The results in Nevada will likely have a meaningful effect on the overall race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Coming into Saturday, Sen. Bernie Sanders is a strong favorite to win Nevada — FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gives him about a 6 in 7 chance of finishing first there. But how much he wins by — or whether he wins at all — will also affect what the race looks like coming out of the Silver State. Although Sanders is favored, there’s still a chance that someone else wins Nevada — not only does our forecast have him losing in about 1 out of every 7 simulations, but Wednesday’s debate hasn’t been fully factored into the polls yet, which in turn means it hasn’t been fully factored into our model. In other words, don’t be completely surprised if there’s a surprise on Saturday.
So how might different outcomes in Nevada change each candidate’s chances of winning the nomination? To find out, let’s run through the scenarios that pop up at least 1 percent of the time in our model (so at least 100 times in 10,000 forecast simulations).1
First up, let’s examine how the forecast would shift based on who wins and by what margin. The most likely outcome in Nevada is that Sanders wins by a “large” margin (more than 12 percentage points) followed by a “medium” win for Sanders (by between 4 and 12 points). But there are other scenarios in which Sanders wins by a “narrow” margin (fewer than 4 points) or another candidate — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — wins by varying margins. So here’s how our overall forecast would shift in response to these outcomes:
|CHANCE OF WINNING MAJORITY OF DELEGATES OVERALL|
The model has basically priced in a medium victory for Sanders in Nevada, so that result wouldn’t greatly increase or decrease his chances of winning a majority of pledged delegates. But a large win for Sanders could propel him closer to the 50 percent mark in our forecast. And he might be able to pull off a win by those margins — not only is he polling well in Nevada, but also the rest of the field is crowded together far below him in the polls. Five candidates are clustered between 9 and 15 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s Nevada polling average, well behind Sanders’s 27 percent. Still, if Sanders only wins by a narrow margin, that would actually decrease his likelihood of winning a delegate majority by more than a few points.
It’s less likely that Biden, Buttigieg or Warren will win, but in model runs where that happened, the main takeaway is that most of those scenarios would increase the chances that no one wins a majority of pledged delegates. Notably, Biden is the only one of those three candidates whose chances of winning a majority of pledged delegates nationwide might surpass Sanders’s in our forecast with a Nevada victory.
But let’s add one more layer of complication. While Sanders has a hefty lead in Nevada and is easily the most likely candidate to win, a bunch of other candidates are in the mix for second place. Although the second-place result won’t dramatically shift the overall forecast, let’s see how different combinations of margin of victory and second-place finisher affect each candidate’s odds. Here are the 17 scenarios that popped up at least 1 percent of the time:
|CHANCE OF WINNING MAJORITY OF DELEGATES OVERALL|
The most likely candidate to get second is Buttigieg, but regardless of the margin, finishing runner-up doesn’t notably alter his chances of winning a delegate majority. Outside of winning, Biden’s chances only notably improve if he can finish just behind Sanders in Nevada. If anything, another underwhelming performance for Biden could be one too many, and his South Carolina “firewall” might crumble. Outside of Biden, most other candidates wouldn’t see much movement in their overall chances if they finished second or worse. Even for candidates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar or billionaire activist Tom Steyer, a runner-up finish wouldn’t raise their chances of winning a delegate majority above the 1 percent mark.2
One candidate we haven’t mentioned yet is former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but we include him in both tables above. He’s not an option for Nevada voters, but the outcomes we’ve covered have a marginal impact on his chances. He had a 9 percent shot at winning a majority of pledged delegates going into Nevada, so the worst outcome for Bloomberg would be a Biden win, since that could help Biden win back some of the support he’s lost to Bloomberg. Two results stick out as the best possible outcomes for Bloomberg in the two tables above. First, a narrow Warren victory, as shown in the first table, could move some progressive voters toward her at Sanders’s expense and make it less likely that Sanders can win a majority of pledged delegates. But even a “medium” second-place finish for Steyer, as shown in the second table, would also help Bloomberg’s chances while lowering Sanders’s odds, perhaps because the moderate alternatives to Bloomberg would be greatly weakened by finishing outside the top two.
Before we finish, we need to cover the important caveats and complications to keep in mind when looking at the Nevada results and how they affect our forecast.
First, the FiveThirtyEight model is looking at the popular vote in Nevada after realignment. That is, if a candidate doesn’t have enough support to meet a viability threshold at a caucus site (usually 15 percent of voters at a given caucus site, counting people who voted early), that candidate’s supporters are given a chance to move to a viable choice. (Candidates who don’t clear the threshold after this second alignment aren’t eligible to receive delegates.) But don’t forget about early voters, who might make up a huge share of Nevada caucusgoers. Early voters had to rank at least three candidates, so if their first choice isn’t viable, they will be automatically realigned to the next candidate on their ranked-choice ballot who is viable. Yet Nevada Democrats don’t use the popular vote to determine who wins national delegates — instead, they use the number of county convention delegates awarded to each candidate at the precinct caucuses. If this sounds weirdly familiar, it should: The Iowa caucuses used a similar process where state delegate equivalents determined national delegate allocation.
So just as Buttigieg got partial credit for a win in Iowa because he narrowly won the state delegate equivalent count (which could change after a recount) even though Sanders won the final-alignment popular vote in Iowa, there could be a split decision in Nevada, too. This is important because it could affect how the media covers the race, which in turn affects the sort of bounce a candidate receives from a win (though, historically, the Nevada bounce is much smaller than Iowa’s). Because county delegates are what matters for national delegate allocation, that’s what media organizations will predominantly use to call a winner, so if there’s a split outcome, the county delegate winner might get top billing. Of course, the Iowa race didn’t have nearly as strong a favorite as Nevada does — our model didn’t give any candidate better than a 41 percent chance of winning, far below the 85 percent chance that Sanders has of finishing first in Nevada. But the split-decision possibility and how it could be covered is something to keep in mind.
More generally, we can’t predict how the media will cover the results, even if Sanders wins as expected. Media reactions are pretty important to determining just how much of a bounce a candidate gets from winning or performing better than expected, so it’s possible that a candidate who finishes a strong second — or third, if the reaction to Klobuchar’s New Hampshire result is any indication — might get a lot more coverage than we might otherwise expect. The FiveThirtyEight model is trying to make educated guesses about how the results will be received, but the only way to know for sure is to wait and see what the polls say after Nevada votes, which the model will quickly adjust for once we get enough survey data.