In this edition: Inside the debate hall, inside the “leftist garage,” and inside the end of the no-Super PACs pledge.

The first rule of debating is to show up knowing how many NDAs you've gotten people to sign, and this is The Trailer.

LAS VEGAS — Elizabeth Warren told everyone what she planned to do if she shared a debate stage with Mike Bloomberg. “Primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire,” she'd tweeted Tuesday, as the former New York mayor qualified for the Nevada debate. Twenty-four hours later, she delivered.

“Democrats are not going to win if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women and of supporting racist polls like redlining and stop-and-frisk,” Warren said, a stone-faced Bloomberg standing one lectern away. “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.” 

For the next two hours, Bloomberg struggled as much as any Democrat has in one of these primary debates. Warren, invisible and increasingly forgotten for the past two weeks, delivered one of the cycle's strongest performances. Bernie Sanders, so confident of winning Nevada's caucuses that he has spent most of the past week campaigning elsewhere, never took a punch.

Bloomberg's hostile takeover hit a snag. Before Wednesday night, Mike Bloomberg had not walked onto a debate stage since Elizabeth Warren was a law professor, Pete Buttigieg was a McKinsey consultant, and Bernie Sanders was a first-term senator from Vermont. He had not entered one of these situations as an underdog since 2001, his first race for mayor. Yet he'd arrived onstage with advisers claiming that he was heading into a two-man race with Sanders, completely ready to take down President Trump.

He did not prove that onstage. Bloomberg tried to dismiss most of the attacks thrown his way, then waded into a painful discussion of his company's nondisclosure agreements, with a tin-eared suggestion that some women with sexual harassment complaints “didn't like a joke I told.” He was halfway into the debate before delivering a line that did what he needed — a pretty rote jab at Sanders for owning three houses while running as a democratic socialist. By the end of the night, the Sanders campaign was blowing off questions about whether Bloomberg could pull them into a two-man race.

“I saw him get massacred tonight,” said Sanders's campaign manager, Faiz Shakir.

Every candidate, including Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, got to deliver their arguments against Bloomberg with only a few rebuttals. (His recollection of an op-ed he wrote defending the Affordable Care Act in 2009 was thin, but it seemed to halt Biden.) There has not been so much confidence that a debate performance weakened one candidate since October, when Warren refused to answer questions about how Medicare-for-all would be paid for. 

Warren climbed off the ropes. For most of 2019, Warren thrived in debates without getting into arguments with top contenders. That, and her steady, high favorable ratings with Democrats, encouraged her campaign to pitch Warren as the “unity” candidate, the Democrat each faction was comfortable with. But that prevented her from showcasing what Democrats say they want from candidates, especially female candidates: some evidence that they could dismantle Donald Trump.

Bloomberg's arrival gave Warren the Trump stand-in she needed. But just as important was the 60-second stretch when she unloaded on three of her non-billionaire rivals. It's worth looking at that in full. 

Mayor Buttigieg really has a slogan that was thought up by his consultants to paper over a thin version of a plan that would leave millions of people unable to afford their health care. It's not a plan. It's a PowerPoint. And Amy's plan is even less. It's like a Post-it Note, “Insert Plan Here.” Bernie has started very much, has a good start, but instead of expanding and bringing in more people to help, instead, his campaign relentlessly attacks everyone who asks a question or tries to fill in details about how to actually make this work. And then his own advisers say, yeah, probably won't happen anyway.

This was risky, and Warren has not behaved in a very risky way up to now. It worked, in part because of Warren's weakened position — not since last summer had she been given so much time without being asked to defend her policies — and in part because Warren refused to let any of her opponents up for air. By the end of the night, Warren's problem was not getting left out of the primary story. It was that perhaps more than half of Nevadans had already taken advantage of early voting before seeing her give a dominating debate performance, making it hard or impossible for her to repeat Klobuchar's New Hampshire strategy.

