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Is Nevada More Wide-Open Than We Realize?

Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Just what is going on in Nevada? On Wednesday, we had maybe our most spirited debate of the primary cycle yet, but what isn’t clear is how it did — or didn’t — affect the race. (Remember, despite capturing many, many headlines, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t actually on the ballot there.)

To some extent, the polling picture in Nevada is actually quite clear. Of the few recent polls we do have, Sen. Bernie Sanders sits atop nearly all of them, and according to our primary forecast, he has a 75 percent chance of winning the most votes there. Our model still gives former Vice President Joe Biden a 1 in 9 chance of pulling off an upset victory, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg a 1 in 15 shot and Sen. Elizabeth Warren a 1 in 20 shot. (Philanthropist Tom Steyer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s odds are a bit more underdog-ish, at 1 in 50 and 1 in 100, respectively.)

But as we know from New Hampshire, debates can matter. And Nevada is just a really hard state to poll, so what should we be keeping an eye on heading into the caucuses on Saturday?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I’m reticent to say that the Nevada polls give us a clear picture of the race. I feel like it’s perhaps better to come with a more collective open mind, while acknowledging that Sanders is the front-runner numerically.

micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): Yeah, I’d be very cautious with our Nevada forecast at the moment. It can only work with the polls it has, and there obviously haven’t been any post-debate polls yet. It’s always hard to predict these things but I’d bet that debate could swing the polls by a lot.

sarahf: Right, there are only five polls of Nevada for all of February. I hear you.

That said, Sanders has consistently done pretty well.

micah: But would anyone be surprised by a last-minute Warren surge in Nevada? Akin to Klobuchar’s in New Hampshire?

clare.malone: That’s one thing I’ve been turning over in my head, Micah. Is Warren a really good cultural fit for Nevada?

And by cultural fit I mean: She’s originally from Oklahoma and her professional work is inextricably linked with the housing crisis, which hit Nevada hard. She’s got the kind of working class background that could potentially resonate in a state whose caucuses are union-dominated. So maybe Nevada is a potential comeback state for her?

sarahf: I could definitely see a Warren comeback. One wild card, though is that this the first time Nevada has offered early voting, and so that means there were already nearly 75,000 votes cast before the debate last night.

It’s an important reminder that this is already happening in a number of Super Tuesday states, too — including California, which is the biggest delegate prize. I’m not sure it’ll matter, but I am intrigued by how it factors in.

clare.malone: Yes, I mean, I think the big roadblock for a potential Warren surge is what you say, Sarah — her poor showing in the first two states and a ream of voters who have already made up their minds.

And I will say, the fact that Nevada is union-dominated could DEFINITELY work against her in the sense that the unions seem to prefer Biden, or at least seem to prefer a more traditionally Democratic mainstream choice.

micah: Agreed. But, and Nate pointed this out on the podcast, most people who vote early are people who already have their minds made up. That is, there are still plenty of voters who haven’t voted, and those voters are more likely to be ones who Warren would presumably have a chance to win over because they’re undecided.

But going back to the “Is Warren a good fit for Nevada?” question, all the shared characteristics/experiences Clare highlights are dead on. But also … hmmm, how do I say this … I wonder how voters in Nevada will react to a forceful debate strategy by a female candidate.

That is, do voters consciously or subconsciously view Warren’s performance through a sexist/gendered lens? Most likely, right?

sarahf: Why Nevada more so than any other state?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Right, that might apply to all 50 states.

micah: True. But Nevada’s population also has a smaller share of college-educated adults than the average state.

clare.malone: I think Nevada is a state that’s got a lot of Democratic primary voters who haven’t been as tuned-in to the primary process as those in Iowa or New Hampshire, which makes it a more useful barometer.

And I think Micah’s point is perhaps that some of those people might be more likely to have an unvarnished response to Warren and won’t have seen their response to her filtered through a months-long primary process lens.

The smart thing I think she did in her closing remarks at the debate was to say, I’ve been in politics for the least amount of time of anyone up here.

micah: Actually, I take some of this back: It looks like Nevada has a decent record of electing women …

clare.malone: I’m always skeptical of how people react to female presidential candidates, though … But point well taken.

micah: Totally agree — is the presidency different? (I think yes, but we don’t know that in a research sense.)

perry: I tend to think that Warren’s performance increased her chances of being one of the candidates who gets to 15 percent in several Super Tuesday states. She will get more media coverage out of this debate — I am still fairly bearish on that prospect.

sarahf: That certainly seems reasonable to me. She did have a strong debate performance, and as we saw with Klobuchar in New Hampshire, it really could impact voters who are still deciding. That said … I’m not sure I agree with this take from journalist Peter Hamby, but it did give me pause about Bloomberg’s performance and what that could mean for how Warren is perceived.

