What The Candidates Are Expecting Out Of Nevada Caucuses

Feb 21, 2020
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tomorrow, voters in Nevada will weigh in on who they think should be the Democratic nominee for president - that's when the state holds its caucuses. Nevada will be the first in the West to vote in the primary and the first state with a diverse Democratic electorate. NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow is here. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey there.

CORNISH: And Asma Khalid, also joining us from Las Vegas - hey there.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey.

CORNISH: Scott, I want to start with you. Polls show Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to be in a strong position in Nevada. So how's that campaign talking?

DETROW: They're feeling good enough that he's actually spending the bulk of today campaigning in California, and he's spending the bulk of tomorrow campaigning in Texas - two states that vote on March 3, Super Tuesday, where the Sanders campaign has really staked a lot of time and money and energy. They're feeling pretty confident in Nevada, and I think every campaign does have the expectation that Bernie Sanders will most likely be the top candidate in the Nevada caucuses tomorrow. And if that does happen, he will have won two of the first three early states and finished in a virtual tie in the third state.

So he continues to really be in the driver's seat going forward. And a big reason for that is that, other than former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg - who's spent something like a half-billion dollars already on this race - Sanders has more money, more resources than many of the other campaigns, who really spent a lot of their money on these first two states and are trying to raise money and get ready for this national campaign that's coming in a week and a half.

CORNISH: I want to come back to Democrats in a bit, but I also want to mention that President Trump is having a rally now. This is routine for the president, to counterprogram against the Democrats. And Asma, you're there. What's the scene?

KHALID: You know, the scene is a lot of enthusiasm. There are people who've been lined up for a while. We got here a couple of hours ago. And people are enthusiastic. I mean, I met women who say that they are donating to him; some of them donate to him every month. And that's what the Trump campaign is relying on, is enthusiasm. I mean, certainly they have fundraised and brought in bucket-loads of money as well. But to your point, Audie, this is also counterprogramming. There are no Republican caucuses here in Nevada. So it's not even that he is formally on the ballot here; this is a sheer attempt to counterprogram against Democrats.

CORNISH: That's what the president's up to. What about some of the other candidates - right? - who really need a win or need to build on some momentum, an Elizabeth Warren or also a Joe Biden?

KHALID: So when you ask the campaigns about expectations, I would say they're kind of unclear. I mean, Elizabeth Warren's campaign does not necessarily expect to finish first here. I think, as Scott mentioned, everyone sees Bernie Sanders as having really good prospects in the Nevada caucuses. You know, what their long game is - I guess is to essentially be the last candidate standing in a race that could potentially unite factions of the Democratic Party. I think it's a risky strategy because, at some point, if you are finishing, say, in third place, second place, fourth place, but you're not winning contests, that becomes a hard sell around the issue of electability.

Then there's the issue of Joe Biden, who's also had poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has long said - his campaign has long said that he will do better in more diverse states. Nevada is a remarkably diverse state. There's a huge Latino, Asian and even African American, you know, sizable population here. But if Bernie Sanders finishes very strongly above him, to me that raises questions about the notion that he does better with diverse voters because the firewall his campaign often talks about is African American voters in South Carolina.

But the Democratic Party itself is diversifying. You have many Latino voters who are going to be voting on Super Tuesday. So just having a firewall of black voters may not be sufficient.

CORNISH: Scott, what about Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar or even Tom Steyer?

DETROW: Yeah, I think it's important to point out that former South Bend, Ind., mayor, Pete Buttigieg, is actually the delegate leader at the moment, by a very slim margin over Bernie Sanders. But the reason that Sanders is viewed as someone in the driver's seat and Buttigieg is not is that for the entire past year, you saw Buttigieg perform really well in Iowa, New Hampshire - of course, he did very well in those contests - but he really had a hard time building any sort of groundwork in Nevada and South Carolina, particularly because he just had a hard time connecting with minority voters.

So there's a real question about how he'll do tomorrow; I think very much the same question with Amy Klobuchar, especially after that debate performance this week, which was a little rocky at points, certainly much different than that very strong debate performance that she was able to turn into a surprise showing in New Hampshire.

Tom Steyer actually has the opposite thing going on here. He did not do that well at all in those first two states, but he has been spending a ton of money, a ton of time in Nevada, in South Carolina. And you saw him doing really well in those - in polls in those few states the last few months. So there's a big question about how strong he'll do here and whether he'll take any support from, you know, people like Joe Biden.

CORNISH: Asma, zooming out here, assuming we actually get caucus results tomorrow, how could that change the race going forward?

KHALID: I do think that there are going to be some interesting questions around particularly Joe Biden's performance here in the state. We then move on to South Carolina. It has a majority African American electorate. It's a state that Joe Biden is expected to do well. But I want to point out that very quickly after South Carolina votes, we move into Super Tuesday. For so many of these candidates, it's going to be an enormous pivot to suddenly have to nationalize your campaign.

And you're competing at that point against a candidate like Mike Bloomberg, who at this point has spent already, in TV ads, more than Barack Obama spent in his entire 2012 reelect - I mean, it's just a gargantuous (ph) amount of money. And I don't know that that many campaigns have the resources to compete with that.

CORNISH: You mentioned early voting, and we should note that's - nearly 75,000 Nevadans have already participated. Scott, that sounds like a good turnout. And does that mean good things for Bernie Sanders?

DETROW: I think a lot of Democrats, certainly in the Sanders campaign, are happy about this number. It's pretty close to the total number of caucusgoers in 2016, which was about 84,000. A big question is how many people just took advantage of this opportunity to cast a ballot and not have to come to a caucus at a certain time on Saturday, you know, whether this is people who would have caucused anyway or whether it'll be a much higher turnout. Big picture, though, it certainly seems better with Iowa turnout, which was about flat. New Hampshire turnout was up. Democrats feel like they need to keep getting high turnout to feel like they have a chance with the momentum and organization in November.

But yeah, Bernie Sanders' campaign is premised on the idea of bringing new voters to the polls who might not otherwise have voted. So far, we have not seen that in the extreme levels that the campaign is promising, so that's one of the key questions for tomorrow. Does that new Sanders coalition show up? And if so, does that bring his support north of 30%, which he hasn't been able to do so far?

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Detrow and NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome.

DETROW: Sure thing.

CORNISH: And we want to remind folks that we'll have live special coverage of the Nevada caucuses tomorrow starting at 5 p.m. Eastern. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.