Why Nevada Mattered

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

Folks from Nevada get a bit defensive about their Democratic caucuses; while New Hampshire trumpets their first-in-the-nation primary, Nevada’s unofficial slogan is just “We Matter.” (They also go with “First in the West,” but you can tell their hearts aren’t really in it). 

Well, this time they certainly did matter.

For one thing, Bernie Sanders had the kind of decisive victory on Saturday that not only convinced doubters he may win the nomination, but in fact made a lot of people think he’s already clinched it. He hasn’t — at least not yet — but it was an impressive showing. With almost all the returns in, Sanders had a very solid 34% of the initial alignment (that is, first-choice votes), but through arcane caucus math, that worked out to a landslide 47% of the delegates. That was more than twice as much as second-place finisher Joe Biden received.

That Biden finish was diminished in part because Sanders had such a good day, but also because another very slow count meant that it wasn’t clear until Sunday night that Biden was in fact the runner-up. So it didn’t get the hype I expected. It was important, nonetheless. With a respectable finish in the first event with an ethnically diverse electorate, Biden now looks less like Jeb Bush from 2016 or Rudy Giuliani from 2008 — big-name candidates who did well in early polls but flopped when people started to vote — and more like a real contender who was stymied by the largely white Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats. 

The rest of the field? Those with a plausible chance before Nevada have much less of one now. I’ve been more bullish on Amy Klobuchar’s prospects than almost anyone else, but her strong New Hampshire effort fizzled and it’s hard to see any plausible path forward for her. She soldiered on Sunday while the votes were still being counted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she exited the race this week after all. Pete Buttigieg had what appeared to be a respectable third place, but in reality he, too, probably lost his last chance to emerge as a serious alternative to Sanders. 

Elizabeth Warren has been a victim of bad luck all month, and that continued in Nevada. In Iowa, her solid third-place showing was eclipsed by the botched count and the surprising Buttigieg showing. In New Hampshire, Klobuchar’s well-regarded debate performance hurt Warren probably more than anyone else. And in Nevada, when Warren did well in a debate, it happened after the bulk of the votes were already cast in that state’s new hybrid early vote/caucus system. The only good news for Warren is that she might not feel the pressure from anti-Sanders party actors to withdraw that Klobuchar and Buttigieg might be feeling because her voters are less likely to go to Biden. 

Then there are the billionaires. Tom Steyer did slightly better in Nevada than he did in the first two states, but he has little to show for it. He’s polling better in South Carolina; if he continues on and does finish third or even second there, it will be disruptive to the party without actually giving him any realistic shot at the nomination. It’s bad enough that he’s qualified for the next debate, which is a clear indictment of the rules the party has set who gets invitations.

As for Michael Bloomberg, who sat out Nevada and will also sit out South Carolina, the results were bad for him as well. As long as Biden appears viable, Bloomberg’s campaign is doing little more than making a Bernie Sanders nomination more likely. Chaos has been Bloomberg’s hope, and Nevada had a chaos-reducing result. (Disclaimer: Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.) 

1. Christopher Clary at the Monkey Cage on Trump and Modi.

2. Laura Gamboa at Mischiefs of Faction on authoritarianism and Bolivia.

3. David Leonhardt on whether Bernie Sanders is willing to reach out beyond his factional support.

4. David Weigel on Nevada.

5. Jonathan Swan on the continuing deprofessionalization of the United States government

6. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson on the politics of gun violence research.

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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