Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a campaign rally at University of Nevada February 18, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Alex Wong | Getty Images
LAS VEGAS — The third nominating contest of the Democratic presidential primary kicks off on Saturday with the Nevada caucuses.
Already, about 75,000 votes have been cast, according to state party officials. But no results have been released, and observers are following the first-in-the-West caucus closely to gauge which candidates are likely to have a path to the nomination ahead of Super Tuesday in early March.
The caucus comes just days after the Democratic debate here, where former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg came under fire from his rivals, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Bloomberg, who’s skipping the first four states, will not be on the ballot.
Ahead of caucus day, Sen. Bernie Sanders led in state polls of Nevada, followed by former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden, who are neck-and-neck, and then Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and the former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.
The caucus will begin at noon local time, or 3 p.m. ET.
Here are five things to watch as voting gets underway.
Nevada Democrats under scrutiny after Iowa debacle
The Nevada Democratic Party is doing everything it can to avoid the stunning tech failure that doomed the Iowa caucuses earlier this month and marred the results of the first nominating contest.
The party scrapped plans to use an app from the same vendor that the Iowa Democrats used. Instead, it has rolled out a “calculator tool” that officials say is easy to use. The party has also boosted training and contracted with a professional call center to handle results as they roll in.
Even with those added precautions, the party’s foray into early voting and predictions of high turnout could complicate tabulations. The national party chairman, Tom Perez, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that it’s not certain that Nevada will release its results on Saturday, though Democrats will aim to get results as as quickly as possible.
State party officials have said that they intend to release results Saturday.
Minority voters will finally have a say in the nomination
The first two states to have a say in the Democratic nomination were Iowa and New Hampshire — two states that are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white. Not so in Nevada, where Latino and black voters both form substantial portions of the electorate. Last cycle, Latino voters accounted for nearly one in five Democratic voters.
Early voting this year is expected to boost turnout among minority populations, too, particularly among those who work in the states’s hotel and casino industry and other sectors where making it out to a traditional caucus can be difficult.
The state will test candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who, to date, have struggled to win over voters of color. And it could provide a boon to Sanders, who has counted on young Latino voters to give him an edge in the race.
Biden aims for comeback with second place finish
The former vice president appeared to be coasting to the nomination until this month, when he plunged in the polls following disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Biden’s campaign has said it is aiming for a second place finish in order to get back on track.
“First would be wonderful, but us getting a second place I think does the work that we need to do to win South Carolina,” campaign manager Greg Schultz said on Feb. 14, according to The New York Times.
Other candidates are also hoping that a surprising finish in Nevada could bolster their bids. Perhaps more than the others, Warren is aiming to revitalize her campaign after Sanders’s ascendance threatened to lock her out of the party’s progressive base.
“All I can say is we are just getting started,” Warren said at a raucous campaign event in Las Vegas on Thursday.
Early voting points to exceptionally high turnout
One big uncertainty looms ahead of caucusing: What will be the impact of the state’s four days of early voting?
Already, it appears that it is likely to boost turnout. The state party has said that about 75,000 individuals have already cast their ballots in Nevada, before regular voting has even begun. In comparison, about 84,000 Democrats caucused in 2016.
Generally speaking, the complicated nature of the caucus process skews the electorate toward older, whiter voters. Early voting is expected to make the electorate more reflective of the diversity of the state. Until results come in, though, no one really knows, because Nevada has not done this before.
Union voters could be key
Unions play a powerful role in Nevada politics, and the Democratic field has spent time and money aiming to win over their members.
Notably, the Culinary Union, the most influential union in the state, declined to make an endorsement this year. But that decision came after the union’s leaders publicly sparred with Sanders over his “Medicare for All” proposal, which they said will “end” their health care. The union represents 60,000 workers in Reno and Las Vegas.
Sanders did win the support of another politically important union, which represents teachers. The Clark County Education Association, which represents about 19,000 local educators and is the largest independent teaching union in the United States, said last month that it would back Sanders because of his platform for public education.
Unions play an important role messaging to their members and also driving turnout. Election experts will be watching how union members vote in Nevada closely as they look to see how other heavily unionized electorates will swing in later states.