After the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, candidates in the Democratic primary moved on to a state more representative of the electorate: Nevada. On February 22nd, the state held its caucuses, with candidates competing to win some of the state’s 36 delegates.
After Michael Bennet, Deval Patrick, and Andrew Yang dropped out of the race following disappointing results in New Hampshire, eight candidates remain: former Vice-President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, businessman Tom Steyer, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. However, given his late entry in the race, Bloomberg decided to skip the first few contests, including the Nevada caucuses, and to instead focus on Super Tuesday in early March.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who lost the Nevada caucuses to Hillary Clinton in 2016, was widely considered the frontrunner by both pundits and other campaigns due to his high support among Hispanic voters and his campaign’s organization in the state, the biggest of any candidate.
However, the results remained hard to predict for two reasons. First, Nevada is notoriously hard to poll, in part because likely voters are hard to identify and because many pollsters call at night, when a large chunk of potential voters are working in the state’s large entertainment industry. Second, caucuses in general are harder to poll, since caucusgoers whose preferred candidates do not reach the viability threshold of 15 per cent on caucus day have to support a new candidate. For a more detailed rundown of the mechanisms of a caucus, please consult this article.
Another question looming ahead of the caucuses regarded logistics. After the debacle of the Iowa caucuses, where first results were only reported one day later and a recount is currently taking place in 23 precincts, the Nevada Democratic Party held more than 50 training sessions for volunteers, stating that the priority was “getting this right.” However, a caucus precinct chair told Politico that the caucuses “could be a zoo” given the number of candidates, and the new requirement to report three different votes (the first alignment, the second alignment, and the delegate total). Furthermore, unlike in Iowa, early voting was allowed for the caucuses, which also complicates reporting.
In the end, Bernie Sanders won a resounding victory in Nevada, and cemented his front-runner status. With 60 per cent of precincts reporting, Sanders has earned around 46 per cent of the popular vote, which puts him on track to earn a clear plurality (or even a majority) of pledged delegates. What is particularly impressive about Sanders’ clear victory is that it was achieved through true coalition-building. Sanders received the most votes among candidates from voters under 30, those aged 45 to 64, those who identify as “very liberal,” those with and without a college degree, and won a majority of votes from Hispanic voters. He was also second, behind Joe Biden, with black voters and those who identify as “moderate.” If Sanders can replicate his success with Hispanic voters in California and Texas, two delegate-rich Super Tuesday states, he could lock down the nomination soon.
Joe Biden currently sits in second place, with around 20 per cent of the vote. While this could be considered a disappointing performance given that Biden was polling ahead of Sanders in Nevada only a few weeks ago, it will surely come as a relief to the Biden campaign. After his fourth-place finish in Iowa and his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, Biden’s campaign framed this second-place finish as the start of his comeback. Biden is currently leading in South Carolina, the next primary context. A clear win there could help him gain momentum, which will be needed as Bloomberg will be on the ballot on Super Tuesday.
Pete Buttigieg, who was leading in pledged delegates after Iowa and New Hampshire, is likely to finish third in Nevada with around 15 per cent of the popular vote. While this is definitely a decent finish for Buttigieg, the caucuses also highlighted one of his core weaknesses: gaining support from minority voters. According to entrance polls, Buttigieg was second only to Sanders with white voters. However, he only earned around 10 per cent of the Hispanic vote, and 2 per cent of the black vote. If they do not improve, these numbers will prove an immense roadblock for Buttigieg’s bid to win the nomination, given that minority voters make up a large portion of the Democratic electorate. Results indicate that appealing to minority voters may also be a problem for Amy Klobuchar, who finished fifth in Nevada with around 5 per cent of the vote.
Elizabeth Warren, who was widely hailed as the winner of Wednesday’s debate, will finish fourth with around 10 per cent of the vote. Part of the reason why her strong debate performance did not translate into a higher-place finish is due to the fact that early voting ended before the debate happened. This will surely be a disappointing result for the campaign, as Warren has not finished above third place in any contest so far. Given that Warren has raised $14 million in the last few weeks, she will be able to stay competitive until Super Tuesday at least, but is already falling behind Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg in pledged delegates.
The race now moves on to South Carolina, where the majority of voters in the Democratic primary are black. Biden, given his advantage among this demographic, is expected to win. However, Sanders could give him a run for his money, especially given his strong showing with black voters in Nevada.
Yet winning South Carolina is of great importance to Biden who, after disappointing results in states with a small number of minority voters, has continued to claim that he will win in more diverse states. A win in South Carolina is his opportunity to prove this claim. Any other result could prove a fatal blow to Biden’s campaign, especially if front-runner Sanders is able to pull off a victory in the Palmetto State.
Edited by Sophia Dilworth.
This article is part of a series on the 2020 United States elections. To see more analysis and opinion on the American presidential and congressional elections, click here.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Image by Lauren Hill.