The moderates are stuck in traffic, and getting frustrated. In prior debates, when Klobuchar did very well, she was often asked by moderators to make the case against a liberal policy favored by Warren or Sanders. Last night, she was pressed on her own record, and muddled through, with a point-by-point explanation of how controversial cases from her tenure as Hennepin County attorney should be reexamined. She was pressed on an interview in which she blanked on the name of Mexico's president and made a joke about trivia that was not landing, until Buttigieg made her angry.

“You're literally in part of the committee that's overseeing these things and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south,” Buttigieg said. 

“Are you trying to say that I'm dumb?” Klobuchar said. “Or are you mocking me here, Pete?”

In a coup for Sanders, who has benefited from the moderate muddle, the three candidates fighting for the votes of nervous centrists spent next to no time criticizing Sanders. They spent more time attacking Bloomberg, an immediate threat, on the (unproven) theory that any moderate candidate could surely win a one-on-one race with Sanders. 

Biden did himself the most good, pointing out that polling still found him consistently ahead of Trump in key states. But for the umpteenth time, he came loaded with attacks on Sanders, then only fitfully used them. He made a glancing reference to Sanders's old votes against gun control, then used a closing statement for a drive-by immigration attack.

“The only person in here that has a worse record on immigration [than Trump] is Bernie, because Bernie voted against the 2007 bill,” Biden said.

Latino groups saw that bill having provisions akin to slavery, Joe,” Sanders said.

Biden — and Bloomberg — suffered slightly from the lack of questions about guns, something Biden worked to correct Thursday by scheduling a news conference to attack Sanders's old support for gunmaker legal immunity. But neither found their moment onstage, and it was noticeable, on a night when Warren comfortably forced the conversation in her direction.

Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar are making the same argument: The Democratic base might not always agree with them, but moderates and swing voters could. None of the three, or Bloomberg, got or effectively used their time to say that memorably; Biden in particular was distracted by the audacity of Warren, who accurately said that Biden considered Mitch McConnell a friend and did not campaign against him in 2014.

Did you ever win anything?" Biden bellowed. “Come on!” By that point, Warren had already won the debate.

Sanders is already picking a “popular vote” fight. One of the debate's key exchanges came near the end, after the Warren vs. Bloomberg story line was pretty much written. NBC's Chuck Todd asked each candidate whether “the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee, even if they are short of a majority,” knowing that Sanders would say yes. No other candidate said yes. 

“A convention working its will means that people have the delegates that are pledged to them,” said Warren, whose campaign has been arguing since the New Hampshire primary that the primary will be a long delegate hunt. “They keep those delegates until you come to the convention.”

The question got a little garbled. Sanders invoked new DNC rules that allow unpledged “superdelegates” to have a say if the convention goes to a second ballot, while it was not clear that the other candidates were talking about superdelegates. (One possible convention scenario is that no candidate has a pledged delegate majority, but two candidates have 50 percent when they pool their delegates, and they form a ticket.) But the question and answers ripped a bandage off a four-year-old wound, with Sanders supporters warning that his opponents could ignore the popular vote, and Sanders critics calling him a hypocrite.

“He thinks he'll have a plurality, but he certainly won't have a majority,” said Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada, a Biden supporter. “And I think the rules were set to accommodate him from these complaints last time! So he can't change the rules in the middle. I think you let it play out, just like most of the candidates said.” 

At issue here: Sanders, four years ago, fell behind Hillary Clinton in the pledged delegate race after South Carolina's primary and never caught up to her. He continued running, arguing that he could break through in California's primary and argue to superdelegates (who at that time had a say on the first ballot) that he had a stronger general election campaign, even if he was trailing in popular votes and pledged delegates.

“It is virtually impossible for Secretary Clinton to reach a majority of convention delegates by June 14 with pledged delegates alone,” Sanders said at a May 1, 2016, news conference.

Not many voters remember this. Elected Democrats do. And they are already bristling at the idea that Sanders would claim the nomination if he fell short of a delegate majority while the moderate candidate dog pile split up most of the remaining delegates. Asked whether denying Sanders in that scenario would cause chaos, they put the onus back on Sanders.

