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Trail Mix: As the Caucus Field Winnows

He’s out. She’s out. He’s out. And now, he’s out. After seven months of pundits and reporters pointing and laughing over “the largest Democratic presidential field in modern history,” the field is suddenly winnowing for our Nevada Caucus and nationally.

Still, I can’t lie: It’s startling to not just see my forecast hold up, but notice who’s falling victim to voters’ “campaign fatigue”. Now that former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) is the latest to drop out, and now that U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’ (D-California) campaign appears to be on the rocks, we’re not just assessing the fallout of the gradually winnowing 2020 field, but also the real people behind the racy campaign headlines. 

Wither, Beto
Photo by Andrew Davey

When Beto O’Rourke first entered the 2020 presidential race, he did so to great fanfare and even better press. When I first saw him at a coffee house near Henderson in March, the crowd was so big that an overflow zone had to develop outside… And O’Rourke addressed the overflow crowd before coming inside for the main event.

Just a month after that, O’Rourke struggled to attract much of any crowd at UNLV and the throngs of voters eagerly seeking “the Democratic Party’s next big thing” were rushing into coffee houses to see some mayor from Indiana. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has since risen, plateaued, fallen, and risen all over again, but he does appear likely to at least make it to our Nevada Caucus on February 22. O’Rourke, however, was at risk of missing the cut for the next two debates (November 20 in Atlanta, and December 19 in Los Angeles).

As we’ve previously discussed, Beto O’Rourke finally seemed to find his own voice on the 2020 campaign trail after his hometown was struck by a mass shooting attack in August. He made increasingly cogent condemnations of white nationalist terrorism, and he became increasingly vociferous on not just the need to act on gun violence, but also the value of taking the boldest action(s) to save the most lives. And yet, he still couldn’t gain any traction.

“Elections have consequences, and we showed them the consequences in Carson City.” 
– Governor Steve Sisolak (D)
Photo by Andrew Davey

Yesterday, I ventured out to Mesquite to catch the Mesquite to Moapa Democratic Club’s “True to the Blue” fundraiser. Governor Steve Sisolak came here to rally Democrats in a rural corner of Southern Nevada that’s finally attracting more attention as the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates scour the entire state for caucus votes. 

As the presidential candidates speak of what they will do if they win the White House and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Sisolak reminded the audience of what a “Democratic trifecta” closer to home has already been delivering for Nevadans: “Elections have consequences, and we showed them the consequences in Carson City.” Among such consequences Sisolak listed were expansion of background checks for gun purchases, greater protection for women’s reproductive health care (including legal abortion rights), extending collective bargaining rights to state workers, and tossing a few more dollars into Nevada’s public schools.

Photo by Andrew Davey

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) largely echoed Sisolak’s remarks a few minutes later. Spoiler alert: Neither showed his hand on any potential for future pre-caucus endorsements, but Horsford did bolster the message that several of the candidates have been trying out on the trail, a message that Democrats need to simultaneously make the case against Trump while also making a positive case for their party and their agenda. More specifically, Horsford touted their H.R. 3 prescription drug plan as a prime example of House Democrats legislating while also continuing their impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump.

On impeachment, Horsford said, “I know we have an obligation, and our obligation is to uphold the oath of office we took. […] Our role is to provide a check and balance against the executive branch.” But then, Horsford added, “Beyond just holding this administration accountable, we want to get work done.”

“She knows that justice will be on the ballot, and she is a killed percussionist who will change the tune from injustice to justice.” 
– State Senator Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas), for U.S. Senator Kamala Harris
Photo by Andrew Davey

That message continued to echo as several presidential candidates unveiled pre-recorded video messages to Mesquite to Moapa Democrats. During the video messages, I sensed the most applause for U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Pete Buttigieg in the room with their respective “electability” heavy pitches. But when it came time for the campaigns to bring up surrogates to make in-person pitches, something interesting happened.

Ever since Trump began his attempt to weaponize his own Ukraine scandal against former Vice President Joe Biden, he’s been using his “beat Trump like a drum” line to remind Democratic voters why they’ve generally viewed Biden as the most “electable” candidate against Trump. But as the surrogates were parading their way on and off the stage in Mesquite, one in particular stood out for turning the “electability” and “beat Trump like a drum” arguments on their heads.

Nevada Caucus
Photo by Andrew Davey

“Drumming is important, but you need to know why you’re beating the drum. You need a skilled percussionist,” declared State Senator Pat Spearman. Spearman continued, “She is well prepared to change the rhythm from injustice to justice. She knows that justice will be on the ballot, and she is a killed percussionist who will change the tune from injustice to justice.”

Spearman was there to speak up for Kamala Harris, and Spearman really seemed to move the crowd as she exclaimed, “In 2020, I hope you will join me in supporting Kamala Harris as the drum major we need to lead the band for justice. My friends, justice is on the ballot in 2020!”

Remember what really happens (and who’s affected) as the field winnows
Nevada Caucus
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we’ve been saying since September, Kamala Harris has a phenomenally good caucus team here in Nevada. She has great staff working for her nationally and here in Nevada, and she has a long list of prominent party leaders (like Spearman) endorsing her. And yet, Harris is struggling to even survive through the end of this year. And according to a new Mellman Group poll for The Nevada Independent, she’s stuck at just 3% here (as Biden leads with 29%, followed by Senators Elizabeth Warren [D-Massachusetts] and Bernie Sanders [I-Vermont] tied for second at 19%).

Harris’ campaign bank account appears to be running low, and she’s already begun pulling staff out of New Hampshire and out of her Maryland national headquarters in a last-ditch effort to gain traction in Iowa. Thus far Harris doesn’t appear to be pulling any staff out of Nevada, and Harris herself will return to Las Vegas this Friday to kick off the Culinary Union’s series of town halls with the 2020 Democratic candidates. Yet even as Harris and her top surrogates continue to inspire Democratic audiences across the nation, her prospects of winning the caucus now appear as dark as the “3:00 AM” landscape she evokes in her stump speeches.

Nevada Caucus
Photo by Andrew Davey

Between Beto O’Rourke’s stunning drop-out and Kamala Harris’ equally stunning fall from political grace, it’s wild to think about how drastically this 2020 field has changed over the past ten months. Those we thought had the inside track eventually got derailed, and those we thought were train wrecks or overly clunky are instead racing at break-neck speed. 

We’ll go into further detail in an imminently forthcoming “Trail Mix: Power Rankings” update, but I want us to stop for a moment today and not just assess where they are, but why they’re there and what happened to lead them here. For many Democrats inside and outside the campaign offices, this caucus is far more than a mere “horse race”. They see far more at stake, and they see the candidates as far more than the political action figures that some national media outlets portray these candidates as. As the field continues to winnow, and as candidates continue to drop out as the party gradually coalesces around a narrower list of frontrunners, it’s important for us to remember the real feelings of hurt and loss behind the excitement of the winnowing field.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 1:10 PM to add the Mellman Group’s and The Nevada Independent‘s new poll results.

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