For this week’s 2016 Slack chat, we preview tonight’s Republican caucuses in Nevada. The transcript below has been lightly edited. (FiveThirtyEight PSA: We will not be live-blogging the Nevada results tonight, as they won’t come in until well past our bedtime. We will, however, have some Nevada analysis ready for you to read while you drink your coffee tomorrow morning.)
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s Republican caucus day in Nevada!
clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Sho is.
micah: You’re still in Vegas, right, Clare? Have you gambled away your plane ticket home?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): People are voting as we type this! Except they’re not — because voting in a caucus is a huge pain and the caucuses don’t start until tonight.
clare.malone: I am still in Vegas, a city that very much appears to not know there is an election today. Like most of America, probably.
harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I, for one, look forward to a completely inept state party running a caucus where they will record votes on the back of an envelope, take pictures of those results and send those pictures into headquarters.
natesilver: Nevada: the state where you have no idea who’s going to win before the caucus, and also no idea who won after the caucus.
micah: Donald Trump is going to win, right? So sayeth our forecasts.
harry: Well, I think almost everybody thinks that Trump is going to win. Two reasons for that: Limited polling information suggests as much and most voices on the ground, like my good ol’ friends Jon Ralston and Nick Riccardi, say the campaigns’ internal polls say the same thing. But the turnout is going to be excruciatingly low, which increases the chances that the polls could be wrong.
clare.malone: So we have a couple more second-place “victory speeches” to look forward to!
harry: The 3-5-2-2 strategy looks good.
micah: Marco Rubio’s the favorite to finish second?
natesilver: Let’s not pretend that we have any idea. I mean, really. Look at the confidence intervals in our “forecast.” It’s basically saying ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
clare.malone: OK, who does well if there’s bigger turnout? “Bigger” in a relative sense, given last time’s turnout was 33,000 or so.
natesilver: The smaller the turnout, the more potential for a surprising outcome. I don’t doubt that Nevada is a pretty good state for Trump. But if turnout is like 2-4 percent of the voting-eligible population, there’s a large element of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ involved.
micah: Clare, do you have any sense from being on the ground in Nevada of whether turnout will exceed these very low expectations?
clare.malone: I do not think it will exceed. I went to a Rubio rally the other night and talked to people who were undecideds, and one of the women said she caucused last time but very likely wouldn’t because it was confusing and seemed to her a little “corrupt.” But more broadly, and here I will make a SHAMELESS PLUG for a piece I wrote, but one of the bigger groups that turned out last election in Nevada were Mormons (25 percent of the electorate), most of whom voted for Romney. Political scientists I talked to said that that number is probably going to be way lower this year. People are split, Mormons included, and there’s just less enthusiasm for spending your Tuesday night at a caucus. Nevada still doesn’t have the pride that Iowa has about its caucuses — they’re a new beast!
micah: Even if LDS turnout is a bit lower, they could still prove decisive. Which way do you think they’ll go? Do we have any idea?
clare.malone: I think the LDS vote is very much split and there are good arguments for Ted Cruz or Rubio. And yes, some Mormons will vote for Trump. Rubio has more of the sheen of a traditional conservative, which, in general, the Mormon community has liked in the past. And Rubio’s immigration record is actually a boon, given that Mormons are more liberal on that issue than most Republicans (they spend a lot of time abroad in their missions, which is a factor that comes into play).
On the Cruz side of things, his Constitutional conservative thing plays well, given that it’s a theological tenet of Mormonism that the Constitution is divinely inspired. And he’s been trying to pick up some of the Rand/Ron Paul libertarians — also a Mormon contingent in that ideological aisle.
