Election 2020 Politics

The delegate race has just begun. Here’s what’s coming up.

In this edition: A peek ahead at the Democratic delegate chase, a powerful Nevada union’s fight with Bernie Sanders, and the next moves for all the 2020 candidates.

For the past few weeks, this newsletter has published every day. The results in New Hampshire and the slower-yet-busier schedule from here on out will push us back to our previous, three-days-per-week pace. I am too tired and too grateful to think of a joke for that, and this is The Trailer.

When Joe Biden kicked off his South Carolina campaign Tuesday, he could not resist a dig at how New Hampshire and Iowa, two small states, devoured so much political attention.

“Not half the nation, not a quarter of the nation, not 10 percent: Two!” Biden said. “Where I come from, that’s the opening bell!”

He wasn’t wrong. Thanks to the ongoing disaster in Iowa, no candidate got the one-two punch of early wins that could have clarified who was leading this race. But early-state momentum is a creation of media coverage and donors, not a reflection of the primary process itself. After Iowa and New Hampshire, Democratic voters have assigned just 65 of the 3,979 pledged delegates needed to pick a nominee, approximately 1.6 percent of the total.

Biden is not the only Democrat talking about a long primary. Every campaign has planned for this. Some (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg) have made hires already for a post-February battle; some have been making stops in later states, in case they get there.

If they do, they are in for nearly four months of campaigning across bigger, more expensive and, in most cases, more diverse states than they’ll have competed for up to now.

Feb. 22: The Nevada caucuses will take place, with virtually all votes cast on that day. It’s a semi-closed process, with voting open to only Democrats but any Nevadan allowed to become a registered Democrat during the sign-in. The prize: 36 delegates, 13 of them assigned according to the statewide vote and the rest assigned according to the vote in Nevada’s four congressional districts. Three of those districts touch Las Vegas and are controlled by Democrats; they get six delegates each. The 1st Congressional District, held by Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, covers most of northern Nevada and gets five. After this vote, the party will have assigned 101 pledged delegates, or 2.5 percent of the total. 

Feb. 29: The South Carolina primary will be held, with 54 delegates assigned, and the first real discrepancies in the delegate hunt. The state’s seven districts range from the safely Democratic 6th, which gets eight delegates, and the strongly Republican 3rd, which gets just three delegates. That matters. Four years ago, Bernie Sanders won 29 percent of the vote in the 3rd district but just 17 percent in the 6th district. He got the same haul, one delegate, from each district; Hillary Clinton got two delegates from the 3rd district, and seven delegates from the 6th.

South Carolina is also the first of 19 primaries with no party registration, allowing even Republicans (who could not vote in the New Hampshire primary) to cross over; it’s one of several states with no competing Republican primary. When it’s over, Democrats will have assigned 155 delegates, or 3.9 percent of the total. 

March 3: It’s Super Tuesday, the first of several, though this is the one with the biggest prizes. A whopping 1,344 delegates will be elected on that day: 52 in Alabama, 31 in Arkansas, six in American Samoa, 415 in California, 67 in Colorado, 24 in Maine, 91 in Massachusetts, 75 in Minnesota, 110 in North Carolina, 37 in Oklahoma, 64 in Tennessee, 228 in Texas, 29 in Utah, 16 in Vermont, and 99 in Virginia.

These electorates, to put it mildly, will be wildly different. In five states (Alabama, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, and Vermont), there is no party registration. In seven states (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah), independent or unenrolled voters can pick any primary they want. In five states (California, Maine, North Carolina, Vermont, Utah), voters can register at the polls. In several, like Colorado and California, most of the voting will take place via mail, before any traditional poll-closing time. And in one state (Texas), district delegates are assigned by state Senate districts, not federal congressional districts, with variance in delegate totals from two to 10. 

What’s also important: The Super Tuesday calendar changes every year, as states jostle to go first, or bet that moving down the calendar will make them more relevant. Four years ago, Georgia had moved up the schedule, while North Carolina and California hadn’t. The resulting shift has given more Latino and Asian voters a Super Tuesday ballot this year, while slightly reducing the proportion of black voters. After this, the Democrats will have assigned 1,499 delegates, or 37.7 percent of the total. But in some places, especially California, slow vote-counting will delay the delegate totals for weeks. 

March 10: It’s Super Tuesday II, with less at stake: 20 delegates in Idaho, 125 in Michigan, 36 in Mississippi, 68 in Missouri, 14 in North Dakota and 89 in Washington, for a total of 352 delegates. The expatriate members of Democrats Abroad will be finishing their count, too, for 13 more delegates. Whenever it’s finished, there will be 1,864 delegates chosen, or 46.8 percent of the total.

March 14: The Northern Mariana Islands will elect six delegates. No offense, but nobody calls this one Super Tuesday. It’ll bump the total to 1,871 delegates, or 47 percent of the total. I’m mostly interested to see when cable news starts its live coverage that day.

March 17: After Super Tuesday III, most of the Democratic electorate will have voted, and most of the party’s delegates will have been selected. At stake: 67 delegates in Arizona, 219 in Florida, 155 in Illinois, and 136 in Ohio, for 577 total. Every one of those states is big and expensive, and every one has early voting — so early, in fact, that it’s common for candidates who’ve dropped out to get tens of thousands of votes in these states. The total after this day: 2,447 delegates, or 61.5 percent overall.

March 24: Just one state, Georgia, will vote on this date, after a snafu pushed it past Super Tuesday. It’s worth 105 delegates, pushing the Democrats up to 2,552 total delegates and 64.1 percent of the total. But the move came relatively late in the primary process, and Democrats have already spent more time competing for Georgia than they have in other post-Super Tuesday states.

