It hasn’t even been two months since the Nevada Democratic Caucus, but it now feels like an eternity ago. Once upon a time, we in the media and various party activists relished the attention we got from the candidates. But now that U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), the undisputed winner of the Nevada Caucus, is dropping out of the race, it’s easy for Nevadans to feel bummed about how “we don’t matter”.
Yes, we still matter. We just need to take a closer look at the emerging contours of the 2020 general election to realize how and why.
Yes, Nevada Democratic voters and activists mattered. Here’s how.
“As I’ve previously written, Sanders’ supposedly ‘too far left, too radical revolution’ resonated with many Nevadans, including and especially voters of color, far more than most outside pundits initially gave him credit for. […] With Sanders likely scoring such a huge victory with our diverse electorate, it turns out that we really do matter in terms of resetting the narrative and clarifying the direction of this presidential election.”
I wrote that back on February 22, just after I witnessed a surprisingly strong Bernie Sanders victory at the Bellagio caucus site. And yes, in many ways Nevada did make a difference. For all the yelling and screaming about “Medicare for All” single-payer health care, not only did a “Medicare for All” champion win, but a solid majority of Nevada Democratic caucus-goers (62%, according to NBC News’ entrance poll) endorsed single-payer health care as well.
In the days leading up to Caucus Week, we also witnessed a critical mass of Nevada Democrats embrace more of Sanders’ progressive platform, from the “Fight for 15” and full economic justice to the “Green New Deal” and bold climate action. At the same time, Sanders embraced more of what a critical mass of Nevada progressive activists have been demanding, from bolder action on immigrant rights to stronger gun violence prevention policies. Between Sanders accepting more of what activists have been fighting for and a broader array of Democratic voters and party leaders moving closer toward Sanders and these progressive activists, we can see how Sanders and Nevada Democrats have made a difference in this election.
But no, we obviously didn’t “pick a president”, at least not with this caucus.
Here’s where we have to address the giant donkey in the room. Going into the caucus, former Vice President Joe Biden was left for politically dead. Pundits quickly chased former South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minnesota) “momentum” emanating from Iowa and New Hampshire, then wondered whether U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Massachusetts) debate performance would be enough for her to revive her campaign, then speculated over who would emerge as Sanders’ biggest competition after (he won) Nevada.
As I pointed out last month, South Carolina Democrats decided not to fall in line with pundits’ speculation. Then on Super Tuesday, a bumper crop of states experienced a boost in Democratic primary turnout, in stark contrast to Nevada’s low-turnout caucus. And all of a sudden, Joe Biden transformed from perennial presidential also-ran into dominant frontrunner.
Even though a solid majority of Democratic primary voters continued to agree with Sanders on a broad swath of ideas and policies, they nonetheless picked Biden because he developed the kind of campaign message that appealed to urban, working class voters of color, upscale suburban white voters, and many more voters across the demographic and ideological spectrums.
While Sanders’ performance here in Nevada suggested he was making progress broadening his base, that hypothesis quickly fell apart once the contest shifted from two low-turnout caucus states and one overwhelmingly white primary state to more populous and more diverse primary states. And once Midwestern states like Michigan and Illinois chimed in, it became even more obvious that the rural white voters who picked Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in 2016 had no desire to prop him up again now that Clinton is no longer running for president.
Once more, with (extra) feeling: Our voters matter.
While Joe Biden shifts from overwhelming frontrunner to presumptive Democratic nominee, he and his campaign will need to put in more work to amass and secure the broader Democratic coalition he will need to defeat President Donald Trump this fall. While Biden will likely win Nevada comfortably and seems primed to win the overall national popular vote, he will also need to win states like Arizona, Michigan, and North Carolina to win the Electoral College and help Democrats expand their House majority while also flipping control of the Senate. And as we’ve discussed before, Nevada has been critical in testing Democrats’ ability to win in other diverse and urban/suburban swing states.
Some high-level Democrats have taken comfort in Biden turning in solid performances in swingy and traditionally Republican-leaning suburbs in the March primary states, and perhaps this is a fortuitous sign for a “suburban surge” that seals the deal for Biden in November. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign relied on such a “suburban surge” in their “data-driven models”, and we all know how that turned out.
Now that Trump is working to turn the COVID-19 pandemic into just another arm of his political and business empire, and now that Sanders has made clear that Biden will (almost certainly) be the Democratic nominee running against Trump, Biden will probably need to overcome the hardened “BernieBro” opposition and win over a solid supermajority of Sanders voters to solidify his national and swing state leads while providing some insurance in case some of those suburban swing voters swing back and forth between Biden and Trump.
While Bernie Sanders lost another presidential nomination, he did win plenty in terms of influencing the present and the future of the Democratic Party. And if the 2018 midterm election results provide any kind of road map for 2020 (and I wholeheartedly believe 2018 does), the Biden campaign would be wise to pay heed and campaign accordingly.