“I can't speak to Bernie and his supporters," Titus said. “They're pretty rabid.” 

Reading list

“At fiery Democratic debate, a sour welcome for Bloomberg and criticism for Sanders,” by Matt Viser, Annie Linskey, Chelsea Janes, and Michael Scherer

What happened in Vegas.

“ ‘A Taco’s a Taco,’ ” by Meghan McCarron

Inside the Tom Steyer carnitas offensive.

“Bloomberg’s immense spending gets him 30,000 online ads a minute, and a whole lot more,” by Kevin Schaul, Kevin Uhrmacher and Anu Narayanswamy

Mapping the most expensive primary campaign in American history.

“As candidates threw verbal punches, debate viewers cheered, jeered, and mulled their choices,” by Jackie Valley

A view from the watch parties.

“Appeals court says Florida rule barring certain ex-felons from voting is unconstitutional,” by Elise Viebeck

A defeat for a new poll tax.

“Bernie Sanders's secret for attracting Latino support: Talking to them,” by Aída Chávez

The long, effective outreach plan in Nevada.

On the trail

LAS VEGAS — A few miles from the Strip, in one of the subdivisions where most Nevadans actually live, is the “leftist garage.” It belonged to Keenan Korth, the Nevada director of the Bernie Sanders campaign, who filled it with chairs, flags, posters, literature and bullhorns.

Every few hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., left-wing organizers gathered at the house and launched a canvass. On Sunday they had special guests; Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison was there, alongside Missouri’s Cori Bush and Nevada’s Amy Vilela, two 2018 candidates for Congress whose Sanders-styled campaigns were featured in the documentary “Knock Down the House.” (Another star of the documentary, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, was represented by a poster on a fridge.)

“This garage is actually kind of incredible,” explained Analilia Mejia, the campaign's national political director, who’d accompanied the surrogates to the garage. “Our strategy is voter to voter, talking to people within the community, having them reach out to their own personal network, trying to educate folks on what Bernie is about.”

The Sanders campaign, which even rival campaigns think is on track to win the Nevada caucuses, has built the state’s largest turnout machine. There are 250 staffers on the ground, with a Latino outreach that far outpaces rival campaigns. 

On top of that, there is the power of “distributed organizing,” with volunteers who are so numerous that the campaign can’t count them. “It’s hard to do that when they’re growing exponentially,” said the campaign’s Nevada communications director Biance Recto. Winning these early, crowded primaries has been done with just one-quarter of the vote. Sanders’s narrow victories have pushed him ahead in national polls, and they were made possible, on the margins, by the sheer number of left-wing activists, mostly young, willing to go into the field for him.

Hundreds came to the state on a “Bernie Journey,” a program loosely put together by the campaign, and hundreds more are grass-roots left-wing activists with groups such as the Democratic Socialists of America. Korth, who helped the DSA build its Las Vegas chapter, was churning out thousands of voter contacts every day. The star power of the Sunday afternoon launch helped pull 50 canvassers to the garage, all of them leaving with armfuls of literature, as they'd been doing for months.

“We started doing caucus trainings in October,” Korth said. “And then we started doing canvassing in late December.” 

Like so much of what has worked for Sanders, the energy of young left-wing activists was hiding in plain sight. The DSA, now the largest socialist organization in America, endorsed Sanders for president and many of its chapters got to work on canvassing. 

In Iowa and New Hampshire, they were part of the overall Sanders strategy, showing up at campaign offices or launching independent efforts. Their theory was the same as Sanders's: There were millions of working-class voters who agreed with democratic socialism but would not realize it until somebody told them what it was. 

In Nevada, their numbers were swelled by supporters who’d driven or flown from California, Utah and Oregon, places where Sanders was strong but would be stronger with a good Nevada finish. As they organized, they were hearing more and more Democratic grumbling about “Bernie bros” and the tenor of Sanders organizers. The more they mobilized, the more they could dismiss that.

