LAS VEGAS – Nevada, the westernmost state of the early-voting states in presidential primaries, can often feel like the neglected kid brother of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa. The other three states have decades’ worth of traditions and earn mounds of media attention, with Jefferson-Jackson dinners and fish fries that candidates and reporters seemingly have no choice but to attend. But Nevada, which is three time zones away from the glare of the D.C.-to-New York media corridor, only earned early-state status in 2008.
But in 2020, the Silver State could play a decisive role because Nevada lacks a clear favorite among the Democratic contenders. Certain candidates, however, are the early favorites in the other three states – In Iowa, former Vice President Joe Biden, independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg are polling well; in New Hampshire, Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a fellow New Englander, have a leg up; and in South Carolina, Biden, along with California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, is expected to perform well among the state’s African American voters.
The wide-open field in Nevada, which is notoriously difficult to poll and saw tightly contested Democratic primary contests in both 2008 and 2016, means it’s primed for a surprise winner that could shake up the battle for the right to challenge Republican President Donald Trump. The state’s unpredictability is directly tied up in its diversity – it has significant Hispanic, African American and Asian American populations – along with the power of its unions and changes to the caucus process.
“It’s very much up for grabs. Any candidate who can establish a statewide presence will be able to become our nominee,” said William McCurdy, the chair of the state Democratic Party. “We’re a state that can make or break a campaign.”
It’s very much up for grabs. Any candidate who can establish a statewide presence will be able to become our nominee. We’re a state that can make or break a campaign.
William McCurdy, the chair of the state Democratic Party
Donna West, the chair of the Democratic Party in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, said she recently took a two-week vacation with family and talked to at least one presidential candidate or campaign every day she was off-duty. A group of what she called “supervolunteers” that she met while campaigning for Clinton in 2015 and 2016 now lacks a consensus candidate.
The state is set to experience its first moment of intense media attention this weekend, when six candidates – Warren, Harris, former Texas Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar – descend on Las Vegas for a forum hosted by the Center for American Progress and Service Employees International Union.
But some leading candidates, including Booker, Warren, Harris and Sanders, have already begun showering the state with attention, as has Castro, who is struggling in polling and fundraising but could receive a boost in a state that is more than a quarter Latino, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who hopes his climate change-focused message can catch on in a state with a significant renewable energy industry. All have been to the state at least three times.
Other Democratic challengers can also draw attention, with operatives in the state noting businessman Andrew Yang drew impressive crowds during a recent swing through the Las Vegas area.
At least Warren, Harris and Booker have staff on the ground in the state, and additional Sanders staffers started this week. Warren, who is building out a substantial ground game in all four early primary states, has the largest presence, with at least 20 people. The initial staff hires have gobbled up much of the state’s top political talent, which could hurt campaigns that haven’t made job offers yet.
“A lot of the superstars that I know have been snapped up,” West said. “Most of Hillary’s Nevada team, particularly her caucus team, has been hired. I don’t know where Biden’s gonna go.”
Democrats here noted building a ground game will be key, because of the state’s transient nature and its diversity. Caucus ballots will be offered in English, Spanish and Tagalog, and operatives in the state say campaigns should expect to have field staff fluent in all three languages, along with a few others.
“You have a large Latino population, a large AAPI population, a large African-American population. You have a real representation of what the U.S. looks like,” said Jorge Neri, the Nevada state director for Hillary Clinton’s general election campaign in 2016. “You have to make sure that you’re hiring folks who are diverse, who are culturally competent and understand the little nuances in each of these communities.”
Booker’s schedule last weekend during a swing through the state showed just how many different environments a candidate can expect to traverse when campaigning here. He began on Thursday with a trip to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, then flew to Reno, where the Democratic Party is less diverse and more liberal than their Vegas counterparts, and also did an event in rural Douglas County. On Saturday, he returned to Vegas, and without ever leaving the city limits, visited a black church and barbershop, an immigration roundtable with Latino activists, held a rally at a community center, and then went to a dinner with the Asian American community at a Chinese restaurant downtown.
“We’re going directly to the people, visiting barber shops and living rooms and small town halls, we’re having substantive conversations,” Booker said of his plans for the state. “We need to run a real grassroots campaign, and that’s the way I came up.”
You have a real representation of what the U.S. looks like.
Jorge Neri, the Nevada state director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 general election campaign
Not paying attention to these diverse communities can draw criticism: Activists raised their eyebrows when Sanders’ first post-midterm visit to the state took him to the majority-white suburb of Henderson instead of Las Vegas.
Booker was also hoping for a bit of hometown boost ― his mother, Carolyn, lives in Henderson and introduced him at the community center rally. The other candidates have been touting their staff’s ties to Nevada: Harris has hired Emmy Ruiz, who ran Clinton’s caucus operation, as a senior adviser. Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, worked as a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) And Warren’s communications director, Kristen Orthman, was a longtime Reid aide.
Harris has also picked up a few key endorsements: Chris Miller, the former Democratic Party chair in Clark County, endorsed her last week and she earlier picked up the backing of State Sen. Pat Spearman (D). (Another potential advantage for Harris: California-based volunteers are a critical part of Democratic campaigns in Nevada, Neri said.)
The campaigns are hoping those Nevada ties can help them navigate the key issues in the state. Immigration activists want protections for both Dreamers and recipients of temporary protective status. Gun control advocates are pushing hard in a state that saw the deadliest mass shooting in American history in 2017. And the state has pushed hard for investments in wind and solar energy to combat climate change.
“We’re working very hard as a state to claim a spot on the top of the ladder when it comes to green energy,” West said.
The biggest remaining variable in the caucus outcome might be the state’s labor movement. Fourteen percent of workers in Nevada are union members, a remarkably high amount for a right-to-work western state. The 60,000-member Culinary Union, which represents casino, hotel and airport workers, is famously powerful, and its support of Barack Obama in 2008 was key to his strong performance in Nevada. It’s unclear if the union will endorse a candidate in 2020, though every campaign is courting the group. (Nevada state Sen. Yvanna Cancela (D), a former political director of the Culinary Union, endorsed Biden earlier this week.) The SEIU and teachers’ unions in the state are also influential, operatives said.
Another big unknown? How changes to the caucus process could impact the outcome. For the first time, voters will be able to participate in the process with early voting and a digital caucus, both of which could boost turnout. In 2008 and 2016, the caucuses were held on Saturdays, the busiest day of the week for many in tourism-centric Las Vegas.
“This is a shift town,” Neri said. “Saturday’s not a great day for participation.”