Everyone knows former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president, right?
But Nevada Democrats — whether out of a sense of caucus pride or a legitimate belief that things are not yet set — are talking about a scenario in which the Silver State plays an even more critical role in deciding the Democratic contest than previously thought.
The setup goes like this: Clinton wins Iowa on Feb. 1, but Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders takes his next-door neighbor state of New Hampshire on Feb. 9. And that leaves Nevada to break the first tie of the presidential contest when caucuses are called to order Feb. 20.
Clearly, both candidates see this as a possible outcome, and both have been organizing assiduously since last year in the Silver State to prepare for it. Clinton may have the advantage when it comes to time on the ground in Nevada, the number of offices and the number of staffers in the state, but Sanders is refusing to surrender. He acknowledged the tiebreaking scenario at the tail end of an interview on Thursday, and said he remained generally positive about his chances in Nevada.
Among his reasons for optimism? The large number of people who have turned out for his rallies at both ends of the state.
But it’s turnout on caucus day that ultimately matters, a fact that both campaigns understand clearly. A win in Nevada builds momentum that can reverberate far beyond the Silver State. But the state’s Democratic Party wins, too: The more Democrats who turn out, register and lend their names, phone numbers and email addresses to mailing lists, the easier it will be for the party to organize its supporters to rally for whoever ultimately becomes the nominee. In fact, in addition to selecting delegates to future conventions, growing the party is the entire point of the caucus system.
For Sanders, the caucuses represent a singular opportunity to capitalize on a campaign goal of getting more disaffected people energized and involved. Democrats only win when turnout is high, especially among minorities, young people and women.
Clinton’s supporters understand that, too, and believe just as strongly that — despite Sanders’ thundering rhetoric and cheering throngs — their candidate is the most likely to appeal to all demographic groups when it comes to driving voters to caucuses, and, ultimately, to the polls.
Now, if the caucuses were decided on volume alone, Sanders’ raucous, horn-blowing supporters would have won the Nevada contest outright on Wednesday, during a Democratic dinner designed to promote getting voters to the caucuses.
Each of the presidential candidates at that Wednesday dinner (former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley also spoke) made a point to single out organizer Harry Reid, Nevada’s retiring senior senator and the man who put Nevada much higher on the list of president-picking states. Reid said at a news conference on Monday that he worked hard to get his home state moved up on the calendar because its diversity was more representative of the United States as a whole than either Iowa or New Hampshire. (And plenty of people in Nevada — from political scientists to engaged voters to television stations — owe Reid a hefty debt of gratitude for doing so.) But as the close results of the 2008 caucus showed, Nevada’s Democrats are ideologically diverse as well. And that fact gives Sanders’ campaign reason for optimism.
There’s been some loose talk of Nevada falling further back on the nomination calendar once Reid has left Washington and the state loses his weighty political clout. But that’s a worry for another day. For now, and at least one last time, Nevada will be at center stage at a critical juncture in the Democratic contest.
— Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of the show “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.