The Nevada caucuses Saturday will be the first contest of the Democratic presidential race with a racial makeup that (very roughly) reflects the population of the nation as a whole.
So while the actual delegate haul is rather small, the results could be read as a preview of what’s to come in the weeks and months ahead.
Sen. Bernie Sanders is favored to win the caucuses — buoyed by his support among young people, Latinos and very liberal voters, a coalition that he hopes will carry him to success across the country.
A Las Vegas Review-Journal/AARP Nevada poll conducted last week found Sanders in the lead with 25% of the vote, including about three-fifths of voters younger than 30 and a third of those identifying as very liberal.
Separate surveys focused on Latinos have shown that Sanders has support from roughly a third of Hispanic caucusgoers. A Univision News poll of registered Latino voters put him at 33%, while a Telemundo poll — which focused only on those deemed likely to caucus — gave him 31% support. The Telemundo survey put him in a statistical tie with former Vice President Joe Biden, who pulled 34% support.
According to entrance polls, Latinos made up about 1 in 5 voters in the 2016 Democratic caucuses, which Sanders narrowly lost to Hillary Clinton. That is a slightly higher share than they are expected to comprise in the rest of the country, but not by much.
The Review-Journal/AARP poll found Biden in second place with 18% support, and a flock of lower-tier candidates in a statistical tie for third place. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, all had 10 to 13% each. If those results bear out Saturday, it is possible that none of these candidates will feel compelled to end their campaigns any time soon.
With Sanders consolidating the support of his base nationwide and slowly building upon it, maintaining a large and divided field of more moderate candidates through at least Super Tuesday on March 3 could play to his advantage. That is particularly true because in most states and districts, candidates need to receive at least 15% of the vote in order to be awarded delegates at the Democratic National Convention.
“If Sanders wins here by a large margin, I think he has a chance to win South Carolina and be in a very strong position going into Super Tuesday,” Jon Ralston, editor of The Nevada Independent, said in an interview, referring to the South Carolina primary Feb. 29. “But if he does not, if there’s an upset or if Joe Biden finishes a strong second and stories are written about how he’s the comeback kid, that could change everything.”
The Democratic candidates sparred in a fiery debate Wednesday in Las Vegas, but it may not have much impact on the state’s results. That’s partly because the focus of the night fell most heavily on Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who came under merciless attack from all five of his onstage rivals — but who is not competing in the Nevada caucuses.
Besides, the early-voting period, which ran from Saturday through Tuesday, was already over by the time the candidates debated. According to the Review Journal/AARP poll — taken just before early voting began — roughly 3 in 5 Nevadans planned to vote in that window, rather than on caucus day. And sure enough, the Nevada Democratic Party has reported high early turnout (this was the first time Nevada has offered early voting). Officials estimate that roughly 75,000 people participated; that’s nearly equal to the total number of Nevada caucusgoers in 2016.
The party said that about half of those early voters were first-time caucusgoers, according to CNN — a possible boon to Sanders, who outperformed his rivals among first-time caucusgoers and voters in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, according to entrance and exit polls.
It is possible that the results of Nevada’s caucuses won’t be the main headline Saturday night: That could end up being the caucus process itself, in the event of a fiasco similar to what occurred in Iowa. There were lines and delays at many early-voting sites; the iPad system that was set up to try to avert an Iowa-like disaster proved slightly cumbersome, according to some reports, though no major hiccups have been reported.
It remains to be seen whether the caucuses will go off without a hitch, or if final results will prove elusive — as they still are in Iowa.
“If there’s a huge turnout on caucus day, and it’s 50,000 or 70,000 or 80,000 people, I’m not betting on anything,” Ralston said.
In the Review Journal/AARP poll, two-thirds of likely Democratic caucusgoers said they were ready to ditch the caucus process in favor of a more straightforward primary.