In the first primary and caucus of the 2016 presidential election, a new poll arrived nearly every day, an oscillating series of numbers designed to excite candidates and supporters — or encourage them to lower their expectations accordingly. The numbers weren’t always right, but they at the least gave a general sense of what was to come, like a room full of monkeys that has managed to type out the play within a play in Hamlet, even though the death scene is still a mangled tango of semicolons and the letter K.
No such statistical comfort food exists for the Nevada caucus, even though the Democrats will vote on Saturday. Between October and the New Hampshire primary, only three polls were released. All showed Clinton with a massive lead, unsurprising given how the race looked at this point. After months of us forgetting such polls existed, another two arrived this week, showing that Clinton’s lead has disappeared and the opponents now are tied.
Even with the new blips of data, however, the potential results on Saturday feel like more of an unknown than usual.
This makes the Nevada caucus “kind of like Christmas, when you’re a kid and have no idea what’s in your presents,” Brad Coker at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research told MTV News. “You miss that when you’re an adult and you’ve already been told what you’re getting.”
Coker’s firm has worked in Nevada in past elections, teaming up with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which may have been a bit preoccupied this primary season, seeing as it just acquired a new owner, Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson. Polls cost a lot, and local newspapers across the country have been hesitant to pay for them, Coker adds.
The act of polling in Nevada is also notoriously difficult. Since many people need to work the night shift to keep Las Vegas’s famous lights on, many working-class voters won’t be home to get polling calls in the evening. Those that are home to answer questions about the race might not own a landline (polling on cell phones is nearly impossible; it's one of the biggest modern annoyances of the pollster).
If that weren’t enough to scare away the most stout-hearted statistician, there’s more.
Even if a pollster has the money to do a survey, it can be hard to figure out exactly who’s in the pool of likely caucusgoers (and, as such, how to properly weight the gathered data). The “First in the West” caucus has only existed since 2008, when Nevada decided it wanted to have a bigger voice in the nominating process and moved itself up in the primary calendar. The cult of caucusing that powers Iowa doesn’t exist in Nevada quite yet — only 8 percent of Republican voters in the state turned out in 2012.
Nevada state demographer Jeff Hardcastle knows how difficult it is to figure out the demographics of the state’s population. He says the relative newness of Nevada’s early caucus probably helps depress turnout. This isn’t helped by the fact that the demographics of the state keep changing, too, as residents leave and more diverse ones — the Hispanic and Asian-American populations keep growing — come in to take their place; many new residents might not feel like part of their community yet.
All these factors make it nearly impossible to accurately predict what might happen in the contest — and most pollsters seem less than eager to stake their accuracy on a gamble, even in a state that rewards that kind of behavior.
So, with the Democratic caucus only a few days away, and the Republican one taking place the following week, how do you solve the mystery of what the heck Nevada is thinking – especially since -- with Sanders and Trump thirsty for another win before Super Tuesday -- the answer could have huge ramifications for the rest of the race?
First, ask Las Vegas. No, not the oddsmakers — betting on elections is illegal in the U.S. Ask the unions representing all the people working in the casinos and restaurants in the state’s biggest city. These unions are an incredibly important force in the state and work hard to make sure members head to caucus sites. In 2008, for example, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 endorsed Obama at the last minute, while Clinton got the endorsement of AFSCME. Clinton got the most votes, while Obama got the most delegates. This year, the Culinary Union isn’t endorsing a candidate, although they still have been working hard to get members registered; according to Bethany Khan, the organization is focused on November, trying to register 12,000 members this year. And although the group isn’t getting super involved in the primary, Khan says the workers are busy talking about all the candidates and their differences — especially Trump and his opponents.
Sanders got the support of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 357 last week. AFSCME once again endorsed the former Secretary of State, as did SEIU Local 1107 and a few others. Clinton got a thumbs-up from a bunch of DREAMer activists in Nevada earlier this month, too, and has been building up her team in the state since she first announced her campaign. This week, her surrogates wandered off to places in rural Nevada — either to signal their devotion to the state in its entirety, or because of fears that the contest might be getting closer and closer.
Clinton also has a lead in superdelegates in Nevada, although not a huge one. There are eight superdelegates; three support Clinton, while one backs Sanders. Four, including Senator Harry Reid, have stayed silent. Sanders is fighting against Clinton’s perceived lead — and the conventional wisdom that the state’s diversity in comparison to Iowa and New Hampshire would help her — by spending more money on ads. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he spent nearly $3 million on ads in the state as of last Thursday. Clinton’s campaign had spent nearly $1.5 million.
At the University of Nevada, Reno, students are Berning up the same way they were in Iowa and New Hampshire, Jacob Solis says. The news editor at the school’s student newspaper, the Nevada Sagebrush, has been covering the campaign from campus for months, and says that students supporting other campaigns are nearly nonexistent, although there are more Clinton supporters than people cheering on any of the Republican candidates. There are Bernie stickers and buttons on shirts and backpacks across campus, and not one, but two Bernie signs at Bibo, the nearby coffee place.
The enthusiasm isn’t some new thing that popped up after Iowa and New Hampshire, either. Solis says it’s been around all year, and that people seem serious about caucusing. There have been a few mock caucuses at the University, which has nearly 20,000 students; in October, a few dozen students showed up to support various ice cream toppings. Fudge won, beating out strawberries and nuts — interpret those results however you wish.
Sanders could also get a surprise boost on caucus day — an impossible-to-predict one. Although Republican caucusgoers had to be be registered by last week, those hoping to attend the Democratic one can do same-day registration. In 2008, 30,000 people registered at the last minute, per the New York Times. Most of them seemed to be young people supporting Obama.
All of these factors — a cocktail of Bernie smash and Hillary hope — don’t do much to clarify the questions left by the dearth of data, which means we’ll have to wait until noon on Saturday to figure out if Nevada will be a surprise twist, a cliffhanger teasing an ever-tightening race, or mere exposition proving that Clinton’s campaign isn’t in dire condition.
If the race has gotten much closer since last year, to the point where a victory is a matter of decimal places instead of percentage points, USA Today tells us that Nevada, just like Iowa, uses games of chance to decide ties. However, since this is Nevada we’re talking about, that doesn’t mean coin tosses. Say hello to the card draw.
Later on Saturday, Republicans in South Carolina will pick their favorite candidate, and then the diminishing GOP dream team will head out west, too. The possible outcome of the Republican Nevada caucus seems even more tantalizing for those with overactive imaginations. At least the Democratic contest only has two candidates. The latest polling has Trump up considerably. However, given his lack of organizing in the state, that might not mean much next week, especially if the workers currently trying to unionize at his hotel join forces against him.
But who knows what will happen. We’ll have to wait to open our presents to find out.