Nevada's Democratic Caucus: Wading Through A Crowded Pool

Feb 14, 2020

And then there were seven...that’s how many Democrats will be up for consideration in Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus, but with so many candidates in the race, how are voters selecting a preferred candidate? KUNR’s Paul Boger spoke with some voters in Northern Nevada to find out.

This time of year, the mornings are chilly in Northern Nevada, and on this particular morning, the nip seems to have kept a lot of people inside. It makes the normally busy portion of Virginia Street that runs through MidTown Reno seem particularly quiet. 

Tom Steyer on a recent campaign tour through Reno's MidTown district.
Credit Lucia Starbuck

That is, except for a relatively small group huddled around one man: Tom Steyer. 

Surrounded by cameras and a few supporters, the Democratic presidential contender walks down the street, meeting with local business owners. He's one of seven candidates looking to win big in Nevada next week, and he’s likely the one banking hardest on the Silver State. The Bay area billionaire has visited Nevada more than any other candidate remaining in the race. Analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight shows that he’s spent millions on ad buys in Nevada alone.

For Kaya Stanley, it wasn’t Steyer's ads that made an impression.

Kaya Stanley, a Reno business owner, says she's leaning heavily toward Tom Steyer ahead of the caucus.
Credit Lucia Starbuck

“I took a poll, Washington Post poll, and he was my top match,” said Stanley, a lawyer and entrepreneur in Reno. She’s one of the business owners who met with Steyer on his tour. While she’s not 100 percent behind Steyer, she likes what he stands for.

“We're very aligned with everything,” she said, “so, I think that I'm pretty close, but I'm still keeping an open mind yet.”

For many, this election cycle poses a difficult choice. First, there’s the sheer number of candidates. At one point, only a few months ago, there were more than two dozen Democrats vying for their party’s nomination. With such a bloated candidate pool, positions on issues like healthcare, gun control and climate change can overlap and create further confusion.

“When they're so ideologically close to one another, it's hard to necessarily disentangle which one is which,” explained University of Nevada, Reno Political Science Professor Jeremy Gelman. “I think that's actually why the candidates are having a pretty hard time distinguishing themselves because no one's been able to say, 'You know, I'm for this thing. Nobody else is for this thing. Vote for me.' " 

Research shows that voters use a variety of tools to help them decide who to support, but Gelman says it often comes down to ideology.

A few blocks away, outside Hub Coffee, I find Courtney Kelly, a voter firmly in Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s camp. 

"I did, you know, research on both what she believes and then also her history and what she's done. I like her,” said Kelly. “ I like the plans that she's laid out. I feel like she has laid out actual plans, which you don't always get, and so I appreciate that.”

But a lot of voters may not be as engaged with the nuances in the policy. Instead, voters may find themselves drawn to the persona being projected by the candidates.

“I think in a field where there are nuanced differences between everyone, the idea that, you know, Klobuchar is the level-headed bipartisan person, Mayor Pete has the youthful skills of a Millennial and Biden has the experience, I think those talking points probably do speak to some people where the policy differences are micro-thin,” said UNR Professor Jeremy Gelman. 

Inside the shop, I find John Lawson waiting for his coffee. He’s not exactly sure who he’ll support in the caucus, but he’s positive it’ll be one of the more progressive candidates.

“If Sanders and Pete are, like, neck-and-neck with each other, I'm going to vote for Sanders,” Lawson explained. “If Warren and Pete are neck-and-neck with each other, I'm going to vote for Warren. If Bernie and Warren are neck-and-neck, oh, coin toss. It's a caucus. Come on, man. This is 'roshambo' time.”

The candidates, themselves though, are not leaving it up to chance. They’re frantically criss-crossing the state in the final days leading up to the election and several campaigns have also announced new rounds of ad buys. Whether that’ll be enough to sway voters remains to be seen.