Democrats are looking toward Wednesday night’s debate in Nevada as their last opportunity to shift voter views before Saturday’s statewide caucuses.
The third contest in the party’s nominating calendar has taken on greater importance as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) tries to solidify his front-runner status, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE seeks to pull his campaign out of a tailspin and several other candidates aim to prove they can appeal to non-white voters.
“I think it is all still up in the air,” said Katie Robbins, a Democratic consultant in Nevada. “Sen. Sanders has been on the ground here for a while, but so have a lot of the other campaigns. I don’t think anything is a done deal.”
Critically, the debate hosted by NBC News and MSNBC will also be the first clash in which former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergEngel scrambles to fend off primary challenge from left It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Liberals embrace super PACs they once shunned MORE is expected to participate. Bloomberg is not competing in Nevada, instead planning to enter the 2020 race on Super Tuesday, March 3.
Bloomberg became eligible for Wednesday’s debate after the Democratic National Committee (DNC) lifted a restriction that had excluded candidates from the stage unless they received donations from a certain number of supporters. Bloomberg, who often ranks among the world’s 20 richest people, is self-funding his campaign and not accepting campaign contributions.
Bloomberg received the 10 percent support needed in one last state or national poll in order to qualify, registering 19 percent in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released early Tuesday. A campaign spokeswoman told The Hill over the weekend that if Bloomberg reaches that threshold he will debate the five other candidates who have already secured a spot on stage.
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The former mayor is not known for his charisma, and his vast expenditure on TV advertising — around $350 million since launching his campaign in late November — has allowed him to get his message out without facing rebuttals from rivals, as he would on the debate stage.
Some candidates’ campaigns have bemoaned the DNC’s shift of the debate rules in a way that facilitates Bloomberg, but others have indicated they would welcome the chance to confront him on stage.
Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.) told reporters on Friday that she would welcome Bloomberg’s participation because “I can’t beat him on the airwaves, but I can beat him on the debate stage.”
The stakes are also high for the state itself, and its Democratic Party apparatus, in light of the fiasco that enveloped the Iowa caucuses earlier this month.
The Nevada caucuses need to avoid anything like that if they are to consolidate their relatively recent centrality to the nominating process. The Nevada caucuses have been among the first contests only since 2008.
The uncertainty over the state of the race — and the importance of the debate in Las Vegas — is heightened by the dearth of reliable polling.
As of Saturday evening, there had only been one recent poll in the Silver State.
Sanders led with 25 percent in that survey, by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and WPA Intelligence. Biden was second with 18 percent, followed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.) at 13 percent, businessman Tom SteyerTom SteyerBloomberg wages war on COVID-19, but will he abandon his war on coal? Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil Ocasio-Cortez, Schiff team up to boost youth voter turnout MORE’s 11 percent, and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE (D) and Klobuchar tied at 10 percent.
The poll was conducted from Feb. 11 — the day of the New Hampshire primary — to Feb. 13. That means it should have captured some movement in the wake of that primary, but perhaps not the entirety of any shift.
Sanders won New Hampshire, with Buttigieg a close second, but the biggest surprises were the strong third-place finish by Klobuchar and the poor performances posted by Warren and Biden, who trailed in fourth and fifth, respectively.
Klobuchar’s surge in New Hampshire also underlined the potential power of debates. The Minnesota senator had looked like an also-ran after a fifth-place finish in Iowa. But she shone during the final debate prior to the New Hampshire primary, held four days before the Granite State voted. The momentum buoyed her through primary day and gave her campaign its best moment.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg have both struggled with non-white voters, however — and that could be about to become a much bigger problem.
In 2016, according to exit polls, 19 percent of Democratic caucus-goers in Nevada were Latino and 13 percent were black — figures far in excess of those seen in Iowa or New Hampshire.
The candidates will take to the stage on Wednesday with the sense that Nevada is Sanders’s race to lose.
But one complicating factor is the spat between him and his supporters on one side, and the powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226 on the other.
The union — described by Robbins, the consultant, as “an incredibly powerful force…one of the most powerful organizations in the state of Nevada” — took the unusual step of issuing a flier last week that singled out for criticism Sanders’s “Medicare For All” health care proposal.
The union’s objection was that the Sanders plan would eliminate the health coverage the union had negotiated over decades.
But there was a silver lining for the Vermont senator: many observers had seen the flier as presaging a union endorsement of another candidate. But the union announced on Thursday that it would not endorse anyone before the caucuses.
As befits a clash in Las Vegas, the candidates who take the stage on Wednesday night will be playing for the highest stakes.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s presidency.
–This report was updated at 6:14 a.m.