Which brings us to the million dollar question of Wednesday’s debate: Did Bloomberg’s performance shake things up?

micah: I think that Hamby take is wrong (and he’s super smart). The key difference: This is a primary. That was a general. A bad debate performance in a general election is typically mollified, in terms of its impact on the vote, by partisanship. In a primary, voters are much more likely to switch between candidates. See Marco Rubio, New Hampshire, 2016.

clare.malone: I think Bloomberg’s performance definitely helped Biden.

sarahf: More than say, Warren, Clare?

clare.malone: Well, I think Bloomberg and Biden are inextricably linked. Bloomberg’s entire rise is premised on Biden’s fall. When Bloomberg falls, Biden rises.

Bloomberg was meant to be seen as the more effective moderate option, given Biden’s mediocre showing … and then Bloomberg had a mediocre showing.

micah: Yeah, I agree with that. If Bloomberg falls, it both directly and indirectly helps Biden. It helps him in terms of actual voters available, it helps Biden seem more liberal, it does a lot! The question on Warren feels somewhat more separate, although she’s certainly competing with Bloomberg for press attention.

perry: If Bloomberg had been great, that would have hurt basically everyone. There are a lot of Democrats who are going to just vote for someone and aren’t that moderate or liberal or ideologically committed.

So Bloomberg’s lackluster debate performance was good for Biden but also Buttigieg, Klobuchar — really, all of them.

But there’s another debate on Tuesday and Bloomberg’s ads run everywhere all of the time. I don’t think this precludes him from doing well on Super Tuesday.

clare.malone: I agree with that. I’m not entirely sure nervous Democratic voters will be ready to count him out.

One thing I take from that series of Pete Hamby tweets is: Sometimes it’s hard to tell what voters will tolerate!

sarahf: 2016 shook my confidence in understanding what voters want.

clare.malone: Lol


micah: It doesn’t preclude Bloomberg from doing well on Super Tuesday, but it weirdly complicates the path for Sanders before then. Sanders is sitting atop national polls, atop Nevada polls and in a close second in South Carolina polls. As long as the Biden-Bloomberg-Buttigieg-Klobuchar lane was muddled, Sanders’s position is extra safe. Basically, he can win states with 25 to 30 percent of the vote.

But if Biden can get some momentum off of a Bloomberg decline (and maybe also Buttigieg and Klobuchar as they didn’t do much to help themselves), maybe Biden can … win Nevada?!?! Or crush it in South Carolina?

sarahf: Speaking of Biden … he really needs to finish second (or first!) in Nevada, right? Granted, it’s still only the third state to vote, but it’s the first one that isn’t 90 percent white, so it’s also sort of an important litmus test for candidates who have struggled to build diverse coalitions. (Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar — really everyone except Biden and Sanders, right?)

What should we be looking for there on Saturday? Currently, Sanders seems to hold an edge among Latino voters, but it’s not insurmountable as Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux and Nathaniel Rakich wrote on Thursday:

Sanders is highly favored by Latino voters in Nevada

Top Democratic candidates’ support among poll respondents who identified as Hispanic or Latino (depending on the poll), in six polls conducted since Feb. 9

Pollster Sanders Biden Steyer Warren Buttigieg Klobuchar
Data for Progress 66% 7% 8% 5% 4% 7%
WPA Intelligence 50 13 9 11 9 0
Beacon Research* 33 16 18 14 7 3
Univision 33 22 12 6 8 1
Mason-Dixon 31 34 3 6 7 5
Point Blank Political 20 8 29 8 12 4

*Internal poll for the Steyer campaign.

Source: Polls

clare.malone: Yeah, I think that Biden needs to make up a lot of ground in Nevada and South Carolina in order to save face (and save his campaign).

micah: Totally. My hunch is that Biden could have sold the media on “Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t representative — wait for Nevada and South Carolina.” But his campaign seemed to be selling “Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t representative — wait for South Carolina. (Nevada? Oh, don’t worry about that.)” And Nevada is actually more representative of the party, as Perry has written. So that was a hard sell.

clare.malone: If he makes a weak showing in Nevada, I think that could have them worried about his gold-standard state, South Carolina.

micah: I think he needs to do “well” in Nevada.

“Well” = “whatever the media decides ‘well’ equals”

clare.malone: Win/place/show?

Or just win/place?

sarahf: No more fourth-place finishes.

micah: Maybe he needs to finish above all the other candidates in the moderate lane?