So, I think it’s going to be an interesting little slice of the pie to watch tonight.
natesilver: Nevada might be a pretty good state for either Rubio or Cruz if not for the fact that Trump literally has his name in lights on a building there. And there are certain parochial interests in Nevada. In Morning Consult’s polling of all 50 states, Trump’s top two states were Nevada and New Jersey. Guess what they have in common? (Although, to be fair, there’s no gambling at the Trump hotel.)
micah: What explains that, though? Is that just name recognition? Or are people like, “Well, that Trump hotel is top-notch … he should be president!”?
clare.malone: Nevada is coming off a huge housing crisis, and I think a lot of people are ready to receive that Trump message of “throw the bastards out, overhaul the system.” And he’s also, might I say, a little Vegas himself? So it might be a bit cultural.
harry: How is there no gambling at Trump’s hotel? Here’s what I know: Turnout in 2012 was just over 30,000. Turnout in 2008 was around 45k. Those were both on Saturdays. This is a Tuesday night.
clare.malone: What’s on TV on Tuesday night? That could be key. Shit, guys, “NCIS” is on. Ballgame over.
micah: So what are the stakes? This feels a little low stakes to me, tbh, but is that just because Nevada is hard for the East Coast media to cover — there’s little polling and results won’t come until midnight Eastern time at the EARLIEST — so they’re downplaying the contest?
harry: I think if Trump wins, the train continues. If Trump loses, the media will cover it big time. The reason? It’s the same as always: The media wants a contest. Plus, it’ll show Trump has a weakness in caucuses and potentially out West in general.
natesilver: If Nevada had its act together and held a primary, the stakes would be higher.
micah: Nate, you’re really coming off as anti-Nevada.
natesilver: I love Nevada! I think Nevadans should have the opportunity to vote in a primary. But the caucus is a hard event for the media to cover, and also hard for it to set expectations between the lack of polling and the low turnout.
micah: “Reno 911!” is an all-time great show.
clare.malone: What if Rubio finishes a strong second (whatever that means), that’s good, no?
harry: Well, Rubio wants to get to a one-on-one against Trump ASAP. So anything that helps him do that is helpful.
clare.malone: Keeps the people who have been endorsing him over the last few days happy. My inbox has been, I would say, 40 percent press releases from the Rubio campaign telling me which congressman believes in Marcomentum.
natesilver: Rubio finishing ahead of Cruz would be not unimportant. If you’re filling in Cruz’s map, then other than the South, the next place you might expect him to do well is in Western caucus states: libertarian-ish, low turnout. If he finishes third in a Southern state, then finishes third in Nevada, the map looks even tougher for him than before.
clare.malone: Cruz had Glenn Beck out here stumping for him — bringing in the big guns. I think Rubio seems pretty confident. He’s out of the state already, I believe. On to Minnesota and Michigan.
harry: Cruz’s map is essentially Reagan’s from 1976. Win in the West and the South. But it’s unclear — after South Carolina and recent polling — that he can do either.
harry: Can we talk about John Kasich for a second here?
clare.malone: Always. He’s in the South this week!
harry: He’s not in Nevada.
harry: How is he running a national campaign?
clare.malone: He’s in Mississippi and Georgia, I believe.
harry: He didn’t run in Iowa. He’s not running in Nevada. He sorta campaigned in South Carolina.
clare.malone: I think he’s running for VP. Which to me, means you need to stay in for a while.
natesilver: I want to pick apart one more thing on Rubio, though. Rubio actually spent a fair amount of time in Nevada earlier in the campaign. He’s got a lot of state legislator endorsements.
clare.malone: The lt. governor of the state is Rubio’s campaign chair. That helps.
harry: And he has the endorsement of Dean Heller, the Republican senator from that state.
natesilver: At some point, there was talk about how Nevada could be Rubio’s first victory. When did that stop? Did his campaign conduct a bunch of polling and conclude “oops, Trump”? Or are they doing a really, really good job of lowering expectations?
micah: Yeah, I think it would be pretty easy to argue that if Rubio doesn’t do well in Nevada, maybe even win, it’s a sign of something wrong. One thing we know for sure: The Rubio campaign has maybe done the most amazing job of managing expectations in the history of U.S. presidential elections.
natesilver: Ehh, I’m not sure about that, Micah.
