Seven key questions as Democrats gather for the Nevada caucuses

WASHINGTON, DC—The Democratic Party will take the next step toward choosing an opponent for President Donald Trump Saturday night when voters in Nevada head to caucuses there. It’s round three — out of 57 total — in the presidential nomination process, with the state famous for gambling and deserts representing the largest and most ethnically diverse place yet to vote.

The traditional influence of Nevada’s caucuses has been somewhat overshadowed in the lead-up to voting by the buzz (both positive and negative) around candidate Michael Bloomberg, who is not on the ballot in Nevada, by the controversies around caucus processes after the fiasco of the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, and by the impending larger stakes of the South Carolina primary to be held in just one week and the massive multi-state Super Tuesday primaries three days after that.

Here are some questions voters in the U.S. will be hoping to find answers to when the votes are counted.

With his energetic and committed base of supporters — the most powerful fundraising machine in Democratic politics outside of Bloomberg’s ATM card — his strong showings this month in Iowa and New Hampshire, and his high polling numbers nationally, mean the Vermont senator who promises a political revolution of “democratic socialism” has become the candidate to beat.

Sanders appears strong in Nevada, though the powerful Culinary Workers union there has publicly opposed him saying his universal health insurance plan will replace the excellent coverage they have negotiated for their members. Because Nevada has a large Latino population, a convincing win here would show Sanders’ appeal crosses ethnic lines, and would cement him as the presumed favourite to win.

The margin of victory could be important though — Sanders has so far appeared to have support that caps out at between a quarter and a third of Democrats. If he is unable to run up larger margins, it could set up a bitter anybody-but-sanders second-ballot fight at the convention this summer.

By most viewers’ scorecards, the Massachusetts senator with a plan for everything ran away with the televised debate on Thursday night, skewering Bloomberg and contrasting herself well against the other candidates.

The good news for her is that it was the most-watched Democratic primary debate of all time, and her campaign reports setting fundraising records in the hours after it aired. But Nevada allows voters to caucus in advance, and by the time the debate aired around 75,000 people had already cast their votes (the total turnout in 2016 was 84,000).

So any debate bump may not be visible in Saturday’s results.

The equally strong consensus to Thursday’s debate is that the New York billionaire and former mayor got crushed. But he isn’t on the ballot in Nevada, nor in South Carolina a week later, so any impact won’t be evident until Super Tuesday.

For most of the lead-up to primary season, former Vice-President Joe Biden was a forbidding favourite, seen as the “electable” candidate. But then in the two actual elections so far, he placed fourth and fifth. After New Hampshire, he essentially blamed the 90-per-cent white electorate in the two early states, and said when Latino and Black voters, who form a huge portion of the party’s base, got to weigh in, he’d be back on top. His campaign has been banking more on South Carolina as his firewall, but Nevada will be the early test of his multicultural-appeal-hypothesis.

The 38-year-old mayor of tiny South Bend, Indiana put a lot of energy into Iowa and New Hampshire, and it paid off. He actually holds a slight delegate lead over Sanders coming out of those two contests. But his national numbers in polls have always been very low, partly because most of his strength has been among older, white voters. If he wants to remain among the leading candidates, demonstrating support in larger, more diverse places like Nevada and South Carolina might be key to showing he can attract a winning coalition.

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The Minnesota senator had an encouraging third-place finish in New Hampshire at a time when it seemed she might disappear from the race. Klobuchar will be looking to show it wasn’t a one-time blip, and to build on it, if her campaign is going to last.

Former hedge-fund guy Tom Steyer, who prioritizes climate change above all, was a nonfactor in Iowa and New Hampshire, despite appearing regularly in debates and spending $200 million on ads so far. But he’s laid out a lot of that cash in Nevada and has seen some encouraging poll results there. The results will likely show if he has gained any traction in the contest at all.