Guest column:

Winners and losers from the Nevada caucuses


John Locher / AP

People walk near the Paris Las Vegas, site of a Democratic presidential debate, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas.

The big winners of last week’s Nevada caucuses were Sen. Bernie Sanders, Latino and younger voters, and Las Vegas. The biggest losers, besides the candidates not finishing with delegates, were caucuses as a voting system and centrist-Democratic political pundits.

Sanders left the Silver State as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination, an uncomfortable truth for some members of the media and the party establishment.

While Nevada’s caucuses were far better administered than Iowa’s, there were some hiccups in merging early votes with day-of caucus ballots. The Nevada State Democratic Party, which ran the caucuses, smartly hedged its bets and informed media outlets that results would be slowed by that process and may not be complete until the following day. Luckily, entry polling from early caucuses enabled the networks to declare a winner with just a fraction of the vote tallied. The media thus focused more on results rather than on isolated voter tabulation glitches.

Yet when combined with this year’s Iowa debacle, it appears caucuses may have seen their final days as a means to select a presidential nominee. Kudos to the Nevada Democrats for opening the caucus process with early voting — helping 2020 participation to surpass 2016 figures by 20,000 ballots cast. However, facilitating more voter access cannot overcome the deficiencies in a caucus system versus a direct primary.

Nevada, and Las Vegas in particular, won big last week. The Democratic nomination campaign arguably began with the Feb. 19 debate. Iowa and New Hampshire had a bite at the apple, but their role in shaping election 2020 was minimal, despite being the first two states to vote. Iowa badly botched its caucuses — long delayed results dominated media coverage, diminishing any impact on the race. New Hampshire effectively ran its primary, but voter demographics there reflect a shrinking slice of the electorate.

Iowa and New Hampshire are majority-white, aging and rural-dominated places which fail to represent the preferences of an increasingly diverse, young and metropolitan Democratic coalition. The latter describes Las Vegas perfectly, a fact repeated often by every major media outlet covering Nevada’s caucuses.

The Las Vegas Democratic debate was the most watched nominating forum in the party’s history, with nearly 20 million viewers, exceeding audiences of the Golden Globe Awards (18 million) and approaching Game 7 of last year’s World Series (23 million). The debate provided high drama, with an epic confrontation between first-time presidential debater Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Warren’s exchanges with Bloomberg and several key debate moments by other candidates blew up on social media.

The debate was broadcast from the first top-30 metro — Las Vegas — to weigh in on the Democratic presidential nomination. Only Las Vegas, among the early caucus locations, could host such an event. Sorry Des Moines, you don’t offer Vegas-style glitz to draw a big national audience. Live shots of Des Moines’ bland, diminutive skyline cannot compete with the visuals of flashing lights in Las Vegas. The city looks fabulous on TV, and many viewers are familiar with the Strip.

More significantly, Des Moines’ and Iowa’s demographics are no match for Southern Nevada in providing the first real test of how presidential candidates will perform in large metropolitan-dominated Sunbelt swing states from Georgia to Arizona. Our upcoming book, “Blue Metros, Red States: The Shifting Urban/Rural Divide in America’s Swing States” (Brookings Institution Press), demonstrates that urbanizing suburbs in Sunbelt metro regions holds the balance of power in selecting the president and majority control of the U.S. Senate.

Sanders secured a third of the “first alignment” (or raw) vote in the Nevada caucuses. In a primary, his 34% of the ballots cast would be his total share, showing that two-thirds of voters supported other candidates. But caucuses are different. Sanders was the principal beneficiary of the “final alignment,” gaining additional support from voters backing non-viable candidates who did not meet the 15% threshold required in each caucus. Sanders’ broadly distributed vote, in turn, resulted in his gaining nearly half the delegates heading to Nevada’s county conventions.

In contrast, former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg finished a distant second and third, respectively. Both candidates gained minimal support between the first and the final alignment and combined for just a third of the county convention delegates.

