Monday, February 24, 2020

Leaving Las Vegas

A few random observations and some key takeaways after spending four days in Las Vegas covering the Nevada Caucus, from Wednesday's Democratic Debate through the caucuses themselves on Saturday...

(Caveat: I boldly predicted before the Iowa Caucus that Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee, so I see no reason for you to believe I have any idea what I'm talking about.)

It may surprise you to read that I'm not surprised by Bernie's momentum, since I said Biden would be the nominee. But we expected Sanders to win Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. All the polling data suggested he would. The surprises haven't been at the top; they've been just below, where Pete Buttigieg has outperformed and Biden has underperformed. I was taken aback by the size of Sanders' Nevada victory. He built a formidable operation, especially among the Latino community, and he got a lot of first-time voters to caucus for him. With 88% counted, Sanders has 47% of the vote, Biden's a distant second at 21%, and Buttigieg placed third with about 14%. Sanders won the Latino vote in a landslide, beating Biden 53-16% (according to our CBS News Elections and Survey Unit, which conducted entrance polling across Nevada), and he won handily among younger voters and independents. He even matched Biden among moderates: Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg essentially split the middle-of-the-road vote, getting between 21 and 23% each. If Sanders can replicate that coalition—young first-time voters, Latinos and moderates—he can win in an awful lot of places.

Joe Biden working a union BBQ in Las Vegas. He was literally kissing babies.

No, it isn't. Sanders is rolling now, with what would be unstoppable momentum for a Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Kerry or Al Gore. But he is not they (them are not he?). He is the most lefty potential nominee since George McGovern 48 years ago, and the moderate opposition remains fractured. As long as it is, Sanders will win the most states, and the most delegates. But will he amass a majority by June? And if he doesn't, will the rest band together to stop him on a second or third ballot at the convention? There is already mounting pressure on Biden, Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar to drop out. None of them will, not before Super Tuesday (March 3). If one of them, or Mike Bloomberg, can emerge as the Not Bernie and coalesce the center and center-right (inasmuch as there is one) of the Democratic Party around them, it's still possible that consensus mainstream candidate could overtake Sanders. But time, and delegates, will run out, soon.

I know the conventional wisdom is that President Trump would crush Crazy Bernie in November. I'm here to say it ain't necessarily so. Galvanized 20-somethings, Latinos, women, a nice slice of moderates and Anyone But Trump voters would add up to a very large number of people in November. In 2016, about 13 million Latinos voted, up from 11 million in 2012. It's not unreasonable to project at least 15 million will vote in 2020, even more if Sanders were to pick a Latino running mate. Voters under 29 were the only age group to increase their turnout in 2016. Imagine the surge in their number if Sanders were the nominee (confession: I still do not get the obsession 20-somethings have with a white-haired, 78-year-old Jewish man with a thick Brooklyn accent. They adore his policies, but he still strikes me as a most improbable vehicle for their hopes and dreams). Believe it or not, there are many Americans who voted for Obama, but then backed Trump in 2016, and that same "He's something new and different" impulse would move many of them to Sanders this time. We could have three straight presidents completely unlike any who preceded them. Our latest CBS News poll—completed before Sanders won Nevada—has him beating Trump head-to-head, 47-44%, the best showing of any of the Democratic candidates. So don't assume that nominating Sanders clinches a second term for Trump.

Elizabeth Warren came to her Las Vegas HQ to thank volunteers the morning after her debate triumph


That is, if you're Elizabeth Warren. I always vote on Election Day, because I want every last bit of information about the candidates before I cast my ballot. There are a lot of Nevadans—and Warren campaign staffers—who are kicking themselves right now, wishing Wednesday's debate had come a few days earlier, or that Nevada hadn't debuted early caucus voting this year. Warren crushed it in that debate, and it showed in her Caucus Day support. She lagged far behind in early voting, but fared much better on Saturday. She wound up in fourth place, with about ten percent, but if everyone had voted Saturday, she probably would have cracked the top three. She gets a chance to make another strong impression this Tuesday.

Covering Elizabeth Warren in Las Vegas, as seen on Showtime's "The Circus"

The San Francisco hedge fund billionaire outspent the field in Nevada, and he's doing so in South Carolina, too. A disproportionate number of my Lyft drivers in Las Vegas were women of color, and every single one of them told me they were voting for Steyer. He didn't do very well in Nevada, but he's poised to play spoiler in South Carolina. Our latest CBS News poll has him running a close third there, and in the last three months, he and Sanders have taken away half of Biden's support among African American South Carolinians. Steyer has invested a huge amount of time and money in the Palmetto State, much of it in black neighborhoods and media. He has just qualified for Tuesday's debate in South Carolina (you can hear it live on KCBS Radio). It's not likely he could actually win, but if he were not in the race, Biden would probably take the state easily, reviving his campaign. Because he is, Sanders has a real chance to win it instead, which would pretty much destroy Biden's hopes.