“It’s funny, the Bernie Bro stuff has been almost exclusively people involved with local [Democratic] politics,” said Shaun Navarro, a Las Vegas DSA organizer. “They will come up to us at an event like our local Clark County Democratic planning committee and tell us stuff like ‘Hope you don’t ruin this election for me.’ I haven’t heard anyone mention ‘Bernie Bros’ while canvassing, I think it shows how insular the world of Twitter is, and a lot of that stuff doesn’t play with the majority of voters.”

At the canvass launch, and at a happy hour that night, other candidates weren't mentioned. A few dozen Bernie-Journey makers and DSA members gathered at Starboard Tack, a nautical-themed bar far from the Strip, to unwind from the day and get revved up by Vilela and Bush. The Missouri Democrat paced the floor between the booths where volunteers were sitting, asking people who had spent the day bouncing between work and a garage and the doorsteps of strangers' homes what else they could do.

“When we get tired, does somebody suffer because we got tired?” Bush asked. “Does somebody suffer because I felt weak? Does somebody suffer because I didn't make a phone call? Bernie's asking you, the team is asking you, the person next to you is asking you, to dig a little deeper, to fight a little harder. If you did not bring somebody with you today, the call is that you bring somebody tomorrow. If each and every one of us brings one more person tomorrow, how many people do we add to this movement? If you do that, you just knocked on another door, you just saved another life." 

Ad watch

Tom Steyer, “All of America.” The first negative ad aimed at Mike Bloomberg came from the primary's other billionaire, who has spent millions of dollars and months of his time running as the candidate of racial justice and reparations. It hits Bloomberg over both stop-and-frisk and his analysis that ending housing segregation made the financial crisis possible. “Those policies were racist, and Mike Bloomberg was wrong to support them,” a narrator says, before introducing Steyer.

Elizabeth Warren, “Mike Bloomberg.” Everything in this clip, shared first on Twitter, came from Wednesday night's debate, as Warren stared down Bloomberg and warned that controversies within his company could hobble him as a Democratic candidate. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who knows how many nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against.”

Mike Bloomberg, “Only Democrat.” The latest of Bloomberg's biographical spots emphasizes two things that Democratic voters have not been moved by this year: business experience and the ability to self-fund a campaign. 

Amy Klobuchar, “Decency.” Part of an ad buy across seven Super Tuesday states, it boils her message down to Trump's power to exhaust people (“his tweets, his golf courses, his ego”) and her promise to restore a sense of normalcy. 

Poll watch

South Carolina primary (Winthrop, 443 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 24% (-13) 
Bernie Sanders: 19% ( 11) 
Tom Steyer: 15% ( 13) 
Pete Buttigieg: 7% ( 3) 
Elizabeth Warren: 6% (-11) 
Amy Klobuchar: 4% ( 3) 
Tulsi Gabbard: 1% (-)

The last time Winthrop University polled South Carolina was in September, during Warren’s rise and before Steyer had opened the early-state spending gusher. Since then, Biden’s lead has come perilously down to earth, with some serious implications in the delegate chase. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 win here, a 47-point clobbering of Sanders, netted her 25 delegates; a narrow Biden win in a situation in which two other candidates split the delegates would be more of a wash. Warren has fallen from a delegate-scoring position into single digits, with nine days to reverse that.

California Democratic primary (PPIC, 573 likely voters)

Bernie Sanders: 32% ( 5) 
Joe Biden: 14% (-10) 
Elizabeth Warren: 13% (-10) 
Mike Bloomberg: 12% ( 11) 
Pete Buttigieg: 12% ( 6) 
Amy Klobuchar: 5% ( 1) 
Tom Steyer: 3% ( 3) 
Tulsi Gabbard: 1% ( 1)

Like Nevada, California was targeted by the Sanders campaign very early, with an effort to lock in Latino voters and secure as many delegates as possible. As in Nevada, rival Democrats have proved inept at slowing down Sanders; he has hovered between one-fifth and one-third of the vote, but gained as the campaign has gone on. The mystery is what could happen to the straggling candidates as early voters, who will cast millions of ballots before the March 3 election, process the debates. Warren had a well of California strength that has faded entirely as educated white voters moved away; Bloomberg's support comes straight from Biden. The candidate lost in the scrum may be Klobuchar, who announced a new wave of ads Thursday but notably skipped California and Texas, with expensive ad markets and no clear path for her to win delegates.

