Nevada caucus: Minority support, the union vote and the ‘X-factor’ — Here’s what to watch

The Nevada caucus on Saturday will help Democratic candidates earn delegates, maintain momentum, as well as act as a litmus test for where the candidates stand in the wake of the murky Iowa caucus and the hard-fought New Hampshire primary. 

For those caucusing this weekend, The Nevada Secretary of State is offering online voter registration at www.registertovotenv.gov.

Here’s a guide on what to look out for at the third major voting event of the 2020 presidential election.

Minority support 

Nevada will begin to answer the question of which candidates are the most popular among minorities. This is arguably the most significant unknown in the 2020 contest. 

Joe Biden’s shockingly bad finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire forced voters and pundits to question the underlying assumption about the former vice president’s popularity with voters of color. 

Like others casting their ballots in the Democratic primary, minority voters have frequently indicated they wish to support a candidate who can defeat President Donald Trump in the general election. So far, Biden hasn’t exactly inspired confidence in that respect. 

Biden wants black voters to see the 2020 presidential election as an opportunity for progress and change, similar to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. 

The former vice president spoke Sunday to worshipers at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Las Vegas. He reminded older parishioners of television footage of black protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, being attacked by police dogs and sprayed with fire hoses on the orders of city official Bull Connor.

Biden said today's racists are not "Bull Connors, not out in overalls. They're wearing fine suits, and they're living in the White House.“

Biden said voters can stand up and "take back this country in a way that just like we did back in the ‘50s and ’60s, and this time we can make more progress." He cited the need for progress on health care and gun laws.

Biden will depend heavily on black, Latino and other nonwhite voters in Saturday's Nevada caucuses and the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary after faring poorly in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 15: Poll workers check voters in during early voting in the Nevada Caucus at Chinatown Plaza Mall February 15, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The first time in the history, Nevadans have the option to vote early in the Democr

On paper, Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar have the most ground to cover as far as minority voters are concerned. 

Buttigieg is wooing voters of color as he looks to show he can repeat his strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire in states that more closely mirror the country’s diversity.

Buttigieg told a largely African American audience at a luncheon for the Nevada Legislative Black Caucus on Sunday that he worked with black leaders of South Bend, Indiana, to deliver affordable housing and improve the black unemployment rate.

The former mayor has faced criticism for the racial disparity in marijuana arrests in South Bend and decisions that led him to have no African American leaders in his administration during a crucial stretch of his tenure. More than a quarter of South Bend residents are black.

Asked at a rally earlier Sunday to name a mistake he’d made in office, Buttigieg said he failed to recognize the pain that his decisions caused, particularly for communities of color. 

The 38-year-old faces lingering questions about his experience and his ability to win support from black and Latino voters — a challenge that could come into greater focus if Buttigieg loses badly in Nevada and South Carolina.

Klobuchar, meanwhile, is newly emboldened after a third-place finish in New Hampshire, but she too has little support among minority voters and has largely run a bare-bones campaign operation.

Meanwhile, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is looking to Latinos to prove that he, not Biden, is best positioned to assemble a winning coalition.

Biden’s hopes for a comeback 

Biden has picked up another endorsement from a top Nevada politician, with Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall announcing that she will back the former vice president’s White House bid.

Marshall joins two of the state’s four U.S. House members, Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford, in backing Biden.
Marshall plans to campaign with Biden on Monday in Reno. Biden spent the weekend campaigning alongside Titus and Horsford in and around Las Vegas ahead of Saturday's caucuses.

Nevada is key to Biden’s hopes for a comeback after he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. Nevada also is the first contest where organized labor and nonwhite voters hold significant sway, both counted by Biden as constituencies.

Marshall cited Biden’s experience and temperament in explaining her decision. She said that he will “put people over party, build consensus, and get big things done.”

Warren “persists”

Massachusetts Sen Elizabeth Warren was battling a cold as she tried to rally her supporters before the Nevada caucuses.
Warren was barely audible before a crowd in Reno, saying the bad news was she had finally caught a cold after posing for more than 100,000 pictures with supporters. The good news, she said, is she would “persist,” which appeared to be a nod to her “nevertheless, she persisted” remark on women empowerment.  

In a hoarse, cracking voice, Warren gave a truncated version of her standard stump speech. 

Her weary tone injected poignancy into her reminiscences about being a young working mother on the verge of quitting her job for lack of child care before she was saved by an aunt relocating from Oklahoma to help.

“I think of how close I got to getting knocked off the track,” Warren said. 

Today, she lamented, women have an even harder time finding affordable child care.

Establishment Democrats vs. Sanders

Sanders is looking to Saturday's Nevada caucuses to post another win that would further his status as an early front-runner.

Critics of Sanders, who has long identified as a democratic socialist, are further than they’ve ever been from unifying behind a moderate alternative. 

But none of the viable centrists in the race seem capable of matching Sanders' level of popularity.

With fear and frustration rising in the party's establishment wing, a high-stakes math problem is emerging.

It could be impossible to blunt Sanders as long as a trio of moderate candidates — Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar — stay in the race.

With former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the swath of states that vote on Super Tuesday, March 3, the effort to stop Sanders will become even more challenging when the campaign goes national next month.

“You see this tremendous angst in the party — ‘What are we going to do?’" said Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor who was also chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "We need to unify as fast as we can.”

The dynamic is complicated because each of the major moderate candidates has glaring vulnerabilities.

“When you have three or four candidates in that same lane, math becomes a problem,” said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Firefighters and a Biden loyalist, who admits being “disappointed” by Biden's bad performances and Sanders' rise.