Pete Buttigieg woos union members at a Mexican restaurant Friday night in Vegas

There's no more colorful place to cover a campaign then Las Vegas. It sure beats the snows of New Hampshire and Iowa. At the Bellagio caucus site, among the voters I interviewed: a rescue scuba diver for Cirque du Soleil's "O" show, a floral designer for the hotel (she's a horticulturist who's a member of the Teamsters!), several housekeepers and maintenance workers, a blackjack dealer and a cocktail waitress, all of them in their corresponding work attire. Sadly, no showgirls with fuchsia ostrich feathers on their heads, although I have seen that at past Nevada caucuses. In the days between the debate and the caucus, I raced around town to cover Trump supporters attending a presidential rally, and candidate appearances all around Vegas. Bernie had the biggest turnouts, by far, but Warren generated a lot of buzz after the debate. Biden's act seemed sleepy and worn. Buttigieg and Klobuchar focused on more rural areas, away from the more liberal Vegas core. The Strip was crackling with energy, with a heavyweight championship fight, a NASCAR race and the Caucus all happening on the same weekend. The Democratic circus has moved on now, leaving the glitz and glamour behind. Now it's on to South Carolina, and then to Super Tuesday, to see if Bernie-mentum can sustain its hot streak, or whether one of the moderates can pull an inside straight and keep the Democratic Party from going all-in on the Democratic Socialist from Vermont.

Union housekeepers check in to vote in Saturday's Nevada Caucus at the Bellagio in Las Vegas
Tune in Tuesday night February 25 at 5pm Pacific, 8pm Eastern for the next Democratic presidential primary debate, co-sponsored by CBS News and airing on KCBS Radio, KPIX 5 and your local CBS TV station.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Why it Will Be Biden Vs. Trump

Yes, the Sovern Nation blog is back, mainly because I have a 44-year record to maintain of boldly (sometimes foolishly) predicting the eventual Democratic and Republican presidential nominees before the first caucus and primary ballots are cast.

Although I've been scoffed at by Republican operatives who insist I'm too much of a Left Coast Snowflake to even find the pulse of GOP primary voters, let alone take it, I've actually never been wrong on the Republican side: I'm 11-for-11 picking the GOP standard-bearer, dating back to 1976. The Democrats have proven a bit trickier; I'm only 9-for-11 there. But that's not a bad track record, given the volatile, unpredictable nature of modern American politics, especially in the Trump era.

Which brings us to 2020. Here we sit, on the eve of the Iowa Caucus, and the Democratic race remains too close to call. There are still eleven (as of this writing; don't be surprised if the field is winnowed by the time the New Hampshire primary results come in on February 11) candidates in the running. There are four or five especially viable contenders who could conceivably lead the party into the general election against President Trump.

So let's dispose of the easy call first: barring completely unforeseen circumstances like sudden death or alien invasion, Donald Trump will again be the nominee of the Republican Party. He will be acquitted of the impeachment charges against him this Wednesday, he will roll through the formalities of the GOP nomination process, and he will be a formidable, historically well-funded adversary in November.

And whom will the Democrats nominate to oppose him?

Let's go through the field and eliminate candidates, one by one:

It won't be: Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, or businessman Andrew Yang (despite the fervent zeal of the #YangGang).

Despite her common sense appeal in the Midwest, her s-l-o-w climb in the polls and her improving debate performances, it won't be Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar either. She may well place high enough in Iowa to survive, but it's hard to see where she breaks through after that.

Despite his relentless, self-funded ad campaign, it won't be San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer. His surprising rise in the polls in South Carolina and elsewhere won't last once the top tier contenders focus their energy on those states.

