For nearly two decades, Nevada Democrats have witnessed major changes that culminated in a “trifecta” of state government power, a supermajority of Congressional seats, and a new state party leadership team who got elected last month. The Nevada State Democratic Party (NSDP) has experienced significant evolution in the past two decades, but this evolutionary process hasn’t always been a smooth and easy ride.
After all, there are reasons why the last presidential caucus (we experienced) may ultimately prove to be the last presidential caucus (we’ll ever experience).
Even now, I still get “all the feels” whenever I have to remember the 2020 Democratic Presidential Caucus.
To this day, I have so many mixed emotions regarding the 2020 Democratic Caucus. I look back fondly because those were the final events I covered in-person before the COVID-19 pandemic exploded here in Nevada and around the world. I look back in horror because so many thousands of Nevada voters had to endure yet another clusterfuck of a “caucus process” just to turn in their preference cards. I look back fondly because I felt that peak “#WeMatter energy”. I look back in horror because there was so much evidence that made me ask, “Don’t they ever remember who’s actually supposed to matter here?”
During Part 2 of this series, we revisited the 2016 Caucus that sparked so much chaos, so much outrage, and so much public embarrassment that top Nevada Democrats finally felt compelled to adopt some major changes for 2020. These changes included making the actual caucus preference results binding, opening up early voting and “virtual caucus” options, and providing more multilingual preference card options.
Going into the 2020 cycle, it seemed like Nevada Democrats had one more chance to prove that they could make the caucus-to-convention system work. Yet despite the lack of a painfully close finish and the not-atrociously-long wait for results to begin pouring in, the ultimate fallout was nonetheless more than messy enough for former U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D) to call for an end to the presidential caucus. Today, we’re reviewing everything that forced Reid’s hand and inspired top Democratic legislators to introduce AB 126 of the 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature to officially make Nevada a presidential primary state.
Next, let’s shine some actual light on the shadowy mess of Acronym, Shadow, and the buggy app that helped seal the caucus’ fate.
To this day, I continue to see some people float conspiracy theories online about what really happened at the Iowa and Nevada Democratic Caucuses. And once more, I’m here to clear the air and present the facts. Long story short: There was no conspiracy to kill off any one campaign. Instead some powerful Democratic Party insiders were wowed by the “bright, shiny, new, techie-tech object” of Acronym, Shadow, and their incredibly buggy app, yet they were also woefully behind on doing the important work of ensuring sufficient “people power” for enough caucus sites.
Many of the key names behind Acronym and Shadow have resumes that point to the biggest names in the Democratic Party, such as former President Barack Obama and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As much as some of these key Acronym/Shadow players, such as Acronym CEO Tara McGowan, used extra buzzy buzzwords, such as, “[T]he new political battlefield is Snapchat filters. It’s gifs. It’s memes,” the simple fact of the matter is that they oversaw the development of a caucus app that ultimately got rushed into Iowa and Nevada Democrats’ caucus plans before anyone could verify that this app would actually work in the real world.
Though NSDP ultimately decided to ditch Acronym and Shadow once Iowa’s Democratic Caucus began to melt down into a puddle of blame games, extra long delays, and FUBAR-level ruined careers, we shouldn’t forget that NSDP first entered into a contract with Acronym and Shadow, with the Iowa Democratic Party quickly following suit. Because they were so invested in this app from these party insiders that wasn’t properly vetted and tested before rank-and-file Iowa Democrats unknowingly became Acronym’s “experimental group”, NSDP leaders scrambled at the very last minute to remodel the caucus with a new digital “tool” and a more labor-intensive process that volunteers had less than three weeks to prepare for. It ultimately fell on volunteers to scramble to implement these last-minute changes, just because state party leaders wanted to save face here in Nevada following the Iowa Caucus fiasco.
For all the public outrage over the incredibly messy Iowa Caucus results that former South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg sought to spin as his “victory”, the narratives that eventually emerged from Iowa and strengthened in New Hampshire quickly fell apart here in Nevada. Why? It’s simple: Nevada may be a small state with a caucus like Iowa, and we may be a small state with a “libertarian” reputation like New Hampshire, but our political-demographic climate is nothing like either of theirs.
Why did Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar fall flat in Nevada after such rapid ascents in Iowa and New Hampshire?
