Labor Day has come and gone. While we officially have another two and a half weeks of summer left, for all practical purposes summer is over. And for that matter, the time of us waiting around to “see how the Democratic field develops before making any judgments” is also over.
Now that the Nevada Democratic Presidential Caucus is less than six months away, and now that we’ve had over six months to assess the 2020 presidential candidates for ourselves, it’s time to get caught up on “the horse race” that keeps Nevada a key destination on the campaign trail.
#1: Joe Biden
For the time being, former Vice President Joe Biden is still on top. He’s still leading the polls, and… He’s still leading the polls. Also, he still has the most endorsements nationally and healthy fundraising hauls.
However, his fundraising haul last quarter ($22 million) actually fell behind those of two Democratic challengers. Closer to home, Megan Messerly’s recent campaign trail report in The Nevada Independent confirms what I’ve been seeing and hearing on the ground. While Biden has some 34 long-term staff on the ground here in Nevada, his campaign has been much slower to organize and plant roots in the field as others (see below) have been hustling all summer long. Biden himself has even hinted at this, as he’s recently begun “moving the goalposts” in suggesting South Carolina and the “Super Tuesday” states form a “firewall” for Biden in case he falters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and/or Nevada. But as we’ve seen in every presidential cycle for over 20 years, a candidate typically needs to win at least two of the four early states to stay competitive in the “Super Tuesday” states and beyond.
Then, there’s the matter of whether Biden truly “gets it”. Whether it’s the gruesome episode of victim-shaming after Lucy Flores shared an awkward experience she had with Biden on the campaign trail in 2014, Biden holding a fundraiser with top MGM Resorts executives hot on the heels of MGM laying off some 1,000 workers, attacking “Medicare for All” single-payer health care minutes after being introduced by prominent local “Medicare for All” supporter Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas), or continually dismissing Donald Trump’s presidency as an “aberration” despite the long paper trail of extremist hate that led us to this point, it’s becoming more of an open question on whether Biden truly understands the moment of crises America is in.
And yet, despite all that, Biden still has a relatively large and dedicated fan base. Whether it’s his connection to former President Barack Obama or his current topping of caucus/primary and general election polls, some Democratic voters find comfort in Biden’s promise to “return to normalcy”. What remains to be seen, however, is how long Biden can point to “the polls” to justify his candidacy when a large contingent of Democratic caucus-goers are yearning for a higher, just cause.
#2: Elizabeth Warren
While Biden started his 2020 campaign on top, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) had to work her way up during the spring and summer. After being dismissed as “old news”, “scandal plagued”, “cash-strapped”, and just plain “boring”, Warren has gradually proved her detractors wrong as she’s attracted larger crowds, larger numbers of grassroots/small-dollar donors, and even better poll numbers with her focus on progressive policies and message of intersectional justice.
In addition to all that, Warren has been making a very real investment in the field right here in Nevada. Megan Messerly’s Indy report pegged Warren’s Silver State team as the largest at about 45 full-time staff, and my own sleuthing amongst Democratic Party activists has confirmed that Warren’s campaign has been aggressive in making inroads statewide, even to the point of launching their door-to-door canvassing operation this summer to find more supporters and get them to “commit to caucus” next February. And while some of the other Democratic candidates have mostly focused their operations in the Las Vegas Valley, Warren has made a more concerted effort to organize statewide. Though just over 69% of Nevada’s voters and 76% of the state’s registered Democrats reside in Clark County (according to the Nevada Secretary of State’s July 2019 report), the Nevada State Democratic Party’s delegate selection plan favor campaigns that make sure to organize in Washoe County and rural communities.
Anyone who knows anything about elections (and this weird caucus-to-convention system that’s maybe “election-esque”) here in Nevada knows that campaigns are won and lost in the field, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that Elizabeth Warren and her Nevada team fully grasp this. Her early investment in organizers and other staff may have seemed like “overhead overspending” five months ago, but now it looks like the smart move that’s positioned Warren to overtake Biden if/when his occasionally bumbling campaign starts tumbling down. Of course, unless and until Warren can expand her base of support and secure more votes from communities of color, we may have to wait longer to see if/when Biden’s campaign finally takes that tumble.
And finally there’s this: Despite some national pundits’ cherry-picking of polling data to make the case that “Democratic voters just want someone who can beat Trump”, progressive activists and other high-propensity Democratic voters here in Nevada (you know, the ones most likely to caucus, and the ones most likely to volunteer and make recurring donations) have long indicated they want more than just whatever the pundits say “electability” is supposed to be. And since Trump polls about as low against the entire Democratic field, Warren can easily make the case that her use of her progressive platform to excite Democratic voters is just as valuable as Biden’s poll-driven “electability”.
#3 (tie): Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders
This one was tougher for me to decide, so I decided not to break the tie for now. No one can deny that U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has a very dedicated fan base, one that got him far in 2016 and made him an early frontrunner in the 2020 cycle. Sanders currently has about 40 staff on the ground here in Nevada, and he’s attracted the largest crowds here thus far this cycle (about 1,000 in Henderson in March, then over 1,500 in Reno in May).