That leaves five possible nominees: former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

The Iowa caucus is a bit of a toss-up, but Sanders seems poised to win both it and New Hampshire eight days later. It doesn't actually matter much who "wins" Iowa, because it's likely that Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg and Warren will all come away with delegates, and the spread among them is likely to be negligible. It'll be more about perceived momentum and exceeding or disappointing expectations, and what that means in terms of campaign contributions, media coverage and buzz in the days after Iowa. If Bernie's more motivated and passionate supporters turn out in greater numbers, he will take Iowa. If the pragmatists can sway the undecided with their caucus night arguments, Biden will probably eke out a narrow victory. If Klobuchar, Yang and other more moderate candidates fail to meet the requisite 15% support threshold to be viable at individual caucus sites, their voters may trot over to the Biden camp and push him over the top. Warren has a strong ground game and could still surprise. But no matter what, the top four contenders—and maybe Klobuchar, too—should emerge from Iowa with their hopes intact.

Then comes New Hampshire, in Bernie's backyard, and it will be a shocker if he doesn't win there. Then Nevada, where there's been much less polling, but it appears to be a Biden-Sanders dogfight, though Sanders may be pulling away. Then South Carolina, where Biden's deep support among African American voters gives him a significant advantage, although if Sanders sweeps Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, his momentum may help him close the gap. Warren has built a deeper field operation in more states than most of the others, so even if she fails to win any of these early contests, she's likely to hang on through Super Tuesday and try to accrue delegates.

Add this all up, and 2020 looks a lot like 2016: it's a battle (again) for the soul of the Democratic Party, between the progressive wing, eventually led once again by Bernie Sanders, and the moderate, centrist, Clinton-Obama wing, led this time by Joe Biden instead of Hillary Clinton. Sanders has an edge in that the progressive vote is split mostly between him and Warren, while the moderates are splintered among Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Yang, Bloomberg and Steyer. So as long as that's true, Sanders may become the perceived frontrunner, with all the momentum that brings.

But once the field starts to narrow, the moderates are likely to coalesce around Biden. Even though Bloomberg is bankrolling a massive push in the Super Tuesday states, and racking up endorsements from big city mayors in places like California, it's hard to see him overtaking Biden, and even he admits that if his campaign falters, he will get in line behind Biden and spend whatever it takes to help him beat Trump. Sanders has a more fervent following, but as we've seen over and over again since 2016, it has its ceiling. Even combining the Sanders and Warren voters into one bloc probably isn't enough to beat Biden, if and when he's the last moderate standing.

Biden's Achilles heel is that fewer of his supporters are rabidly pro-Joe. They just want to beat Trump, they feel comfortable enough with him, and they're desperately afraid that Sanders or Warren (or Buttigieg) will lose in November. So there's this perceived electability advantage for Biden, which may or may not be based on anything more real than polls, which is a pretty slim reed on which to hang hope. They're not that crazy about Uncle Joe, many think he's too old, too male and too white, and too given to missteps and malaprops, but they think he's their best, if not only, hope. He's the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the 2020 Democratic field.

Sanders, meanwhile, has a zealous base of younger voters who believe he will upend the establishment like no one before him, but there don't seem to be as many Bernie true believers as there are we-must-stop-Trump-no-matter-what-and-Biden-is-our-best-bet voters. This primary electorate seems motivated by fear and anxiety, more than anything else. They are afraid the Democrats will blow it, and they are terrified of four more years of Trump.

That's why I think, in the end, more Democrats will come home to Biden and play what they think is the safe hand, than will take a chance on an admitted "Democratic Socialist" who wants to do away with their private health insurance (anathema and a dealbreaker to many mainstream Democrats, which has cost Warren some support). The corporate core of the Democratic Party will go all out to keep Sanders from being their nominee, and the vanquished moderates will quickly fall in line behind Biden. It will be another long, protracted fight. It may well go all the way to the convention in Milwaukee in July. Sanders could well enter the DNC with more delegates than Biden, but I think Biden will end up at the top of the ticket (I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a Biden-Klobuchar ticket, even though a Biden-Kamala Harris pairing is trendier at the moment). Bernie could still pull this out. He could win decisively in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and carry that momentum into the ensuing states. He could win California, the biggest Super Tuesday prize, in a landslide. He could make his nomination seem inevitable—which I think would just drive the party's mainstream leadership into more of a panic, fueling an Oh-My-God-It's-George-McGovern-All-Over-Again angst. But the powers that be in the Democratic Party will stop at nothing to keep Bernie from topping their ticket, and those are powerful forces—a force that I think is with Joe Biden. By default, then, Biden, not Sanders, not Warren, not Buttigieg, not Bloomberg, will be the Democratic nominee and face President Trump in November.

There you have it: Biden vs. Trump. Not exactly out on a limb. Possibly completely wrong. Feel free to check back in November and bombard me with ridicule when it's Warren vs. Pence.