You can’t say they didn’t warn us. At NSDP’s “First in the West” fundraising event in November 2019, Harry Reid reminded reporters, “We are a diverse state. We’re the first state in the west. We’re the first state that’s representative of the rest of the country.” Reid’s long-time #1 political lieutenant, Rebecca Lambe, soon added, “You have to have a message that appeals to a broader, more diverse electorate.”
And yet, as Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) became breakout stars following their respective finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the general assumption among many journalists and party insiders was that Buttigieg and Klobuchar were the “ones to watch”. After all, they had “momentum”, and they proved their “viability” in the two earliest of early states.
Buried under the top lines of “momentum” and “viability” was a very inconvenient truth: Buttigieg and Klobuchar fared best in areas with the most “white-collar”, college-educated, white professionals, and they generally didn’t do as well in areas with more diverse working-class voters. This didn’t hurt them in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the electorates are much whiter, and particularly in New Hampshire, where they have a much larger share of affluent college-educated voters.
But as they continued to endorse policies and deliver messages that felt worlds away from Nevada’s communities of color, even when they were holding campaign rallies in Downtown Las Vegas and participating in candidate forums in North Las Vegas, it eventually became clearer that Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s respective campaigns were running on fumes here. And for all their dismissals of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) “electability”, he got to show them up with the one measure of “electability” that matters the most.
Why did Bernie Sanders do so well here in Nevada?
From his earliest 2020 campaign rally in March 2019 in Henderson, Bernie Sanders sought to prove that his “people power” carried a lot of weight. As the year went on, and even as Sanders seemed to fade into the background amidst periods of polling surges for Buttigieg, Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), and others, Sanders was never really gone from the picture.
Rather, his campaign did the heavy lifting of organizing throughout the state, including in the urban core neighborhoods with a lot of Latinx voters who were all too often neglected by other campaigns. When Sanders kicked off caucus early voting with Make the Road Nevada Action in East Las Vegas, that huge and very enthusiastic crowd was the surest sign yet that Sanders was set for a big win here in Nevada.
As some of the other campaigns focused more on polls and endorsements, Sanders’ campaign often quietly plodded ahead with engaging voters and building relationships. In a caucus contest, this kind of granular voter outreach makes all the difference. Since caucuses ultimately depend on the people who actually show up, it helps to have an enthusiastic base of voters who show up in big numbers. Sanders and his team always knew this, and they learned enough from their 2016 campaign mistakes to up their 2020 game.
And yet Sanders only scored 34% in the initial preference card count, and he only barely crossed 40% in the post-realignment final preference card count once the full caucus results came online. Even though Sanders won 24 of the 36 pledged delegate slots up for grabs, these “popular vote” results were early signs of trouble ahead for Sanders.
Why couldn’t Bernie Sanders seal the deal with his Nevada win? Conversely, how did Joe Biden’s seemingly underwhelming second-place finish foretell bigger and better things to come?
Even though Sanders’ support was very deep and appeared quite broad, it was only so broad. No one could win majority support among Nevada’s Democratic Caucus-goers, not even Bernie Sanders. However besides Sanders, there was one other candidate who managed to attract support beyond just one narrow subset of voters.
Though his numbers were underwhelming most everywhere else in the state, President Joe Biden scored plenty of delegates throughout the Las Vegas Valley. In more Latinx-heavy precincts, Biden was pretty consistently second-place and sometimes the only candidate besides Sanders to win any delegates. In historically Black neighborhoods, Biden most often finished on top. And even in those suburban areas with wealthier white-collar professionals, Biden often wasn’t far behind Buttigieg and Klobuchar.
Though no one candidate won a majority of caucus-goers, Sanders and Biden were the only two to demonstrate broad appeal. But with Sanders, he probably got a smaller share of the default de-facto “popular vote” in 2020 than he did in 2016. Sanders definitely benefited from big turnout among his most devoted supporters, but that post-realignment “popular vote” score provided the clearest signal yet that Sanders had a ceiling that he hadn’t yet found a way to break through.