California Democratic primary (Monmouth, 408 California voters)

Bernie Sanders: 24%
Joe Biden: 17%
Mike Bloomberg: 13%
Elizabeth Warren: 10%
Pete Buttigieg: 9%
Tom Steyer: 5%
Amy Klobuchar: 4%
Tulsi Gabbard: 2%

Like an earlier national NBC poll, this one begins to erase Warren, testing how Sanders would run in California if the race came down to him and one of four rivals: Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Klobuchar. He leads them all but leads Biden by eight points. The better news for Sanders is the uncertainty of other candidates' voters. To win a share of the state's 114 statewide delegates, candidates need to crack 15 percent; in a race like this, were undecided voters distributed fairly evenly, that would leave Buttigieg and Klobuchar in the cold, while Warren risked getting no delegates, either. It's a different, complicated picture in the state's congressional districts, but the Sanders campaign sees the struggle of other candidates to become viable in California as its best chance for an immense delegate haul.

Money watch

Amy Klobuchar's winning debate performance in New Hampshire boosted her standing in the state and fired up Democratic donors, earning her millions of dollars and letting her expand her campaign into Super Tuesday. The Las Vegas debate might have had the same effect for Warren, who claimed $2.8 million raised on the day of the debate, half a million of it in the first hour onstage. 

That would have helped push Warren past the $2.7 million Sanders raised on debate day, and it reset the fundraising goal with which Warren had come into Nevada. After initially asking for $7 million, Warren announced a new target of $12 million before midnight on Friday, the day before the caucuses. And at the same time, Buttigieg's campaign set a $13 million fundraising goal, to help “stay competitive” before Super Tuesday.

Candidate tracker

The final day of campaigning in Nevada does not look like the final days before the last two contests. There was little action in Las Vegas today, and just a handful of candidate events tomorrow. Bernie Sanders, in particular, will have spent more of the week before the caucuses campaigning in states that vote in March (and early-vote right now) than he will have in Nevada.

Bernie Sanders. He'll start the day in California, with a news conference on “no party preference” voters, who need to take an extra step to cast a Democrat ballot. He'll then hold rallies in Santa Ana and Bakersfield, before heading back to Nevada for a rally at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas.

Elizabeth Warren. She'll hold a closing Las Vegas rally at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater.

Joe Biden. He'll hold a final pre-caucus “community event” in Las Vegas.

Amy Klobuchar. She'll fly to two stops, in Reno and Elko.

Pete Buttigieg. He'll hold a roundtable in Las Vegas with environmental activists and Native American leaders.

Tom Steyer. He'll hold a final pre-caucus event at a Las Vegas event space, with TLC on hand to provide entertainment.

Tulsi Gabbard. She'll be in Utah, with a forum for students and a separate town hall in Salt Lake City.

Mike Bloomberg. He won the support of three more members of Congress: Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, and Rep. Pete Aguilar of California.

President Trump. He'll rally in Las Vegas on Friday afternoon, during a time when few Democrats will be holding events.

Bill Weld. He'll campaign in Utah with stops in Salt Lake City and Orem.

Dems in disarray

The Democrats’ crusade against super PACs petered out on Thursday, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren refused to denounce Persist PAC, a dark-money group created to help her in key states.

“If all the candidates want to get rid of super PACs, count me in. I'll lead the charge,” Warren told reporters after a canvass launch on Thursday morning. “But that's how it has to be. It can't be the case that a bunch of people keep them and only one or two don’t.”