Or does he also need to finish above Warren?

perry: I think I have in my head something like this for Nevada: Sanders, Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, Steyer, Klobuchar, with the last four kind of bunched up in high single digits and low teens. That’s just my assumption from seeing the various polls. If Biden is below second, I think there will be more super-negative coverage of him. And that can make South Carolina harder to win too.

sarahf: I agree that anything other than a second-place finish for Biden in Nevada is hard to spin if part of your explanation for doing poorly in New Hampshire and Nevada is that they aren’t representative. Plus, and as Micah said, Nevada is actually more representative of the Democratic Party than South Carolina. And 13 percent of the 2016 caucus electorate was black, according to the entrance polls, so if Biden’s pitch is I can win over black voters and build a diverse coalition, a lot is on the line for him there.

micah: Yeah, and as Geoffrey Skelley has written, Biden has lost a lot of support since Iowa and New Hampshire — among people of all races but also black voters. In other words, black voters aren’t some kind of special firewall for Biden.

So if Biden claws some of that back, it would help him in Nevada as well as South Carolina.

IDK, I just feel like this is a moment in the campaign when we might see a ton of volatility.

clare.malone: And if he loses South Carolina he might have to drop out.

Just sayin’

perry: I think Super Tuesday is so close now that I don’t think any candidate should drop out.

Early voting is already happening in some of those states. I’m not predicting what Biden will do, but he should not drop out after South Carolina if Super Tuesday is three days later.

micah: Biden could finish fourth in Nevada and lose in South Carolina and drop out and that would not at all surprise me.

Biden could win Nevada (or finish in a strong second), run away with South Carolina and be leading in national polls by the time we reach Super Tuesday, and that would not surprise me.

clare.malone: But I think if Biden can’t prove viability in South Carolina, it would be pretty humiliating.

perry: So in most of these states and the Democratic primary overall, I think the plurality of voters are white voters who do not support Sanders. So I think Micah is right — that speaks to the potential volatility of the race.

Super Tuesday has a lot of states with black/Latino populations larger than Iowa and New Hampshire, but still some states where it’s not that high. That’s why I think a Buttigieg or Klobuchar can win, say, Virginia if they perform well among college-educated white voters in particular and white voters overall.

sarahf: But if, as you say, Perry, there is a plurality of white voters who are on Team Anyone But Sanders, wouldn’t it behoove someone from the moderate lane who had disappointing finishes in Nevada and South Carolina to drop out? I wouldn’t put it past at least someone dropping out after Nevada.

Is that misguided?

perry: I don’t know what you get from dropping out.

micah: This isn’t based on anything in particular, but I would expect a couple dropouts before Super Tuesday.

You get to avoid humiliation.

sarahf: Also, potentially you avoid a messy contested convention, which I think has to factor into some of this? Or, if the storyline that many party insiders oppose his nomination is to be believed, I can imagine some members of the party pressuring candidates to drop out so there can be an alternative to Sanders.

micah: I think that’s right.

perry: If the moderate lane was coordinating to avoid Sanders winning, yes, one or two of them should drop out. Bloomberg’s campaign sent out a memo yesterday saying exactly that. It would be smart for some moderate bigwig (like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) to encourage this.

micah: This is why I think the Nevada debate wasn’t great for Sanders. I thought Sanders had a fine debate on Wednesday night. Certainly we would expect his support to at the very least not go down. But he was leading in Nevada and rising in South Carolina and leading in a lot of Super Tuesday states.

The BLOOMBERG BOMBS storyline just introduces a ton of potential volatility — particularly in terms of how the moderate lane does or does not consolidate — and because the status quo was pretty great for Bernie. Volatility is potentially bad for him.

But maybe the party won’t actually move to fight a Sanders nomination.

perry: At this point, I just don’t see a lot of evidence that the moderate lane candidates are being realistic about their chances or are focused on boosting one member of that group, as opposed to themselves.

micah: It’s certainly hard to imagine Buttigieg and Klobuchar and Bloomberg cooperating with each other at the moment!

perry: The big question is whether that has to happen before Super Tuesday.

What the Bloomberg people were saying is that the coordination needs to happen now.

micah: Mathematically it kinda does, right?

sarahf: What is it, 38 percent of delegates are awarded by then?

perry: Like of course Klobuchar drops out after Super Tuesday, but they need her to drop out now.

sarahf: I think there is an incentive for moderate Democrats who are hand wringing over Sanders to consolidate ASAP.

micah: Yeah. This is why our forecast has such a high chance of no one winning a majority of pledged delegates:

sarahf: To bring it home … does this mean Nevada might actually be really important this year? It feels as if the media often kind of skips over Nevada in preparation for South Carolina.

perry: If Nevada results in one of these candidates packing it in, then yes, it matters.

clare.malone: It matters more because of the failures of the earlier states.

The field is just muddled in this way that feels unusual.

micah: It is unusual!

perry: Sanders winning three states in a row will be big no matter what. And another candidate winning Nevada would be huge. So I think Nevada matters hugely.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.