team in '08 and Obama's. She won the caucuses, but lost the delegate fight because Obama understood the apportionment process better. Emmy Ruiz, who heads her campaign here, is key. She worked for both Clinton and Obama in '08. Jorge Neri, who was Obama's field director in Nevada in '08, is on board. He also is critical. Both are field people, and they know how to organize for the caucus.
FIX: Where’s Harry Reid in all of this? He famously encouraged Barack Obama to run in 2008. Has he warmed to the Clintons? And what does he think of Sanders — if he thinks of him at all?
Ralston: I have little doubt that Reid believes Clinton is the stronger general election candidate. I am not sure Harry Reid "warms" to anyone outside his family. He is remaining neutral because he has two colleagues running. But he's also staying out because the Nevada Democratic Party is The Party of Reid and he does not want to be seen as tipping the scales. He is not especially close to Sanders or Clinton -- especially after the revelation that he encouraged Obama to run partly because he was worried about her 2002 Iraq war vote. But his public and private comments indicate he now believes she can win.
FIX: You have made the #wematter hashtag famous on Twitter. So, how much does Nevada matter this time around on the Democratic side? And should it matter more?
Ralston: It matters as much as I say it does! But, seriously, I think it's more important than '08. Here's why: Sanders tied Hillary in Iowa and destroyed her in New Hampshire. She has set up Nevada as a firewall, made the argument she is better for minorities and until recently touted Nevada as a more diverse state than the first two. I don't like overstating the impact of individual states -- even Nevada! -- because it is only a moment in time. But the media narrative can overwhelm, and momentum is difficult to reverse. If she loses here, it indicates organization cannot defeat enthusiasm, that her flaws as a candidate may be great enough to overwhelm her campaign's inherent advantages. That could be ominous going forward.
FIX: Finish this sentence: “If Hillary Clinton loses the Nevada caucuses, it means _______________. Now, explain.
Ralston: I think I answered that partly in the previous question. I'll give you the politician's answer: It depends. If it's close and she loses, it won't be as devastating as if she loses by a big margin, which I still think is unlikely. And she still may be able to recover in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday and in the long delegate slog. But the media are fickle beasts. If she loses, the Bloombergmania will resurface, and even if he doesn't run, talk of a third-party candidate will start again. She needs to win here.