The third voting contest in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary — and the first in a state with a racially diverse electorate — happened Saturday in Nevada with caucuses. Here are the night’s winners and losers.
A caveat for Sanders: The first three states were practically tailor-made for him. Iowa and Nevada are caucuses, a drawn-out voting process that rewards candidates with dedicated grass-roots supporters, which he has. New Hampshire neighbors his home state. How does he perform next week in South Carolina, with an electorate made up of a majority of black voters who typically have not been in his corner, and then a few days later when 14 states across the nation vote in the closest thing to a national primary that the Democratic Party has?
Joe Biden: Phew, say supporters of the former vice president. After finishing with fewer votes than lesser-known candidates in earlier states, Biden appears on track for a second-place finish in Nevada. That’s especially sweet for him given the race for second to Sanders was pretty wide open. Even though it’s looking like it will be a distant second, not placing lower in Nevada allows him to try to salvage his electability argument by arguing he can perform better in nonwhite states. Indeed, Nevada entrance polls showed Biden winning black caucus-goers.
“You know, the press is ready to declare people dead pretty quickly,” Biden told supporters in Las Vegas. “But we are alive and we’re coming back to win.”
But but but. Sanders is still a huge problem for Biden. Sanders broadened his support in Nevada, and there’s evidence Sanders is scaling Biden’s supposed firewall with black voters. Biden only narrowly edged out Sanders for initial support among Nevada’s black voters, according to entrance poll results. That Washington Post-ABC News poll finds Sanders has more than doubled his support among black Democratic voters nationally since January.
Nevada: The only Western state to hold an early nominating contest can get lost between the hype of Iowa and New Hampshire and the weight of South Carolina’s majority-black Democratic electorate. But Nevada has doggedly made the argument that it matters, and that seems to have resonated with the Democratic Party. The Post’s David Weigel reports that candidates repeatedly celebrated on the campaign trail the state’s diversity, with Hispanic, Asian American, black and white voters. In a still very undecided race, national media focused in on Nevada. And Nevada reflects an electorate the candidates will need to win in the general election, with union and non-college-educated workers in a purple state.
Early voting: To avoid a repeat of 2016, when Nevada Democrats waited in long lines just to get in to caucus, the state Democratic Party introduced a novel system: early caucus voting, where voters had four days to fill out their first choice and up to four alternatives. Early voting is a proven way to get voters to turn out. It gives people more options to fit voting into their lives. This is especially crucial in Nevada, where the highest concentration of Democratic voters are in greater Las Vegas, where many people don’t work Monday to Friday.
Nevada Democrats calculated that 75 percent of voters turned out in the early-voting days, and 25 percent on the actual caucus day, with turnout increasing by 16,000 over 2016.
The fact that, when given some flexibility, more voters showed up is a positive indicator for Democrats, who are hungry for those. Turnout thus far in primaries has given the party anxiety about voters’ motivation to go to the polls in November.
A brokered convention: Two dynamics, underscored by Nevada’s results, make it possible that Democrats get to their nominating convention in July without a nominee: First, Sanders is performing well enough to win the most delegates, but not well enough to win the required majority of the nearly 4,000 allotted in this primary process.
Second, the rest of the field is bunched up behind him. Four candidates were pulling in double-digit percentages on Saturday as results became available — Sanders; Biden; former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).
Those candidates have motivation to stay in the race and try to catch Sanders, but even as that’s becoming harder, they could also all splinter the delegates and prevent Sanders from getting a majority.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.): Like Biden, she needed a strong performance to salvage her weak ones in Iowa and New Hampshire. Unlike Biden, she won’t get it, coming in fourth. Her fierce debate performance days earlier and her embrace of a super PAC to help her financially struggling campaign didn’t seem to make a difference. (Her campaign says the debate helped, but many Nevada Democrats had voted by then.). At this point, it’s not clear where Warren’s path is. Anyway you break down the voting pool in Nevada — gender, age, ideology — she didn’t really stand out in entrance poll results.
Technology in tabulating election results: After an app in Iowa wreaked havoc on reporting caucus results, Nevada Democrats scrapped plans to use a similar one. They reverted to calculating results on paper with a customized Google form they scrambled to put together to back them up. But the takeaway of all these changes was confusion among volunteers about how to combine early-voting caucus submissions and long waits to call in results to a secure hotline. Buttigieg’s campaign asked for Nevada Democrats to recount this part of the process. Volunteers also used iPads to check in voters, which led to long lines in early voting.
Technology may be prevalent in every other aspect of our lives, but it’s not ready for elections, election security experts told The Post’s Reed Albergotti: The tools needed to secure online elections are “not even in their infancy yet,” one said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg: This is one time where meeting expectations is not a good thing. Both Klobuchar (Minn.) and Buttigieg have little to no support in national polls from black and Latino voters, and both performed poorly among minority voters in Nevada. According to a Washington Post analysis of Nevada caucus entrance polls, minorities ranked among their least-supportive groups. That’s especially difficult for Buttigieg, who is trying to position himself as the party’s alternative to Sanders after strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire and who had been leading in the delegate count up until the electorate got more diverse.
Tom Steyer: The largely self-funded billionaire candidate who is actually competing in Nevada (former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg decided not to be on the ballot until Super Tuesday) needed to be competitive with the bunched field to, well, be competitive. Despite a poll showing him surging in Nevada, he looks like he’ll lag behind the top four finishers. What does that mean for his surprise second-place finish in a recent South Carolina poll?