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Why Bernie Sanders is right where he needs to be heading into Nevada

With New Hampshire in the rearview mirror, all eyes in the 2020 race turn to Nevada and its caucuses on February 22. So, what’s going to happen? And how much does what happened in Iowa and New Hampshire matter to the state of play in Nevada?

I put those questions to the unquestioned king of political reporting in the Silver State: Jon Ralston. Ralston is the editor of the Nevada Independent, an independent news organization covering the state.

Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Give me the state of play in Nevada as the political world turns to it today.

Ralston: There has been no recent polling, but I don’t think it would be relevant anyhow. Most smart people I talk to believe Bernie Sanders is the favorite here, and I think so, too. He almost beat Hillary here in 2016, a core of his followers are Make Bernie Great Again and will go nowhere, and this time he has adults running his effort, not the ragtag crew of four years ago. He also has polled well with Latinos, which is important here.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is not to be underestimated, though. He has a big and smart team here, and the entire premise of his Nevada organization has been to take advantage here if he did well in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has been in single-digits in polls, but it’s all about field now for the caucus and he has it.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a good team here, too, but she has almost dropped out of the conversation, fair or not. And this is make-or-break for former Vice President Joe Biden. His organization is not as robust as some, but he has people who know what they are doing on board. But even his team seems to be talking more about South Carolina than Nevada. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has not had much of a presence here, but just ramped up her TV buy. And the wild card — businessman Tom Steyer — is on TV more often than ads for the best slot payoffs.

Cillizza: How much (or little) does what happened in Iowa and New Hampshire impact the next 10 days before Nevada votes?

Ralston: It always does. In 2016, Sanders’ momentum from New Hampshire almost erased a 25-point Hillary Clinton lead. Things don’t happen in a vacuum. The four early states are not so much about delegates as about gathering — or losing — momentum. Buttigieg and Sanders have it, and both are poised here to turbocharge their Nevada efforts because of it. What happens in Iowa and New Hampshire does not stay there.

Cillizza: The Iowa caucuses were a total debacle. Why did Nevada decide on a caucus and what are the chances we see some sort of Iowa repeat?

Ralston: I am praying, crossing my fingers and rubbing my rabbit’s foot as I answer this one.

We have been a caucus under the conditions upon which Harry Reid got us early state status for 2008. I have always thought Reid wanted a caucus, which the Democrats here love as an organizing tool (same-day registration), to help his own re-election in 2010. There have been efforts to go to a primary, but they have failed, and one of them was killed by none other than … Harry Reid.

So here we are: The Iowa debacle really hurt the state party here because they used the same vendor and perceptions are becoming imbued about caucuses and their attendant entropy. The state party here is among if not the best in the country. They have destroyed the Republicans the last two cycles, and nearly every important office in the state is held by Democrats. Rebecca Lambe, the quiet overseer, is a nonpareil talent, and she has brought in a slew of talented, young operatives. So they are trying to make the best of a bad situation and have discarded the Iowa-like app and gone to paper ballots, as we have reported.

But their messaging (trickling out of information, confusion over a “tool” vs. an app) has not been great, and combined with efforts by Republicans and some campaigns to tar the process, they have to be worried. Add in the new element of early voting, and questions about how those votes will be counted in a caucus, and that just adds to the pressure. In 2008, Hillary Clinton had a front group sue because she was worried about the outcome (she eventually won). I am sure some campaigns who don’t expect to do well will raise doubts and who knows if legal action may ensue. Something is going to go wrong — it’s a caucus and hundreds of volunteers are involved. The only question is if if is minor or major.

Cillizza: Is there any major shoe still to drop in the race? A Harry Reid endorsement?

Ralston: I don’t think Reid will endorse. I think he’s probably breathing a sigh of relief because if he had endorsed by now, it would have been Biden. It’s 50-50 the Culinary [Workers Union] endorses. They went for Barack Obama in 2008 and he lost the caucus (although got more delegates). They stayed on the sidelines in 2016, although there were some reports Reid called and they helped save Clinton. I think it’s unlikely they will endorse Biden because he is perceived to be tanking, so the real question becomes whether they might endorse Buttigieg. My guess is no, but we have 10 days, which is the proverbial eternity. And union endorsements often don’t sway all of the rank and file. I’d guess they stay out, especially because they don’t want to endorse someone who will lose. But their actions — two fliers to members — show they are intent on trying to defeat Sanders. But it may be too late.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The dark horse candidate in Nevada is ___________.” Now explain.

Ralston: I’d say Elizabeth Warren. I might have said Klobuchar, but I just don’t see her with the organizational strength. Or Steyer because everyone in Nevada knows him now with his millions spent here. But if Warren can save her campaign, it’s because she still has a strong organization here and is a strong performer on the trail. So I’d say Warren, but if any of the three I mentioned do well, I will take credit. That’s what pundits do.

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