WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Bernie Sanders will try to cement his front-runner status on Saturday (Feb 22) as Nevada's diverse electorate weighs in on the 2020 Democratic presidential field, but the day could deal a harsh blow to several other candidates limping toward Super Tuesday.
Mr Sanders holds a double-digit lead in the RealClearPolitics average of polls ahead of the vote, with Mr Joe Biden, Mr Pete Buttigieg and Ms Elizabeth Warren all bunched up fighting for a distant second.
Mr Buttigieg is the only other Democrat who has won an early contest, with a razor-thin victory in Iowa. Mr Biden and Ms Warren have finished far back in the pack in the first two votes, and anything less than second place would make it hard for them to springboard into the 14 races on March 3.
Ms Warren hopes her strong debate performance this week in Las Vegas, by far her best of the campaign, will make some voters give her a second look. Her main target that night, Mr Michael Bloomberg, whose unprecedented spending has made him a wild card in the 2020 primaries, is not contesting Nevada.
Nevada's caucus comes on the heels of the Iowa caucus debacle and while party officials have taken pains to avoid a repeat, they cannot promise timely results.
Mr Sanders' team hailed its organisation before the vote, announcing that they had "knocked on more than 500,000 doors spanning all 17 Nevada counties".
"Our goal from day one has been to expand the electorate, and we are so proud to see so many first time caucus goers participate during early voting," Mr Sanders' Nevada State Director Sarah Michelsen said in a statement.
This year, Nevada allowed for early voting in which people could rank their top three candidates, with the option of ranking up to five. About 77,000 Nevadans filled out ballots early, which suggests the state can expect a very high turnout on Saturday. The number of early voters was almost as many as the total who caucused in 2016, when 84,000 people came out support a candidate. And the majority of early voters were caucusing for the first time.
At stake are 36 pledged delegates to the national convention of the 1,991 needed to secure the party's nomination. More important than delegates, each win gives candidates momentum going into later contests, including Super Tuesday on March 3.
But it is no sure bet that Mr Sanders will win.
Mr Chris Miller, the former chairman of the Clark County Democratic Party who is backing Mr Buttigieg, said it's still anyone's game.
"Honest to God I think it's a toss-up," Mr Miller said. "Bernie has an advantage but I think Biden will do well here. If he doesn't, he's done."
Referring to the early voting, he added, "The turnout numbers were huge, no one expected it to be that high, no one knows what's going to happen."
One challenge for Mr Sanders is his complicated relationship with organised labour in Nevada, where unions are particularly influential. The Culinary Workers Union, the state's largest with 60,000 members, released a flier denouncing Medicare for All plans like the one advocated by Sanders. However, the union declined to endorse a candidate, which was seen as a blow to Mr Biden, who its leadership called a "friend".
Ms Warren has seen a surge in fundraising after a spirited showing at Wednesday's debate, during and after which she raised US$2.8 million (S$3.9 million), according to her campaign. Whether that money translates into votes remains to be seen. And the four day early voting period wrapped up before the debate.
One thing Saturday's vote will not settle is where Mr Bloomberg - and his hundreds of millions of dollars - will land in the Democratic race. He is not on the ballot in Nevada, although he appeared in the most recent debate there by getting more than 10 per cent in four national polls.
The former New York mayor has already dropped more than US$468 million on advertising around the country and despite a widely-panned debate performance, will be a factor in the race once he appears on ballots starting on Super Tuesday, March 3.
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.) Bloomberg is fighting for the mantle of centrist candidate who can defeat President Donald Trump, but he has a lot of competition for the role. That divided pool of moderate candidates might ultimately help Mr Sanders.
The other candidates spent the hours before the caucus highlighting issues important to Nevada voters.
Mr Buttigieg rolled out a public lands policy plan that calls for setting a national goal of protecting and restoring at least 30 per cent of US lands and oceans by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions from public lands by 2030.
"I don't have to tell Nevada how much is at stake," Mr Buttigieg said as he talked with environmental activists and Native American leaders about his plan.
Ms Amy Klobuchar, who came in third in the New Hampshire primary, underscored her moderate proposals and record of winning over rural and red districts as the pathway to beating Mr Trump. Ms Warren pitched herself as a fighter for working class families.
Mr Biden repeated his promise that the tide would turn as voting moved from Iowa and New Hampshire, two predominantly white states, to more diverse ones like Nevada and South Carolina, which votes next Saturday. And he stressed his longstanding ties to organised labour.
"This campaign is really just getting started. We're finally at a place where there are folks that represent the country, look like the country," he said on Friday during a stop at a Las Vegas union hall. "They're good folks in Iowa and New Hampshire but this looks like America."
In the city that in 2017 suffered the largest-ever mass shooting by a single gunman in US history, he also emphasised his long record of pressing for tougher gun laws. On Thursday, he was joined by Nevadans who lost loved ones to gun violence as he promise to take steps to eliminate gunmakers' liability shield - something that Mr Sanders voted 15 years ago to enact - beginning on the first day of his presidency.
IOWA HAUNTS NEVADA
It is unclear whether there will even be a winner announced on Saturday night.
The Nevada Democratic Party has been rushing to prevent a repeat of this month's debacle at the Iowa caucuses, where confusion and phone app glitches led to a days-long delay in reporting results. The party is holding last-minute classes to train volunteers on its new calculator on party-owned Apple Inc. iPads. Results from early voting will already have been inputted.
The party has gone out of its way to insist that it will not be using an app like Iowa's, which was the original plan. To address concerns about user error, volunteers will also be expected to call the results into a phone hotline and input them on a paper record.
The last-minute training efforts worried some caucus volunteers.
"I would be the happiest person in the world if everything works, but I am nervous," said Mr Seth Morrison. "We have a new tool that is untested, then we have a very complex caucus process."