With that, Warren ended a trend that had dramatic implications for the 2020 primary — preemptively urging donors not to support a super PAC, an independent group with no donation limits. One year ago, no Democrat had the support of a super PAC. Now, just one remaining candidate, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, has neither personal wealth nor an outside source of spending to prop up her campaign.

The collapse of the super PAC standard took months and was sped up by the decisions of Tom Steyer, then Mike Bloomberg, to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into their campaigns. Joe Biden, who had repeatedly said that he would forgo a super PAC if he ran for president, changed his mind four months ago; Unite the Country was formed to give him air cover. VoteVets, a progressive group that operates a super PAC, endorsed Pete Buttigieg in December and began spending money on his behalf.

The odd man out was Bernie Sanders, who had made his opposition to super PACs integral to his 2016 primary campaign. As in 2016, Sanders discouraged anyone from creating a super PAC to help him. But at the end of that campaign, Sanders’s campaign manager had founded Our Revolution, a nonprofit group that did not have to disclose its donors, and in November, Sanders again was endorsed by National Nurses United, a union with a super PAC.

That led to a finger-pointing contest between Buttigieg and Sanders, with the former Indiana mayor telling donors that Sanders was benefiting from “dark-money” help in early states. (He counted independent left-wing efforts to organize for Sanders, such as People Power for Bernie.) And that blurred the standard, just in time for independent super PACs to be launched on behalf of Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Klobuchar, who has not drawn a serious challenger in her Senate races since 2006, had no particular history with super PACs. Warren did. In 2012, during her first run for office, she got then-Sen. Scott Brown to sign a pledge that neutralized super PACs; if one had dared spend money on their behalf, they would have redirected money from their own campaigns to charity.

It was a newsy, innovative idea that did not catch on. In 2018, Warren had weak opposition, and in 2019, she decried super PACs. Republicans pointed that out Thursday; Sanders was initially silent. If every Democrat now believes that the super PAC issue is neutralized, it will free up the kind of money that could have reshaped the race last summer. The question over the next week, and in the next debate, is whether any candidate will call Warren a hypocrite; another question is whether Democratic voters, who have already been seeing Priorities USA and other liberal super PACs buy digital ads, will care.

What I'm watching

Will the caucus be unbroken? Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has raised the possibility that the results of Nevada’s caucuses might not be known immediately after they conclude Saturday. 

In a Tuesday interview with the Associated Press, and in a conversation with reporters Wednesday morning, Perez said that Democrats would “do our best” to release results quickly but that they would not necessarily be complete Saturday.

“I can't give you a precise answer, because we don't know how many people will show up on Saturday,” Perez said. “For me, if the choice is between getting it right and getting it fast, I will choose right over fast, all the time.”

Nevada’s caucuses, like Iowa’s, are run by local Democrats and not by the state. In 2016, the party was able to report the vast majority, but not all, of precinct results on caucus day itself, enough to determine that Hillary Clinton had won. 

But the debacle in Iowa, where results are still being contested by the Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg campaigns, has led to Democrats promising that Nevada will get the process right, leaving no room for questions about the vote count itself.

“I know that we're going to try to get results as soon as possible,” Perez said. “But we want to get results that are accurate, and we want to make sure that we count everybody.”

That could mean that the party adjusts for the complicated early vote, which was an experiment this year and saw some hiccups. According to the Nevada Independent, 940 voters who cast early ballots have been informed by the party that those ballots had flaws and that they will have to caucus Saturday if they want to participate.

 The leading campaigns are monitoring all of it. As in Iowa, the Sanders campaign will collect its own data on the vote; in Iowa, that helped Sanders release an independent projection of the result, days before the party sorted out the caucus problems.


… two days until the Nevada caucuses 
… five days until the 10th Democratic debate
… nine days until the South Carolina primary 
… 12 days until Super Tuesday
… 19 days until Super Tuesday II
… 24 days until the 11th Democratic debate
… 26 days until Super Tuesday III