January 4, 2016
Nevada is the overlooked member of the First Four. The expected pattern has Iowa narrowing the field, New Hampshire choosing the finalists, and South Carolina anointing a front runner. Nevada is just there.
It doesn’t always follow the above script. In 2012, Newt Gingrich became the first GOP winner of South Carolina to fall short of nomination since the primary began in 1980. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin got no credit for winning his home state in 1992.
Those are the exceptions that prove the normal rules. In 2008, Nevada shifted from a primary to a caucus and was moved into the front group. Having voted for the presidential winner each year since 1912 (except for 1976), the Silver State provided geographic and ethnic balance in a place both parties compete.
With a limited number of delegates due to population size and a later date in the calendar, Nevada was never previously a focal point. There aren’t years of history to see how the state normally votes in an important contest.
A high proportion of Nevada Republicans are Mormon. Mitt Romney won the 2008 and 2012 caucuses relatively easily. While Ron Paul made a strong effort both years, other opponents backed away, sensing they would have a difficult time.
Caucus turnout is always much lower than a primary due to the additional demands on participants. This is even true in Iowa, a place with a long tradition of playing an important role in the process. Just over 40,000 Silver State Republicans turned out in 2008. The number was even lower in 2012.
Even in defeat, Romney earned 14 times as many votes in November, as the total amount of GOP participants in the caucus. It’s a really small group. This makes polling very difficult. When 10,000 votes makes you a contender, how do you measure?
Pollsters normally ask respondents if they plan to participate. Voters are usually a bit optimistic about their chances of actually making it to the caucus. In places with more history, you can pay attention to whether the person caucused last time.
Imperfect polls are probably better than no polls. In this case, there is very little polling. The GOP side has one poll from CNN/ORC and a few from Gravis Marketing. Democrats have one poll from each in the past six months. CNN data is from October, back when Ben Carson was a thing.
The recent Gravis polls have Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders 50/27, with Martin O’Malley less than an asterisk. On the GOP side, Donald Trump has a 13 point margin on Ted Cruz who has a 9 point lead on Marco Rubio. Right in line with national numbers.
Both Cruz and Rubio have plenty of ground organization. For Cruz, this is normal, as he’s made a point of having a county chair in each county of each early voting state. Rubio is noticeably more thin in the field, but the gap is smaller in Nevada.
He also spent several years in Las Vegas growing up and was even part of the Mormon Church (LDS) in his youth. The Rubio campaign is making a specific effort to educate prospective supporters on how to caucus.
While the Trump campaign isn’t quite as targeted at the moment, they too have resources in Nevada, and of course, he’s still ahead in polling. Even if turnout is much higher this year, getting 30,000 Nevadans to caucus for him is probably enough to bring The Donald victory.
The result is very likely to matter. If Cruz gets off to a quick start and wins Iowa, does well in New Hampshire, before winning South Carolina, a Nevada victory heading into March 1 could help make him a definite front runner.
If Trump sweeps the first three states, Nevada is the best chance for Cruz or Rubio to stop his momentum before March 1. At the same time, Rubio needs to win somewhere eventually, and Nevada might be his best shot among the first 10 to 15 states.
Should Chris Christie finish ahead of Rubio in New Hampshire, Marco would really need a good Nevada result. When we look back on the primary season later in the year, the Silver State result will have mattered greatly. We just can’t determine much yet on who the lucky candidates are.
It’s all about momentum and turnout, both of which are difficult to measure until the last minute. Speculation is fun, so this won’t prevent regular updates, but GOP Nevada results are highly dependent on what happens in the three states before it.
What about the Democrats? Potentially even more important, even harder to predict. Bernie Sanders needs to win Iowa to have any chance at the nomination. He still has a chance of doing this. If he wins Iowa, New Hampshire is better than 50/50 for him.
Winning both early contests is not enough to make Bernie the favorite, it just creates a race. On the Republican side, South Carolina is third. For the Dems, it’s Nevada. Given Hillary’s current edge in the Palmetto State, this order of operations really matters.
Primary contests operate on the knockout principle. You need to win somewhere where your opponent was supposed to. While South Carolina would qualify as a huge win for Bernie, proving he can win in a state with a very high proportion of African-American voters, the odds are still well against him.
Nevada works just as well, with a very high percentage of Latino voters. New Hampshire proves nothing, across the border from his Vermont, full of extremely Caucasian residents. Iowa is one of the 7 to 10 states Sanders should have the easiest time in and shares a pasty populace.
NOTE: If you want to see where Bernie should do best, just pay attention to where Subaru owners are plentiful
Latinos and African-Americans are an approximately equal part of the Democratic nominating coalition. As long as Hillary holds a large edge with both, she has a similar edge in winning the nomination. If Bernie can put either group up for grabs it changes the math and narrative.
With turnout so much lower in Nevada, the barrier to a Sanders upset is much lower. Bernie has a large number of portable volunteers in Southern California, conveniently located adjacent to Clark County, Nevada, home to Las Vegas and the majority of Nevadans.
Many of those voters are ex-Californians as well. The combination of lower threshold and geographic accessibility makes this a way easier target. For whatever it’s worth (not much), Bernie is closer in Nevada polling too.
The Culinary Workers Union is by far the most important in Nevada. Unlike the many unions who flocked to endorse Clinton, they have not yet weighed in. Endorsement is not a guarantee of victory, they chose Barack Obama in 2008, but Hillary still won.
However, at the moment, they aren’t working against Sanders yet, and there is always the chance Bernie victories in Iowa and New Hampshire could push them to support him. His platform, particularly pushing for a $15 minimum wage, would give a good reason as soon as they would find him viable.
Should Sanders pull the upset in Nevada, something made much easier if previous victories fire up his partisans and convince some leaners, Hillary only has a week to stop the train before it hits South Carolina. Any reasonable Bernie victory scenario includes a Nevada win.
Don’t worry about the polls until Sanders actually wins (or comes absurdly close) in Iowa. If he falls short, it’s likely moot. After a victory, Nevada is less than three weeks away (Iowa votes 2/1, Nevada 2/20), and polls will take on more meaning.
Several pollsters will weigh in, and results would take increased viability into account. Unless Hillary is well over 60%, he still has plenty of chance. Even after New Hampshire (an absolute must-win for Bernie), assume a very large margin of error.
A 10-15 point polling advantage for either is possibly meaningless until pollsters prove they can measure turnout. Anything beyond that can create a self-fulfilling prophecy as voters determine the caucus effort isn’t worth it.
Take that big blob of uncertainty and hold it tight. Nevada will prove unusually interesting this time on the GOP side and possibly crucial for the Dems. We just have no idea who might win just yet.