Caucuses underway in Nevada as Democratic candidates face most diverse electorate so far

CNN’s David Chalian discusses when Nevada caucusgoers made up their mind on Democratic presidential candidates picks, based on CNN entrance polling.

Doors closed Saturday for Democrats to caucus in Nevada, with party officials hoping to avert an Iowa-style disaster and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders looking to prove his general election mettle with a strong showing in the most diverse state in Democrats’ nominating contest thus far.

While polling is notoriously difficult in Nevada, Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden have jockeyed for the lead in the Silver State, with Sanders rising after his team built deep organizing roots in the state — particularly within the Latino community — some eight months ago. An entrance poll Saturday showed Sanders with an early lead in the initial preference of caucusgoers.

Sanders projected the confidence of a frontrunner Friday by steering his campaign toward the upcoming Super Tuesday contests of California and Texas, holding a midday rally in Santa Ana, California, Friday — with a last stop in Las Vegas Friday night — before a full slate of events in Texas Saturday.

In his final rally Friday night, Sanders said he was hoping for “the largest voter turnout in the history of the Nevada caucus.”

“Here in Nevada, we’ve had volunteers knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors. I just came back from California two hours ago, they’re close to a million doors that they have knocked on,” Sanders said. “And we’re knocking on doors in Texas and in Massachusetts and all across this country.”

Early entrance polls in Nevada showed Sanders winning Latino voters by 54%, some 40 percentage points ahead of the next candidate, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Sanders also won among white voters in the polls; Biden led among black voters in those early snapshots of the electorate.

Some wondered whether Sanders would face headwinds among the considerable number of union members in Nevada after tensions flared between the powerful Culinary Union — which represents 66,000 hotel and casino workers — and Sanders supporters, because of the Culinary Union’s opposition to Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan. The union decided not to endorse a candidate.

The Culinary Union posted flyers throughout Las Vegas underscoring that Sanders’ plan would force them to give up the excellent health care benefits they fought for. That led to a backlash among some Sanders supporters online, who criticized leaders of the Culinary Union. But thus far that disagreement over Medicare for All does not seem to be hurting Sanders.

Among Nevada voters, the overriding concern was supporting a candidate who could beat President Donald Trump. But on the issues, health care was the top concern and 63% of voters said they supported a government-run plan like the one Sanders has proposed.

Of the 43% of voters who said health care was their top issue, early entrance polls showed that 39% of those voters favored Sanders.

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Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigned hard this week in Nevada, seeking a last-minute surge after she led the charge against former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Wednesday night’s Las Vegas debate. (Bloomberg is not competing in the state).

She touted her debate performance at her Friday night rally as a final pitch to voters that she would be the toughest candidate against Trump.

“If anyone doubts whether or not I can fight (Trump) on a debate stage I think we have the video from Wednesday, I’m ready for that man,” Warren said. “You all live in Las Vegas, this is the place you put down the betting line, I’m just offering you this: I think there’s a 50/50 chance that Donald Trump looks at debating me and doesn’t even show up. He ain’t that brave,” she said.

Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar are hoping the momentum they’ve built over the first two contests will continue in Nevada. And businessman Tom Steyer has spent a cool $14.8 million in the Silver State — far outpacing Sanders, who was a distant second in spending at nearly $2 million.

“Oh, we’ll be viable no matter what. We’re already running ads in Super Tuesday states,” Klobuchar said Saturday speaking to reporters at her caucus kickoff event inside her Las Vegas office. “We’re headed to South Carolina for the debate and there we go.”

Biden, who delivered disappointing finishes in the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, told CNN in an interview on Friday that he would consider a first or second place finish in Nevada to be a win.

“Who knows how the caucuses are going to go in terms of mechanics of the caucus,” Biden said Friday. “It’s hard to do and so a lot is going to depend on how much control (there) is over the caucus and whether or not the ballots get to the right places.”

Uncertainty about the caucus process has cast a shadow over the candidates themselves this week. Democrats in the Silver State showed their enthusiasm in early voting when nearly 75,000 people participated over four days, nearing the 2016 Caucus Day turnout of 84,000 (when there was no early vote). And the party estimated that more than 50% of the early vote participants were first-time caucusgoers.

But national party leaders are striving to avoid the kind of caucus counting disaster that befell Iowa.

In the lead up to voting, the Nevada State Democratic Party offered “round the clock” caucus trainings to show volunteers how to work the special caucus calculator that precinct chairs will use to enter results. The Democratic National Committee also sent in a team of aides this week to avoid the embarrassment that unfolded in the Hawkeye State.

State party officials are asking caucus site leaders to sign non-disclosure agreements that would bar them from speaking to the media. A state party official told CNN that the request was standard and said staff and volunteers were asked to sign the agreements because they would have access to strategic information.

After abandoning plans to use the same faulty app that was used in Iowa, the Nevada Democratic Party has also worked hard to create low-tech reporting systems to transmit results.

“No Iowa repeat,” Jon Summers, a senior adviser to the Democratic Party, said during an interview with CNN Friday. “The party has been working around the clock to make sure they get everything right, to build in redundancies in the system. They’ve gone from what was going to be a very, very high-tech operation for the caucuses to one that’s very low tech now — that’s paper-based and based on phones.”

“They’re going to have phone lines manned by about 200 people who will be accepting calls from the precincts when it’s time for them to report the results,” said Summers, the former communications director to then-Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But some volunteers involved in the caucus process have expressed frustration about the party’s trainings and angst about Saturday’s proceedings, including whether there will be enough translators at each site to handle the possible influx of non-English speakers.

Chris Erbe, who will be a precinct chair Saturday, described the final day of training to CNN Friday as a “complete waste of time.”

“The training on the iPads was awful. Tiny little screenshots projected way too small to read,” Erbe told CNN. “No accompanying handouts so you could actually see what was being projected and no hands-on time with the iPads.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Saturday.