Also thus far, Sanders has had a hard time expanding his base of support beyond a subset of “ride-or-die’s” who backed him in 2016. Occasionally, he’s lost his truly compelling message of “political revolution” in the seemingly never-ending intra-party pissing matches left over from 2016. At this point it’s getting harder to see how Sanders expands his support as the field of candidates winnows down, though his built-in loyal base may be enough to pull off the upset if the field of candidates remains relatively large (as in, 10+) come February 22.
While Sanders’ challenge has been expanding his support beyond a limited but very loyal fan base, fellow Senator Kamala Harris’ (D-California) challenge has been locking down a larger voter base of her own. At times, she wows policy nerds with detailed and realistic plans of action on gun violence and white nationalist terrorism, women’s reproductive rights, immigration reform, workers’ rights, and other critical issues. Other times, her message gets lost amidst muddling confusion, like when she came under fire from the left and the right over her health care plan at the CNN Debate in July. At times she’s inspired Democratic voters to “fight for the best of who we are,” but other times she’s struggled to defend her track record and explain who she is and what she stands for.
Harris definitely benefits from her top-notch team of advisers (such as Clinton and Obama campaign veteran Emmy Ruiz at the national level, and “Reid Machine” veteran Megan Jones here in Nevada), higher-level staff, and organizers on the ground nationally and here in Nevada. If Harris can finally place her own platform and message on solid ground, she may yet translate her next “breakout moment” into real movement on February 22 and beyond.
#5: Cory Booker
U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has continually impressed policy wonks with a suite of plans on everything from criminal justice reform to climate change, plans that truly rival Elizabeth Warren’s in their thoughtfulness and boldness. Yet while Warren’s finally reaping the rewards for her wonky approach to campaigning, Booker still struggles to rise above the lower tiers of candidates who are having a harder time justifying staying in the race.
However Booker has made smart early investments in the early states, including here in Nevada. While other middle-of-the-pack contenders (see below) snatch more media attention and rake in more donations, Booker remains a kind of “sleeper candidate” who may yet surprise Democrats and get us all woke if he can finally find a way to break away from the (middle) pack.
#6: Pete Buttigieg
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg seemingly came out of nowhere to emerge as a surprise contender, and he even briefly broke into the top tier of candidates in May. Yet while Buttigieg continues to rake in the megabucks, his sudden burst of momentum faded as Biden took the lead, Harris seized on her commanding NBC Debate performance, Warren broke into the top tier of frontrunners, and Sanders continued to make his mark in the race.
Buttigieg recently landed seasoned Democratic operative Paul Selberg to lead his Nevada team, and they’ve quickly been hiring staff to catch up with the higher-tier campaigns that began staffing up long before Memorial Day. This seemingly resembles Buttigieg’s new strategy of ramping up his Iowa operation to make up for momentum that quickly came and went this summer. Back here in Nevada, Buttigieg has attracted a following, but we’re still waiting to see if he can show more staying power beyond his brief stint as a “flavor of the month” media darling.
#7: Julian Castro, and #8: Beto O’Rourke
Here’s where we find the two Texans. Like Booker, Julián Castro has conscientiously packed a whole lot of substance into his campaign. And like Booker, Castro’s often been overlooked as others have caught fire (at least as a “flavor of the month”). However, his real following amongst progressive activists and his heightened focus on Nevada keep Castro in the hunt here, at least for now.
Before Pete Buttigieg parlayed his CNN town hall into “flavor of the month” media darling status, that was former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) gig. When we saw him at a coffee house near Henderson in March, the crowd was so jam-packed that the overflow area spilled into the parking lot. Yet just over a month later, he struggled to get 40 people for his event at UNLV. Even before he notoriously bombed at the NBC Debate in June, Buttigieg’s rise seemed to come entirely at O’Rourke’s expense. O’Rourke has since been injecting more substance (and more organizing staff) into his campaign to change this narrative (he’s particularly seized the moment on gun violence since El Paso), but we’ve yet to see whether lightning can strike twice for O’Rourke.
And finally, everyone else (and a little meta)
Though U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), tech investor Andrew Yang, spirituality maven Marianne Williamson, and venture capitalist Tom Steyer have visited Nevada and made some kind of effort to reach out to our voters, they have nowhere near enough campaign infrastructure to be taken seriously as contenders here. In addition, their standing in the other early states and nationwide has me wondering how many more debates they’ll actually make beyond October 15 (and 16?). As for the others, if they can’t even make a real effort to campaign here, why should we take them seriously?
Oh, and one more thing: Watch out for the caucus itself. The DNC officially rejected the Nevada State Democratic Party’s proposed virtual caucus (as in, “phoning it in”) late last week, though in-person early voting and other reforms included in the party’s 2020 delegate selection plan still stand. And yet, so much is still up in the air on how many more party staff will be hired to properly staff the early vote and the caucus day locations, how the party will ensure proper inclusion of the early vote numbers into the overall results, and what else can be done to prevent another 2008 or 2016 caucus-to-convention fiasco (other than, you know, allowing real voting in a real primary election).
That’s perhaps the strangest irony of this entire caucus-to-convention system: For all the hype about how much “we matter”, the caucus itself was originally designed to be undemocratic. And even now, it remains to be seen if these new reforms will actually guarantee more “small d democracy” for voters who care more about casting a ballot than capturing camera time. But since we’re stuck with the system we have (unless and until the state decides to change it), this is where the race stands.