Hillary Clinton needs to win Nevada. I know that she’s tied with Bernie Sanders in the number of states won, I get that she’s ahead in delegate race thanks to the insane and undemocratic superdelegate system the Democrats have in place, and I understand that she has vast institutional advantages that will carry her deep into the primary no matter what happens. But Nevada is still critically important for her because she needs a win there to validate the presumption of strength that her campaign still enjoys.
Ever since Sanders started creeping up in the early state polls, the Clinton people have been looking to Nevada as their bulwark against the Bernie insurrection. Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white and very liberal, which made the states stronger territory for Sanders. Nevada and South Carolina, on the other hand, have large minority populations that are, in theory, more favorable to Hillary. So all the way back in October of last year, the Clinton campaign was pouring time and effort into Nevada because they understood that if Bernie were to show unexpected strength in the first two nominating contests, then Nevada would be their chance to mount a comeback or quell doubts about Hillary’s candidacy. “No candidate has poured more resources into Nevada than Clinton,” the Los Angeles Times reported four months ago, “and cultivating the organization here is a high priority, which Clinton demonstrated with her schedule.”
Well, Bernie did show unexpected strength by narrowly losing to Clinton in Iowa and putting up a 22-point blowout in New Hampshire. The mantra from Team Clinton throughout this humbling start to the primary season has been that they’ll be stronger in the later states, so now they have to prove it in Nevada. And they’re setting the table for the contest with some clumsy and nonsensical expectations-setting.
The “expectations game” is a tiresome and transparently disingenuous ritual every campaign slogs through in the lead-up to an election. Campaign surrogates try to downplay their own strength or build up the awesome electoral might of their opponents. Thus, when the votes are counted, they can say, “wow we really outperformed the expectations!” or, “wow our opponent didn’t finish as strong as expected!” They’re trying to spin reporters, and reporters know that they’re being spun. Everyone is in on the con, so the only way the “expectations game” works is if everyone just agrees to not care that everything about it is bullshit. We saw this happen after Marco Rubio took third place in Iowa – his campaign told reporters for weeks that third place would be a massive victory for him, and after he finished third everyone agreed it was a massive victory.
Anyway, the Clinton people are playing the expectations game heading into Nevada, and their strategy for trying to inflate Bernie Sanders’ chances is utterly baffling. They’re trying to pretend that Nevada is, in fact, a bastion of white liberals in the mold of Iowa and New Hampshire, implying that it is naturally favorable territory for Sanders. As BuzzFeed reported earlier this week, a Clinton campaign spokesman told MSNBC that they expected Nevada to be a tight race because:
There’s an important Hispanic element to the Democratic caucus in Nevada. But it’s still a state that is 80% white voters. You have a caucus-style format, and he’ll have the momentum coming out of New Hampshire presumably, so there’s a lot of reasons he should do well.
And apparently top Clinton officials have been telling donors that Nevada will be tough for Hillary because the state’s demographics are similar to Iowa's.
This is fantastical nonsense, as Nevada journalist Jon Ralston explains:
Nevada's Hispanic population is about 27 percent. African-Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders make up almost 10 percent. That is, nearly half of the state's population is made up of minorities.
The Democratic caucus population was 35 percent minority in 2008, according to exit polls, and is expected to be as high as 40 percent in 2016, according to local Democratic sources. This is nothing like the 90 percent white caucus participation in Iowa, for instance.
And that’s what's so dumb about all this. No one actually believes that the Clinton campaign thinks Nevada and Iowa are demographically similar. If they did believe that, then they’d have no business running a presidential campaign. So when reporters hear stuff like this emanating from Team Hillary, they’re left to ponder why the Clinton campaign is shopping this trash around, and the obvious answer they go to is: panic.
Claims like these go well beyond your average “expectations game” spin. They’re stretching the bounds of credulity so far that it leads people to believe that the campaign is acutely worried about what might happen in Nevada, and the lack of public polling means that people fill the information gap with their own assumptions based on the behavior of the campaigns. It very well may be that the opposite is true and that Clinton’s Nevada bulwark remains solid. But if that is the case, then the campaign is doing a pretty good job of hiding it.