Though the opening contests of the primary have only begun, time may quickly run out for a moderate alternative to emerge.

Sanders was showing new signs of confidence as he campaigned over the weekend in Nevada ahead of the state's caucuses. Rallying supporters in Carson City on Sunday, he declared he could win Nevada, then California and the Democratic nomination and highlighted attempts from his rivals in both parties to stop him.

Buttigieg has proved to be the most effective centrist in raising money from the party's traditional high-dollar donors, which puts him in a strong position to compete in an expensive national contest. 

Klobuchar shrugged off any concerns about moderates dividing the vote. Instead, she highlighted her strengths in Nevada, where she and Biden earned the endorsement of the state's largest newspaper and may benefit from the success of female candidates. Both of the state's U.S. senators are women and the state legislature is majority female.

The Minnesota senator's billing the fundraising support as momentum that will allow her to be competitive on the airwaves heading into the Nevada caucus and Super Tuesday contests in early March.

Bloomberg, an X-factor 

Bloomberg has risen in the polls and become one of Washington's favorite candidates largely on the strength of his saturation-level TV ads, resume and bank account. 

He is the untested newcomer, so look for his rivals to go after him early and often. 

New allegations of profane and sexist comments surfaced against Bloomberg, according to a Washington Post report. The cases against him do not involve accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct. Instead, the allegations centered around what Bloomberg has said and the workplace culture he fostered, the paper reported. 

An employee also sued his company Bloomberg LP in 1996, alleging that her supervisor raped her, the report said. Even before these allegations came to light, the 78-year-old billionaire former Republican had a lot to prove.

So far, at least seven congressional endorsements have gone to Bloomberg, a former Republican who could become a top-tier candidate even after skipping all four February primary contests.

With the Nevada caucuses less than a week away, Democratic presidential candidates campaigning were fixated on a rival who wasn't contesting the state.

Sanders, Biden, Klobuchar, Warren and Buttigieg all went after billionaire Bloomberg and made clear they were eager to take him on in a debate.

“He thinks he can buy this election,” Sanders told a Carson City rally Sunday. “Well, I’ve got news for Mr. Bloomberg — the American people are sick and tired of billionaires buying elections!”

Bloomberg hit back Monday with a video mashup posted to Twitter of aggressive and threatening comments made by people who appear to be Sanders supporters, juxtaposed with Sanders calling for “civil discourse.”

“We need to unite to defeat Trump in November," the former New York mayor tweeted. “This type of ‘energy’ is not going to get us there.”

Their attacks are a sign of how seriously the field is starting to take Bloomberg as he gains in the race. 

Bloomberg has bypassed the traditional early voting states including Nevada, focusing instead on the 14 states that vote in the Super Tuesday primary on March 3. 

He has spent more than $417 million of his own multibillion-dollar fortune on advertising nationwide, an unprecedented sum for any candidate in a primary.

Nevada’s Culinary Union stays out of caucus

The Culinary Union, the most influential union in Nevada politics, decided to stay out of the state's Democratic presidential caucuses, denying candidates who aggressively courted the group from getting a major leg up in the upcoming contest.

The casino workers’ Culinary Union, a 60,000-member group made up of housekeepers, porters, bartenders and more who keep Las Vegas’ glitzy casinos humming, said it will instead use its organizing power to get out the vote for the caucuses.

The move appeared to be a blow to Biden, who is looking to shore up his support in Nevada's Feb. 22 caucuses after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

But the union's decision wasn't unexpected: The union’s parent organization, Unite Here, announced last month that it would stay out of the primary, and the Nevada members were expected to follow suit. Biden's campaign told donors on a call Wednesday that it wasn't counting on the Culinary Union's support.

“We've known Vice President Biden for many years. We know he's been our friend," Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, said at a Thursday afternoon news conference. “We know all of these candidates and we respect each one of them.“

Biden has long-standing ties to labor and the Culinary Union, in particular. He was introduced at a December town hall with the Culinary Union as the keynote speaker at the 1974 convention of the union's parent organization. In 2018, he headlined a get-out-the-vote rally for Democratic candidates at the union's hall.

But he has at least secured the endorsement of the Culinary Union's former political director, state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, who is now serving as a senior adviser to his campaign.

The Culinary Union, which is majority female and Latino, is a political powerhouse that can turn on a get-out-the-vote machine that’s been credited with helping deliver Democratic victories in the swing state. White House hopefuls had worked over the past year to win over the union, holding meetings with the labor group’s leaders, issuing public statements in support of their organizing battles with casino resorts, touring the union's health clinic and training facility, and appearing at town halls.

After the union’s 2008 decision to back Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton caused division among the union’s ranks, the union decided to stay neutral during the contentious 2016 Democratic primary between Clinton and Sanders.

With the 2020 primary field still crowded as it barrels toward Nevada, the Culinary Union can likewise avoid stepping into a contest that could split its members. Many unions nationally have made a similar calculation this year, deciding to stay on the sidelines of a volatile field without an unambiguous front-runner.

"They could have actually pushed an election," Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist and former political director of the AFL-CIO, said of Culinary. “Even if some of the big unions endorsed, it wouldn't have much of an impact on the race.”

Another caucus meltdown? 

After a drama-free primary election in New Hampshire, we're back to another quirky caucus system in Nevada run by a state political party. 

Tensions are understandably high given the caucus disaster in Iowa.

The Nevada State Democratic Party abandoned its plans to use an app like the one that caused trouble in Iowa and has scrambled to come up with a new system to tabulate results. 

But party officials insist they're confident about the changes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.