micah: Nate, the Republican Party elite is consolidating around Rubio and he hasn’t won a single state — or even come particularly close!
natesilver: Usually the party consolidates around a candidate during the invisible primary before voters have weighed in at all. Basically, Rubio just won the invisible primary after the visible primary started. Which is, uh … a little different.
micah: But I don’t think that happens if expectations weren’t managed as they have been.
natesilver: Well, Rubio miserably underperformed expectations in New Hampshire. And the party stuck with him then.
micah: But the race didn’t start with New Hampshire. If Rubio’s third-place finish in Iowa wasn’t perceived as such a boon …
natesilver: If “the party” had been reading FiveThirtyEight, they’d have gotten behind Rubio in 2013!
harry: The only candidate besides Rubio left in the race that most party elites would even think of getting behind is Kasich, and Kasich isn’t really running a national campaign. That’s why after Jeb Bush left we are seeing the consolidation.
Bush was holding these guys back.
micah: For sure, but I think that consolidation behind Rubio is the result of two main factors: 1. Every other candidate sucks (from the GOP elite’s POV), and 2. Expectations spin by the Rubio folks. It was just all well executed.
clare.malone: Maybe it’s less expectations and more practicality masquerading as expectations?
micah: Yeah, maybe it’s both.
clare.malone: Because to me, the Rubio campaign’s strongest argument behind the scenes is, “Hey, our guy will look like a relatively normal Joe to the general electorate. You cannot say the same for Cruz, despite all his resources, and you, Mr. fill-in-the-blank-congressman, just need to make a decision now of practicality.” Rubio is the “love the one you’re with” candidate.
micah: Alright, let’s get back to Kasich before we wrap. Let’s posit for a second that he’s not running to be Veep. Does he have any path to the nomination? Or would he be in Nevada if he had a path?
clare.malone: I’m not sure he has a path, but he would need to do well in Ohio and Michigan.
harry: He’s trailing Trump in a Quinnipiac poll out this morning by 5 percentage points in Ohio, and his supporters are far less likely to say their mind is made up.
natesilver: It’s hard to think Kasich has any path at the nomination. He’s running in the “establishment lane,” too, but he has very little establishment support. No endorsements of any kind since January. No endorsements by someone outside of Ohio since September.
micah: Penultimate question: Kasich’s message (“let’s all come together”) is basically the opposite of Trump’s, so if you don’t like Trump’s message, you probably think having Kasich on the national stage is good for the country. But Kasich also pulls support more from Rubio than from Trump, so the longer Kasich remains in the race the more of a problem he becomes for Rubio. So if you’re anti-Trump, do you want Kasich in the race and on the debate stage to offer a different vision of what the GOP should be? Or do you want him gone?
clare.malone: Honestly, who outside of the people of New Hampshire and us know what John Kasich’s message is? I think he’s a bit of a nonentity in many ways, nationally.
harry: Call me ruthless, but you want Kasich out now if you don’t like Trump. Look, I understand the Kasich frustration. Here’s a guy who has been in politics pretty much all of his life. He’s offering a different message. At the end of the day, though, you got to know when to fold. And Kasich has no infrastructure and not that much money.
natesilver: Yeah, this is an easy question. If you want to stop Trump, you want Kasich out.
micah: Final question: Besides the topline result, what one thing will you be watching for in Nevada tonight?
clare.malone: Turnout, I guess, to see if there’s any surprise organizing that was going on. But I mean, I might be watching “NCIS,” so not sure I’ll check in on this whole presidential election thing.
natesilver: I’ll be watching for how badly the Nevada GOP bungles the vote counting. Otherwise, yeah, this is a topline-result kind of contest. There will be entrance polling, but with such a small turnout in a quirky state, I’m not sure how many inferences it will allow us to make.
micah: Take us home, Harry.
harry: I’ll be watching to see if Rubio finishes ahead of Cruz again. If that happens, the movement to crown Rubio as the anti-Trump will move even faster.
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