Watch for Who Finishes Second in Nevada

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

In the New Hampshire presidential primary, the contest that really mattered was for third place. In the Democrats’ Nevada caucuses on Saturday? Whoever finishes second is likely to get some hype. 

That’s assuming Bernie Sanders wins. It’s not certain he will, but Nate Silver’s forecast model thinks the Vermont senator has a 3 in 4 chance of doing so. The media rewards surprises, so unless Sanders wins by an unexpectedly large margin, he’s only likely to receive relatively modest amounts of coverage.

Second place, on the other hand, is a total toss-up. The polling estimates by FiveThirtyEight find fewer than five percentage points separating Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Steyer and Amy Klobuchar. They’re close enough that no order of finish among the five of them would be even a mild surprise. And whoever places second in the first state with an ethnically diverse electorate will in fact be a viable contender for the Democratic presidential nomination (unless it’s Steyer, whose overall polling numbers are awful and who has few signs of support from party actors).

As for the others, it’s hard to see those finishing sixth, fifth or even fourth having much of a path forward. For Biden, it would mean three consecutive finishes below third. Warren and Klobuchar would be out of the top three in two of the three events so far. And even Buttigieg would look like a candidate without much chance in the primaries in the large, diverse states to come. 

In the old days, candidates in that kind of shape would almost always drop out. Whether they will this time is an open question. Money is much easier to raise today. Still, we can assume all the candidates are spending what they have, so none of them will be in great shape if the money dries up. 

For party actors who are concerned about nominating Sanders and about a contested nominating convention, the obvious path is to put pressure on whoever does poorly in Nevada (and then next week in South Carolina) to drop out. That could take the form of public statements by senior party leaders or it could come from behind the scenes.

No one has the authority to order losing candidates out of the contest. But Warren, Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Biden are partisan politicians with strong links to the party. They may not feel comfortable opposing the party as a whole. They also are politicians usually rooted in reality, and if the money does dry up they will likely realize the futility of remaining in the race.

To be sure: There’s no guarantee that Bernie Sanders won’t capture plenty of the votes that would become available if the field of candidates is winnowed further. But without winnowing, a contested convention would become far more likely, as would the nightmare scenario for the party if Sanders wins a small plurality of the delegates in the primaries and caucuses but gets nowhere near 50%. 

The truth is the nomination system works — it produces a winner, and usually one with a coalition-style campaign — because candidates without a solid chance drop out. If they don’t, the odds of party-destroying chaos start increasing dramatically.

Some weekend reading:

1. William Adler at the Monkey Cage on Trump and the Justice Department.

3. Augusta Dell'Omo at Made in History on foreign interference in U.S. elections.

5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Smith on poverty.

(Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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