Nevada Caucuses: Forgotten, Yet Vital

Most of the media, including the humble, adorable Presidential Politics for America blog, focuses on national polling, in addition to the numbers in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. There is, however, a fourth early state in the primary process. Before the primaries go national, both parties turn to the state of Nevada for its opinion on the candidates. In fact, the Democrats will even turn to the Silver State before they go to South Carolina!

Before we go any further, here is the February calendar for each party’s primary:

Democrat Primary Schedule
Monday, February 1: Iowa caucuses
Tuesday, February 9: New Hampshire Primary
Saturday, February 20: Nevada caucuses
Saturday, February 27: South Carolina Primary

Republican Primary Schedule
Monday, February 1: Iowa caucuses
Tuesday, February 9: New Hampshire Primary
Saturday, February 20: South Carolina Primary
Tuesday, February 23: Nevada caucuses

After that, both primaries sprawl out into what’s called “Super Tuesday,” a traditional political bonanza that holds the most primaries of any single day. This time around, due to the preponderance of southern states that will vote early in March, you might also hear it call the the SEC, or Southeastern Conference, primary. (The early emphasis on southern states have been used by this blog as reasons why Hillary Clinton will be fine even if she loses New Hampshire (and even Iowa) and why Ted Cruz should have been considered a favorite in the Republican Primary long before his surge.)

This year, Super Tuesday will be on March 1, the first voting day after the first four states. The Democrats will hold 12 primaries on that Tuesday, seven of which take place in the South, and another 11 will be held by March 15. That’s 23 primaries across a half month, and they’ll total 1,864, or 46 percent, of the possible 4,051 pledged delegates. The Republicans will have 14 contests on March 1, half in the South, and another 17 by March 15, totaling 31 in the same time frame. Those 31 contests will determine 1,334, or 58 percent, of the 2,302 pledged delegates.

This blitzkrieg of early March primaries means that momentum heading into them will be critical. Just like Iowa’s results affect New Hampshire’s results, and New Hampshire’s affect the next state, the last contests of February could have huge consequences on the first ones in March.

In that context, Nevada, relatively ignored in political punditry, takes on a great deal of importance. Let’s deal with its potential effects on the Democratic side first.

Even if Bernie Sanders does find a way to win Iowa and New Hampshire, a mountainous challenge awaits him after those extremely white and liberal Democratic states. We usually show how the “first in the south” primary, South Carolina, gives Hillary Clinton a healthy firewall, considering that ever since Joe Biden decided not to run, she’s been up by an average of 45 points there. One quick look at the Democratic calendar, however, actually shows the Nevada caucuses comes before the South Carolina Primary. How useful can they be for Sanders?

It’s no secret that while I would love a more competitive Democratic Primary, I hate Sanders’s chances in it. Yet for Sanders supporters clinging to hope, I think you need to keep a close eye on Nevada as a must-win state. If Sanders can somehow win both Iowa and New Hampshire, it won’t much matter if he goes on to lose Nevada and South Carolina before Super Tuesday. Since Clinton’s gargantuan South Carolina lead is all but impossible to overcome, it’s up to Nevada to send Sanders into March with a 3 to 1 lead and a better narrative.

Of course, this is unlikely. Clinton is more likely to sweep the opening two states than Sanders is, and her chances of earning a split are tremendous. Plus, Clinton was up big in Nevada even when Biden was in the race. Sanders had cut it to a 16 point deficit when Clinton was at her lowest across the country in early October, but since then she’s really taken off in nearly ever poll outside New Hampshire.

That being said, Nevada is a caucus state, which lends itself well to the forceful Sanders crowd, and he might be riding momentum after his win in New Hampshire. Sanders, to his credit, recognizes the importance of building momentum beyond New Hampshire, and his campaign has just ordered up some ads for the Nevada airwaves. It’s a long-shot, but Nevada looks like a must win for him.

On the Republican side, Nevada is, as everything else, much more interesting. It’s the fourth contest after the more promoted big three, but it serves as the final chance at momentum before Super Tuesday. In Nevada, polling is not much help. The last poll, from October, shows us a race where Ben Carson still has support from nearly a quarter of Republicans, Carly Fiorina runs third, and Ted Cruz manages only 4 points.

Therefore, instead of polling, we need look at the three most likely Iowa and New Hampshire scenarios and determine how campaigns will respond.

Scenario 1) Trump sweeps both, which he’ll likely do if he wins Iowa. He and Cruz go fight over South Carolina. The leading establishment coming out of New Hampshire, with prominent surrogates, moves to Nevada for two weeks. The three days between South Carolina and Nevada is not enough time for the Trump/Cruz South Carolina winner to overcome the establishment’s head start in Nevada, and the establishment candidate scores his first victory, a huge momentum boost heading into Super Tuesday. Establishment survives.

Scenario 2) Cruz wins Iowa, Trump holds on to his New Hampshire lead. Same result as scenario 1 in the next two states. Establishment survives.

Scenario 3) Cruz wins Iowa, establishment candidate wins New Hampshire. What happens next depends on who the establishment candidate is.

Scenario 3a) If it’s Rubio or Bush, they can do well in South Carolina, where they play much better than the northern governors do, and will join Trump and Cruz there. They also have the party ready to run to them if New Hampshire validates their campaign. I suspect a win by either in New Hampshire makes them the odds on favorite in South Carolina, thanks to a Lindsey Graham endorsement, lots of money and momentum, and the Trump-Cruz battle splitting the antiestablishment vote. Then a win in South Carolina sets them up in Nevada, which sets them up for a big Super Tuesday, which will put this primary to bed by April. Rubio, it’s worth noting, would become the presumptive nominee faster than Bush, who would deal with a stronger push-back. Establishment thrives.

Scenario 3b) If it’s Christie or Kasich, the South isn’t tailor made for them, and they’ll need to build up more momentum before being competitive with Trump and Cruz, even if the antiestablishment pair is splitting votes down south. They would follow the road map from Scenarios 1 and 2, win Nevada while Trump and Cruz do battle in South Carolina. In this scenario, the establishment candidate has two wins before Super Tuesday, while Trump and Cruz either have one each (allowing the establishment candidate to pull away as the other two go on to split votes across the south) or one of them has two as the other fades (giving us a two-man race down the stretch). Establishment survives and potentially thrives.

Conclusion: Ultimately, it appears that Nevada might prove to be the establishment’s savior. Imagine if it really were just Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina as the early states before Super Tuesday. There’s a real chance only Cruz and Trump score victories in those three states, blocking the establishment candidate from having any semblance of momentum before the packed March schedule. In each of the most realistic scenarios, however, Nevada offers the establishment one last chance to slow the antiestablishment train.

The forgotten early state might turn out to be the most important of them all.

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