When Biden and his team often suggested that South Carolina and the “Super Tuesday” states would prove his ability to unify the party, so many of us scoffed. If he couldn’t even register in the DNC delegate count in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he could only manage to edge past Pete Buttigieg here in Nevada, why were we to believe Joe Biden still had any kind of viable path to the White House? We clearly should have noticed no one cleared the field in any of the first three early states, and we should have noticed that Biden was the only non-Sanders Democratic candidate who had proven any kind of ability to build a broader coalition.
Did “#WeMatter” at all? (Yes! Here’s how.)
As we discussed in March 2020, Nevada’s Democratic Caucus absolutely did matter in winnowing down the field and revealing a path forward for Biden in uniting his pre-existing base who included many voters of color with the college-educated white suburbanites who initially preferred Buttigieg and/or Klobuchar, but were already open to the possibility of choosing Biden over Sanders. And as we discussed in April 2020, Bernie Sanders and the other progressive candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), and Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), absolutely did leave their mark in moving the Overton Window in a leftward direction after four+ decades of far-right activists succeeding in moving the Republican Party, then moving the nation’s overall “mainstream governing philosophy”, quite far to the right.
Just look at how President Joe Biden is governing here and now. While some progressives and leftists have grown frustrated over Biden on matters like his slow pace in reversing former President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, his adamant refusal to even consider “Medicare for All” single-payer health care, and his apparent slow-walking of federal court reform, it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. Even with Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-West Virginia) bizarre last-minute demand for legislative pounds of flesh, the American Rescue Plan that Biden signed into law last month is one of the largest, and by far the most thorough and most progressive policy based, economic stimulus bill America has seen since the “Great Society” era.
Following the Rescue Plan’s passage, Biden is already developing plans to build on that with an infrastructure bill and a social safety net oriented bill to rebuild the public infrastructure that’s been whittled down over the past four decades while also pursuing more forward-thinking goals on climate change and racial justice. In the days ahead, we’ll dive into more details on Biden’s American Jobs Plan, his American Families Plan, and how they’ll affect us should Congress begin advancing this legislation soon.
Looking at a more granular level, top Nevada Democrats are certainly making a mark on Biden’s presidency in ways that affect us more specifically. As Manchin was demanding his last-minute legislative pounds of flesh from the American Rescue Plan, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) managed to get in the 100% subsidized COBRA health insurance coverage that the Culinary Union and other laid-off workers were hoping for. After Trump briefly revived talk of establishing a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada Democrats in Congress are succeeding in putting an end to the Yucca project (all over again). And following the Trump administration’s push to expand fossil fuel extraction to more federal public lands, the Biden administration is moving ahead on a climate action plan that includes conserving at least 30% of America’s land and water by 2030.
2020 may really end up being Nevada’s last presidential caucus. Here’s why few Nevadans will probably miss the caucus.
As we’ve discussed so many times before, the caucus system is inherently undemocratic. Perhaps this is the main reason why Nevada Democrats’ attempt to rehabilitate the caucus in 2020 largely fell flat despite adopting some key reforms. As long as we have caucuses where the parties set the rules and run on their own, where voters are disenfranchised if they can’t make it to a specific place at a specific time, and where mathematical formulas and rounding protocols often take precedence over actual raw vote counts, the caucus system will always be a system where voters will have a hard time making their voices heard.
I used to be skeptical when volunteers and other sources provided anecdotes of voters declaring, “I never want to do that again!” Looking at how Democratic Caucus turnout peaked in 2008 and never fully recovered since, there’s at least some actual evidence to suggest there’s truth behind these anecdotes.
It’s no accident that Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) and Assembly Members Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno) and Brittney Miller (D-Las Vegas) have introduced AB 126 for this session of the Nevada Legislature. While the whole hullabaloo over “Nevada may jump ahead of New Hampshire on the primary calendar!” is attracting more national media attention, it’s been obvious for some time what more Nevada voters actually care about. With down-ballot primary turnout consistently beating presidential caucus turnout since at least 2012 despite the seemingly far higher stakes of the “#WeMatter!” caucus, voters have already indicated where they stand on the question of how much the caucus matters to them.
Up until 2020, many top Nevada Democrats justified the caucus by claiming it’s a key “organizing tool” that helps Democrats win general elections. In our fifth and final installment of this “What’s Going on with Nevada Democrats?” series, we will take one more look at last year’s general election, and we will retrace our steps to the very beginning to review the full picture of everything that led to this year’s historic changing of the guards at NSDP headquarters.