LAS VEGAS, Nevada – Overshadowed as it is, Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada could wind up being the most decisive contest in the 2016 Democratic nominating process.
Nevada has drawn less attention than Iowa and New Hampshire’s earlier contests. And the Republican primary in South Carolina, also on Saturday, will likely dominate headlines.
But the outcome in Nevada will play a key role in setting the trajectory for the rest of the Democratic race and help determine whether Bernie Sanders can continue to pose a mortal threat to Hillary Clinton.
Full coverage of the race for the White House: Decision 2016
“It could well be that in 10, 20, 30 years from now, people may well look back at what happened in Nevada and say this was the beginning of the political revolution,” Sanders said at a caucus-eve concert rally here to thousands of young people
The race is now seen as a tossup, though Clinton led by more than 20 points just a few months ago.
Sanders needs to prove he can win more diverse states than New Hampshire or Iowa, and Nevada is his best chance to do so before the race moves into the bigger map in March, when the majority of the party’s nominating delegates are at stake.
A win here could “create a real domino effect,” as Sanders’ campaign manager said in a fundraising email Friday. But a loss would be seen as a signal that Sanders can’t go the distance in diverse states -- and his campaign knows it.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, can withstand a loss here and remain the prohibitive front-runner for the Democratic nomination -- at least when it comes to the delegate math. But the pressure from jittery donors, under-pressure campaign staff, a nervous Democratic Party establishment and an aggressive news media would create an ugly week for Clinton heading into South Carolina and the Super Tuesday contests.
Here are five key factors to watch ahead of the caucus, which takes place at 11 a.m. in Nevada.
There has been almost no polling of Nevada, and many experts doubt what little survey data that does exist. Caucuses are hard to poll, and turnout is expected to be very low.
The best indication of the state of play may come from the campaigns’ body language. In a fundraising email sent to supporters late Friday night, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook – who ran Nevada for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign -- said he had “no regrets” about the state and urged supporters to look ahead to South Carolina and Super Tuesday.
Sanders, meanwhile, has not tried to hide his confidence. "I have a feeling, folks, we're going to make history tomorrow,” Sanders said Friday night.
Nevada is the first state in the nominating calendar with a substantial minority population, the largest group being Latinos. Clinton won with Latinos in 2008, even though she lost the overall contest to Barack Obama. Sanders has faced an uphill battle in winning over minorities but has had more success in winning over young Latinos. Allies say those young people are swaying their parents and grandparents, but how big that impact is remains to be seen.
Leaving Las Vegas
Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, has 75 percent of the state’s registered Democratic voters, but Sanders’ campaign has been taking a page from Obama’s 2008 playbook in the state by exploiting the unique rules of the caucus system in their favor and organizing the rural northern reaches of the state. The area is whiter and thus likely more favorable to Sanders than Clark, and a large turnout there could help Sanders rack up delegates.
Are the kids all right?
As with other contests, the larger the turnout, the better for Sanders – and that’s especially true among young people. There are caucus locations on the campuses of the University of Nevada Las Vegas and the University of Nevada, Reno, the two largest four-year colleges in the state, and Sanders allies are hoping for large turnout there.
Sanders won young people by a more than 8-to-1 margin in New Hampshire, and at his caucus eve concert outside Las Vegas, the audience appeared as much as 90 percent young.
Mike Darata, 26, came to the rally after finding out about the candidate from his girlfriend, Sara Hughes. He said all his friends liked Sanders, except for one who was considering Donald Trump because Trump was not beholden to campaign donors. Asked if any of he knew anyone who liked Clinton, Darata wrinkled up his face as if he smelled something rotten and shook his head.
Hughes said she felt everything Clinton said “sounds forced and controlled.” “I don’t trust her,” she said.
Dirty tricks and games of chance
Clinton supporters have been complaining about a slew of alleged dirty tricks executed by Sanders supporters, from posing as Clinton volunteers to encouraging people to come caucus in Nevada from California to asking Republicans to caucus for Sanders before participating in the GOP event next week.
“The Nevada State Democratic Party will work with law enforcement to prosecute anyone who falsely registers as a Democrat to caucus tomorrow and subsequently participates in the Republican caucuses on Tuesday,” Nevada State Democratic Party Chair Roberta Lange said in a statement Friday.
And while the Iowa caucuses drew criticism after it was revealed that coin flips determined delegate allocations in some tied precincts, Nevada has its own similar process that could enflame controversy in a tight race. Instead of a coin toss, the state party calls for the use of game of chance, such as a high card draw, in a tied caucus.