I thought I might end up watching an Iowa-style meltdown when my cousin, a precinct chair in Nevada, invited me to Reno to watch the complicated vote counting at the Nevada Democratic caucuses on Feb. 24, less than three weeks after Iowa’s disaster.
I hate to admit it, being a cynical correspondent for a skeptical progressive website, but things went pretty well. Those tallying up the votes appeared to be honest and dedicated to doing a good job.
The participants gathered at Swope Middle School on a Sunday morning were in a good mood. Under the direction of chairs like my cousin, they divided up quickly, as they were supposed to do, and raised their hands to vote in an orderly fashion.
Caucuses around the state gave Bernie Sanders an overwhelming victory, and a big boost toward the Democratic presidential nomination. That wasn’t true in the sessions I attended, where white, often upscale, presumably more middle-of-the-road Democrats favored Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.
The volunteers who ran the caucus operation gathered at 8 a.m., two hours before the doors opened for caucusgoers. Swope school had enough volunteers, in contrast to other areas that were short of them. I decided to go as an “observer,” rather than a reporter, figuring a journalist asking questions would make people nervous. My cousin introduced me as her Cousin Bill, visiting from Los Angeles. I signed a book and was given an orange wristband, which permitted me to wander through the several caucuses being held in the school.
I was quickly put to work. The volunteer designated to guard the election material was called away for another job. The chief volunteer looked at me. “Cousin Bill, could you stand here and watch this table,” she said. I was glad to help. Later, I got another job. Small contributions to pay for expenses were being collected in my cousin’s caucus. She asked me to hold the envelope with the money while she went about organizing the vote. “You sure you want someone from Los Angeles holding the money?” I said, drawing some laughs from those who scorn my hometown. Despite their joking skepticism, I handed over the envelope.
It wasn’t all smooth. State headquarters were slow in delivering the ballots of those who had voted in previous days. The earlier votes were to be combined with the votes of those attending the caucuses for a final count. They were supposed be delivered by noon, when the caucuses started. They arrived just before the deadline. One man told me he had been to several training sessions but still didn’t understand the system. Another participant watched the early confusion and said, “This is learning as you go.” But after an hour or so, things settled down. Results were delivered to state headquarters without trouble. The volunteers were pleased with themselves.
Watching this miniature election, I got a clearer insight into the Democratic contest. The numbers tell the story.
Even in this precinct of a moderate Democratic area, Sanders looked strong. He didn’t outpoll his rivals, who split up the majority of votes.
In one caucus I observed, he got 37 votes. That was a minority of the caucus. Assume his supporters are the liberals. Assume the same for those who backed Elizabeth Warren, 36. That’s 73 in the liberal column. The votes for the others were Buttigieg 41, Klobuchar 35, Biden 14. That adds up to 90 for moderates.
In other words, middle-of-the-road philosophy won this particular caucus, but its votes were divided among the three candidates.
The reason for the moderates’ indecision was clear to me the night before the caucuses, when I saw Klobuchar speak at a different school.
Her organization had rushed like mad to bring in workers for door knocking, phoning, organizing rallies and other campaign chores. I talked to one young woman who had flown to Nevada from Des Moines, Iowa, where she had spent a month campaigning for Klobuchar. She was staying with a Reno resident, and after the caucuses she would move on to another state. Her enthusiasm was impressive as she organized a line leading into the middle school gym.
Klobuchar showed the same enthusiasm when she bounded — or bounced — up to the microphone. She’s got a big smile that melts into a serious expression when she gets to the meat of her speech.
But the crowd, I was told, was smaller than the Reno gathering the night before. And while the audience applauded, it wasn’t with the wild enthusiasm that an underdog candidate needs.
I got no sense of what she would do if elected president, except preserve some form of Obamacare. I wanted to hear more about income inequality, raising taxes on the rich, the persecution of people of color by the criminal justice system and the inequalities of public schools, colleges and universities. I didn’t want a whole platform, but something I could grab onto, more outrage to discuss and argue about in later days. I wanted to hear more than her boasts of how she won senate races in Minnesota.
That’s what’s wrong with all the moderate, middle-of-the-road candidates. They don’t transmit a feeling that they know where they are going. They are relying on hatred of President Donald Trump. That’s a bad mistake. “If you rely on your opponent’s mistakes, you’re going to lose the election,” a political pro once told me.
Voters know where Warren is going, sometimes in heavy detail, maybe too much.
And, there is no mistaking Sanders’ direction.
He doesn’t speak with Warren-like detail. He doesn’t have to. There’s more to him than the shouting angry Bernie you sometimes see on television. In person, he is a dynamic speaker, able to stir up a crowd of thousands. His speeches are the same as when he ran in 2016, but this time the ailments he discusses — health care, income inequality, poverty, climate change — grip the nation much more than they did in 2016. This year may be his time.
The fact that the middle-of-the-road does not have an answer to these worsening problems explains its splintered showing in the caucus I attended and in all of Nevada. If enough people are driven by economic and class grievances, it may be enough to give Sanders the nomination.Print