Sanders performed well among Nevada’s multiple racial and ethnic constituencies, and built a diverse and expansive coalition. His gain with Latino voters was especially impressive, winning just over half of their total vote. He has been laying the groundwork for capturing this demographic since his 2016 loss in Nevada to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Sanders team developed what it termed a “culturally competent” outreach model that relies on hiring and empowering local Latinos and investing heavily in Spanish-language media to connect with voters in their communities. The campaign offered an inclusive message highlighting access to health care and economic opportunity.

Sanders celebrated his Nevada win with a large and enthusiastic audience in San Antonio, the major metro with the largest share of Latinos in the U.S. California (39.5 million) and Texas (29 million) are home to America’s two largest Latino populations (almost 40% each), and both vote on Super Tuesday early next month. And, like Nevada, most Latinos in California and Texas are of Mexican heritage, compared with, for example, Florida, where many Hispanics come from the Caribbean. If Sanders can repeat his Nevada performance with Latinos in the country’s most populous states, he will gain a sizable portion of the delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination at the party’s convention this summer in Milwaukee.

As political pundits absorbed the size and scope of Sanders’ Nevada win, some expressed fear that his leftist, fire-brand agenda could sink the party in November. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews compared Sanders’ victory to France’s surrender to Germany in World War II. James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential win, said people who think Sanders could beat President Donald Trump in November are as “stupid” as climate change deniers.

Many pundits assume that Sanders has a virtual lock on the Democratic nomination. That would be true — if we were talking about the Republican nomination. In 2016, Trump shocked the political world by securing the Republican nomination in a crowded field of candidates. Trump won most early contests with a plurality of the vote, rather than an actual majority. In Republican primaries and caucuses, coming in first matters more because many states allocate delegates on a “winner-take-more” or “winner-take-all” basis.

The Republican Party nominating model is different than the Democratic one. Republicans seek an early resolution to the race and designed convention delegate allocations to privilege a front-runner. The party adopted this strategy to gain a tactical advantage by having its presumptive nominee determined earlier in the cycle. A Republican nominee could then use the period leading up to the convention to unify the party and build a foundation for the fall campaign.

The Democrats deploy a different nominating strategy. Rather than accelerate the nominating process by favoring an early front-runner with a flood of delegates, the party allocates delegates proportionally based upon a “winner-takes-share” system. This extends the nomination campaign even when a clear front-runner emerges. Consider that in 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton competed through the June primaries. In 2016, Sanders stayed in the contest until summer and had almost enough delegates to stage a credible floor fight at the convention.

Sanders now finds himself in the enviable front-runner position heading into South Carolina — the final early nominating contest. He has by far the highest statistical chance of winning the Democratic nomination. But even if Sanders prevails in South Carolina and wins many Super Tuesday races, he still must grind out a victory by gaining an increasing share of the remaining delegates with each successive contest.

If Sanders falters and a clear alternative candidate emerges, then for the first time since 1968, the Democrats may face a brokered convention. In that case, coalitions could form and award the nomination to the candidate leading in the delegate count or a compromise politician who did not win the most (or even any) votes in the primaries.

While Sanders will likely have most of the delegates needed to become the party’s nominee, it is difficult to imagine that he would be denied the nomination even if he falls slightly below the 1,990 delegates required to win on the first ballot. However, if Sanders’ delegate total is short of a near majority, then he may be forced to accept a more moderate running mate.

Regardless of outcome, one thing is sure — Nevada shaped this year’s presidential race more than at any time in the past. Nevadans should follow former Sen. Harry Reid’s suggestion and push to be the first or second primary (not caucus) in 2024.

Nevada, especially Las Vegas, is increasingly a microcosm of America. As goes Nevada, so goes the nation.

Robert E. Lang is the Lincy Endowed Chair in Urban Affairs, executive director of Brookings Mountain West and The Lincy Institute at UNLV, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; David F. Damore is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and William E. Brown Jr. is the UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West.