One advantage here is that African American voters, who could account for about 13 percent of caucusgoers by Feb. 22, favor the well-known former vice president who served under the nation’s first black president. Biden’s also counting on carrying a significant share of Latino voters — who are an estimated 20 percent of caucusgoers— and moderate whites.
“He has a lot of support among seniors, among people who don’t go to rallies,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, Nevada’s first black congressman who has been close by Biden ever since endorsing the candidate when he arrived Friday night.
Horsford’s endorsement was followed Sunday by the state’s lieutenant governor, Kate Marshall. Along with Rep. Dina Titus, who endorsed months ago, they form a triumvirate of top establishment Biden backers in the state that no candidate has matched. In all, the campaign counts 106 Nevada endorsements and landed an unexpected one Monday: Cher.
The big-name endorsement rollouts have been a staple of his campaign, which continues to hew to the same path. There’s been no major staff shake-up or attempts to load his calendar with additional events. While Biden had a busy weekend campaigning here, with the caucuses just days away Biden had only one stop in Reno on Monday and one scheduled around Las Vegas on Tuesday.
At his Reno event, a voter was puzzled by Biden’s predicament, noting “you’re smart, you’re well educated, you’re experienced, you’ve got class, and you’ve got character … If you get the nomination in November, it’ll be Mr. Rogers versus Darth Vader. What the heck is going on here?”
“Well, that’s a good question,” Biden replied as the crowd laughed. “He complimented me very highly, and then said, ‘What the hell’s the matter with your campaign?’ That’s a good question. No, no, it’s a legitimate question.”
Biden didn’t answer, however.
On Monday, his campaign circulated data that gave them hope from the first day of early caucus voting that showed older voters, Biden’s strength, appeared to be turning out in higher numbers. The data, according to two campaign insiders, showed that two-thirds of caucusgoers for whom demographic numbers were available were 40 years or older.
Both the Biden and Sanders campaigns are privatelyforecasting Biden will come in second, according to sources with both campaigns. And both agree Elizabeth Warren poses a threat to Biden.
Said an adviser to Biden’s campaign in Nevada: “We feel good about second. We won’t feel good if we don’t come in second.”
Since entering the race in late April, Biden’s campaign has taken as gospel that he has a built-in advantage thanks to his name ID and that people will vote for him based on how much they know and like him.
Early on, Biden’s campaign downplayed the relative lack of energy or big crowds at his events in Iowa and New Hampshire, pointing out that polling still showed him as the frontrunner. But then Biden collapsed in those states, leaving Nevada as the place where he hopes to change the trajectory of his candidacy.
Now, some of his backers privately fret about the disparity in on-the-ground energy when compared with Sanders, Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. All of them packed in 1,000-person crowds at Nevada events over the weekend while events organized by Biden’s campaign had only about a quarter of the attendance or less.
Of all the candidates, Sanders is widely viewed as the favorite to carry the state, according to Nevada insiders and rival campaigns.
“Bernie’s people are everywhere,” is a line said word-for-word by three Democratic operatives, including one who supports Biden’s campaign in the state.
“I believe Bernie is gonna win,” said Brian Harris, an activist with the group Independent Black Voices, who showed up Saturday to a Biden campaign stop at Masterpiece Barbershop in North Las Vegas. “Bernie has a better ground game.”
Part of Sanders advantage has been years in the making. He nearly won the state 2016 caucus against Hillary Clinton and his supporters never seemed to have flagged, operatives say.
At the same time, Biden’s campaign spent less time in the state relative to Iowa and New Hampshire. And Democrats who aren’t aligned with any of the candidates say Biden’s national campaign might have miscalculated the importance of Nevada or his standing in it.
“I don’t know if the strategy of hiding and not going out in the community more often and organizing early was a good idea. It could be backfiring on him a little bit,” said Annette Magnus, a progressive organizer.
“In the early fall, the campaign wasn’t as aggressive as they should have been,” she said. “They put him away a little bit and I assume they figured he’d be the frontrunner by the time he got here. And now he’s not.”
Like other operatives in the state, however, Magnus said it would be a mistake to count out Biden. His deep ties to leaders in the state and his high name ID with voters — including the majority white electorate that has a moderate lean to it — are still significant.
Biden has top campaign talent leading him in Nevada, including Hilary Barrett, former adviser to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, and state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, former political director for the influential Culinary Union.
“Yvanna is amazing, what a get that was. But it’s that whole team. He has smart women running his campaign here,” Magnus said, pointing out Nevada is the only state with a majority female Assembly serving at the same time as two women U.S. senators.
A Nevada campaign source also said that Jen O’Malley Dillon, former campaign manager for Beto O’Rourke, is handling precinct captain training for the campaign to avoid the dysfunction that accompanied Biden’s collapse in Iowa.
On Saturday, Biden gave one of his most rousing speeches of the campaign atthe Clark County Democrats‘ Kickoff to Caucus dinner in Las Vegas. He was the only candidate onstage to thank the workers serving the crowd and made an appeal to the Culinary Union by pointing out that Sanders supports “Medicare for All,” which the union leadership opposes.
Biden also promised to take on the National Rifle Association and criticized Sanders for a past vote to exempt gun manufacturers from liability in shooting deaths — a sensitive topic in Las Vegas, where a mass shooting left 58 dead and 413 wounded in 2017.
“I think it’s way too early to count Joe Biden out,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Democrat most responsible for building the party in the state, told reporters Saturday.
“Iowa and New Hampshire are not representative of the country. He’s gonna do well in Nevada. He’s going to do extremely well in South Carolina. So people should not be counting Joe Biden out of the race,” said Reid, who is staying neutral in the contest.
But demographicscan explain only so much of Biden’s losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, said Mark Longabaugh, an adviser to candidate Andrew Yang, who dropped out after New Hampshire. Longabaugh pointed out that Biden was winning in polls of the nation and early states at the beginning of the campaign. But the more voters in Iowa and New Hampshire got a look at him and the other candidates, he said, the worse it was for Biden.
“Both Iowa and New Hampshire have come under fire for their lack of diversity. But that’s a convenient excuse for a lot of candidates who didn’t do well,” Longabaugh said.
“He’s not really changing things up,” Longabaugh said. “He’s struggled all along. He’s struggled beyond ‘I was Barack Obama’s vice president and we need to return to decency and Trump is bad.‘ He struggled to raise money. And when the money is tight and the message isn’t working, it’s tough to win the nomination.”
In Las Vegas, though, Biden understandably leaned into his association with Obama during visits to a black history event Saturday, a Nevada Black Legislative Caucus brunch Sunday afternoon and during an address he gave Sunday morning to an African Methodist Episcopal church in North Las Vegas, where he called the president by his first name.
Standing as a frontrunner-turned-unexpected-underdog, Biden described the nation’s political climate during his address, but it could just as easily double as a description of his standing in the Democratic presidential primary in Nevada.
“Hope lives in this house. Without hope, there’s virtually nothing,” Biden said. “Hope, faith sees best in the dark. Faith sees the best in the dark. We’re in the dark right now.”