Decision 2020: The Nevada Democratic Caucus


Last night, the 2020 Democratic nomination contest moved to Nevada, which is (sequentially in the primary contest) the first state to have a diverse primary electorate, with not just Hispanics, but blacks, those of more than one race, and unions. And now that we’re three contests in, we can start to see which Democrats are more/less viable. Here are the main takeaways:

High turnout – again: In Iowa, Democratic turnout was the second highest ever, but it could be argued that a caucus lasting several hours on a Monday night was not conducive to a robust voter turnout. In New Hampshire, however, the primary setting was much more conducive to “user friendly” voting, and Democratic turnout was a  record 297K (the previous record was set in 2008 at 285K). Republican turnout was similarly strong, even considering President Trump has minor primary opposition – the 152K who voted is nearly triple was it was in 2004 (the last time an incumbent Republican President was on the ballot);

In Nevada’s case, the Democratic contest (Republicans cancelled theirs) was a caucus and not a primary, although interestingly enough, early voting was allowed. And caucus turnout (like in Iowa) approached (but did not exceed) record turnout: the last record turnout by Democrats in Nevada was set in 2008, when 118K caucused. In 2016, 84K Democrats showed up. This year, 105K participated in the caucus.

Nevada’s diverse electorate: With its ethnic diversity and urban nature (93% of the Democratic vote comes from only two counties), Nevada is an excellent state to examine the candidate preferences of the different components of the Democratic coalition. First, Nevada’s large Hispanic population overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders – according to exit polls, he received over 50% of this vote. That strong showing puts him in excellent shape for “Super Tuesday” contests in states like California, Colorado, and Texas. Nevada also has a noticeable black vote in Las Vegas, and while this demographic supported Joe Biden, Sanders was nevertheless (unlike other Democratic contenders) competitive among this demographic. And finally, Nevada has a strong union presence, which similarly benefited Sanders, despite the fact that his “Medicare For All” advocacy was potentially a problem with union members, given the health benefits unions have negotiated for its members.

Handicapping the “Top Five” Democrats: The Iowa and New Hampshire contests produced five viable contestants. How did they do in Nevada yesterday ? Bernie Sanders, with 34% of the vote, was a strong first place finisher. Joe Biden’s strength (although not dominance) among black voters enabled him to finish in second place with 18%. Pete Buttigieg is closely behind in third place with 15% (about 2,300 votes separated him from Biden), while Elizabeth Warren finished 4th with 13%, Amy Klobuchar finished in 5th place with 10%, while Tom Steyer (who spent heavily here) received 9% and a 6th place finish.

Given the Nevada results (as well as the results of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests), where do the five major contenders place in the “winner’s” and “loser’s” brackets ? Bernie Sanders obviously sits comfortably in the winner’s bracket. Because in addition to his showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, his dominance among Hispanic voters (combined with existing dominance among liberal voters) means that in more ethnically diverse states, his base of support is above 30% now, and as long as the more moderate Democratic vote remains divided, that support percentage keeps him in the driver’s seat. His strength among black voters remains a question mark, however.

While Joe Biden’s second place showing does keep his candidacy alive (for now), it’s not a strong second place showing – his lead over Pete Buttigieg is barely 2,000 votes. Therefore, he HAS to show some strength in South Carolina. Thus, he’s more in the “purgatory” category. Especially since once Super Tuesday’s 14 contests are held on March 3, Michael Bloomberg’s heavy spending will likely impact the race, as his spending is in states where personal voter contact isn’t as practical (or even possible) as media expenditures.

Pete Buttigieg’s third place showing in Nevada similarly puts him in purgatory, although given that he and Bernie Sanders are neck and neck in the all important delegate count, he’s a long way away from facing questions about his viability, but at some point, he DOES need to establish dominance among more moderate Democrats.

Remaining in the “loser’s bracket” is Elizabeth Warren, as she doesn’t really have an ideological “home.” She has been unable to pry away a significant number of liberal/progressive voters from Bernie Sanders, and her recent attempts to cast herself as a “unity” candidate haven’t earned her an appreciable number of “moderate” voters. Plus, she is clearly not on an upward trajectory: she finished 3rd in Iowa, 4th in New Hampshire, and now 4th in Nevada.

Amy Klobuchar’s “sugar high” of  a 3rd place showing in New Hampshire at least put her on the map in terms of viability, but her 5th place showing in Nevada puts her back on the fringes of viability. She is in a similar position as Elizabeth Warren, where it’s questionable whether she has the wherewithal to compete in 14 contests on “Super Tuesday”, much less South Carolina.

For Tom Steyer, he has to be considered a question mark (in other words, he can’t even be placed into the “purgatory” category yet, since he was a non factor in the first two contests). While his heavy spending gives him a big megaphone to get his message across, it’s simply unclear where he can gain electoral traction, as Bernie Sanders has the liberal vote cornered, and Joe Biden showed residual strength among black voters (who Steyer has been wooing heavily). Plus, Michael Bloomberg hasn’t yet made his presence felt – he’s banking heavily on Super Tuesday contests.

The two halves of the Democratic Party – There are really two electoral “swim lanes” in the Democratic Party contest right now. The “liberal swim lane” (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer) in the aggregate got 56% of the vote (it was 43% in Iowa and 39% in New Hampshire). This surge can partially be attributed to the fact that Bernie Sanders scored impressively among Hispanics, who for the first time in the nomination contest are a substantial voter bloc. The “moderate swim lane” (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar) received 43% of the vote (it was 49% in Iowa and 53% in New Hampshire).

Without any withdrawals from the remaining candidates in the race, this liberal/moderate split will continue to favor Bernie Sanders, since his two “swim lane” competitors haven’t demonstrated the ability to take votes away from him. On the other hand, the “moderate” vote is split three ways (potentially four ways, depending on Michael Bloomberg starting with the Super Tuesday contests).

What’s next ? South Carolina’s primary contest this upcoming Saturday has a black majority electorate, and primary electorates after that will similarly be more ethnically diverse. And since these upcoming contests are generally in larger states, perception of strength will become critical, particularly with regards to obtaining the necessary funding to compete in these contests. And while Joe Biden showed signs of life in Nevada, whether that will translate into a strong win in South Carolina and/or electoral viability in Super Tuesday (with the added complication of Steyer and Bloomberg’s spending) remains an open question.