LAS VEGAS — Sin City is a most poetic setting to observe the Democratic Party’s ongoing struggle to nominate a challenger for President Donald J. Trump, the Las Vegas of human beings, whose name looms over the lustrous strip like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.
In a city which boasts an economy fueled by bored rich people setting their money on fire, it’s only fitting that nearly all the premium advertising—digital billboards and television spots—is promoting billionaire candidates Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. The latter isn’t even on the ballot in Nevada.
And yet, in this most capitalist of venues, a socialist (Bernie Sanders) is almost certain to claim victory, an outcome that would solidify his status as the safest bet to win the nomination of a party to which he doesn’t belong and doesn’t seem to like very much. “We’re taking on Donald Trump and the Republican establishment, and we are taking on the Democratic establishment,” he told a crowd of thousands at a rally in Las Vegas on Friday. “You may have noticed, the establishment is getting a little nervous.”
Many Sanders supporters, and perhaps even Sanders himself, saw “establishment” fingerprints all over a Washington Post report about U.S. intelligence officials briefing the Sanders campaign on Russian efforts to boost his candidacy. Sanders appeared visibly annoyed at a brief press conference to address the story. Asked why news of the briefing, which took place a month ago, was just now being reported, Sanders snapped back: “I’ll let you guess. One day before the Nevada caucus. Why do you think it came out?”
A Sanders win in Nevada is about the only certainty that remains in a Democratic primary that could dramatically reshape the party the way Trump’s victory in 2016 remade the GOP. Having already won in Iowa and New Hampshire, the self-identified socialist holds a 13-point lead among likely caucus-goers in Nevada, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.
Second and third place are up for grabs, with five candidates polling within several points of one another. The results could make or break the campaigns of several candidates fighting to remain in the field. Former vice president Joe Biden is trying to avoid a third straight finish outside the top three. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) is hoping to stay relevant and capitalize on her strong performance at Wednesday’s debate, in which she led the assault on a woefully unprepared Bloomberg.
Peter Paul Montgomery Buttigieg, 38, would like to show his stable of wealthy donors that he has what it takes to perform well in a state with a significant percentage of minority voters, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) will probably need a strong showing in Nevada in order to survive until Super Tuesday on March 3. Tom Steyer is just trying to make friends.
It’s all riding, of course, on the state party’s ability to report a reliable result, avoiding a repeat of the Iowa caucus disaster. Nevada is also a caucus state, where citizens cast their votes not by marking a ballot like normal people, but by running around high school gyms in a Red Rover-esque free-for-all. Caucus volunteers are scrambling to prepare Saturday’s contest amid a number of last-minute changes, such as scrapping the now-infamous vote-reporting app that muddled the results in Iowa.
Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez would not even commit to releasing the results on Saturday, stressing the party’s commitment to “accuracy.” This is the first year Nevada has allowed for early voting in a presidential caucus, meaning an estimated 75,000 ballots have already been cast—using a ranked-choice format—and will have to be incorporated into the caucus process. Democratic officials are being extra cautious amid the increased scrutiny, reportedly asking caucus site leaders to sign nondisclosure agreements to prevent them from speaking to the media.
Another caucus debacle would be humiliating for the Democratic Party but, more importantly, it would exacerbate the rift between party establishment and the candidate who is expected to emerge victorious. If party leaders are in fact trying to prevent Sanders from winning the nomination, they are failing spectacularly. The inability of any one candidate to emerge as the anti-Bernie alternative has fractured the vote, while Sanders continues to rise in the polls.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s approval rating is at an all-time high.