March 29: There are 51 delegates at play in Puerto Rico, which has gotten Democrats’ campaign attention far more than in prior years. That’ll move the party up to 2,603 delegates, and 65.4 percent of the total.

April 4: Usually referred to as Super Saturday, this will see 107 delegates get parceled out across smaller (with one exception) and (with one exception) less Democratic states: 15 in Alaska, 24 in Hawaii, 54 in Louisiana, and 14 in Wyoming. That’ll get Democrats to more than two-thirds of all delegates: 2,710, and 68.1 percent of the total.

April 7: For the umpteenth time, Wisconsin gets a primary date all to itself, and 84 delegates. That pushes the total to 2,794, and 70.2 percent, before the longest gap of the primary season, three whole weeks.

April 28: The last truly massive delegate haul can be called Super Tuesday IV, but it’s usually given the name of the train that connects each state: the Acela Primary. There will be 663 delegates assigned across the Mid-Atlantic and New England: 60 in Connecticut, 21 in Delaware, 96 in Maryland, 274 in New York, 186 in Pennsylvania and 26 in Rhode Island. This will also be the first presidential primary since New York slightly relaxed its voter registration law, which previously required voters to sign up with a party six months before its primary. The new total: 3,457 delegates, or 86.9 percent.

By this point in 2016, it was clear that Hillary Clinton would have the most delegates heading into the Democratic convention. A likely delegate-leader could be even clearer in 2020; California’s earlier primary removes one of the biggest prizes.

May 2: Just 46 delegates will be assigned on this Saturday: 7 in Guam, 39 in Kansas. That gets us to 3,503 delegates and 88 percent of the total.

May 5: The 82 delegates of Indiana, another semi-open state (where independents can vote), gets Democrats up to 90.1 percent, or 3,585 delegates total.

May 12: Just two primaries in very different states where Democrats are in the minority: 29 delegates in Nebraska, 28 in West Virginia. That’ll make it 3,642 delegates and 91.5 percent of the total.

May 19: The split-screen primaries of Kentucky (54 delegates) and Oregon (61 delegates) will be held, with very different rules; most of Oregon’s mail vote will have been cast. The primary is 94.4 percent finished, with 3,757 delegates chosen.

June 2: Unless this is a truly razor-thin race, the primary will be more or less over, with voters picking 20 delegates in the District of Columbia, 19 in Montana, 126 in New Jersey, 34 in New Mexico, and 16 in South Dakota. That’s 215 delegates overall, getting the Democrats to 3,972, with just seven left in a weekend contest in the Virgin Islands, which this newsletter plans to cover fully and on the ground.

We know when these delegates will be picked, but we don’t know how many candidates will still be competing for them. That matters. In 2008 and 2016, the last Democratic contests that went all the way to the final primary, the field had winnowed down to two candidates before Super Tuesday. Every state and district delegate split went two ways. 

But if three or more candidates are in the race, the delegate hunt will grow far more complicated. In some districts, one or more candidates may fall below the 15 percent threshold, making it possible for a stronger candidate to get every available delegate. In other districts, a candidate glut could prevent a front-runner from winning decisively, increasing the odds that no candidate will have a majority or strong plurality.

When all that is over, the next fixed date for Democrats is July 13, the start of the national convention in Milwaukee. Historically, the party has held meetings before that to determine convention rules, delegate challenges and other problems that arise in close primaries. This year, if there is no consensus nominee, the Democrats will go to a second ballot, where 771 unpledged superdelegates will be empowered to pick a nominee.

Reading list

“Usually the early Democratic presidential contests shrink the field. This year, they’ve expanded it,” by Matt Viser and Annie Linskey

The post-New Hampshire chaos.

Pete Buttigieg and the Democrats’ veteran problem,” by Jasper Craven

The search for a man in uniform.

“Mike Bloomberg wins the Democratic spotlight and the derision of his rivals,” by Michael Scherer

How the billionaire is taking advantage of Democratic uncertainty.

“Bloomberg is hiring so many operatives, local and state campaigns are starving for help,” by Ryan Grim

The down-ballot effect of a massive spending operation.

“Will Alabama take Jeff Sessions back?” by David Montgomery

Don’t call it a comeback.

“Why a powerful Nevada union is undermining Bernie Sanders on Medicare-for-All,” by Dave Jamieson

What Culinary is up to.

Dems in disarray

Late last year, the highest-polling Democratic candidates for president made one-by-one stops to speak to Culinary Union Local 226 in Las Vegas. The Democrats who opposed the current version Medicare-for-all legislation were welcomed warmly, while the two Democrats still sponsoring the legislation, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were asked again and again why they supported a national single-payer system.

“We’ve been fighting for health care for decades,” said Elodia Muñoz, a union member who’d been part of a six-year strike against the Frontier Hotel. “We love our Culinary health care. We want to keep it. We don’t want to change it.”

When the applause and chants of “226” died down, Sanders decried the country’s “dysfunctional, broken, and cruel health- care system and gave much of his stump speech, before being interrupted by more chants “union health care this time.

Your employer will not have to pay $15,000 for year for your health care, Sanders explained. Your employer will pay $3,000. That’s a $12,000 differential! You know who gets that? You do!

Sanders appeared to mollify the critics that day, but the issue never went away, and the union — usually just called Culinary for short — had no interest in making it go away. Since the primary campaign moved to Nevada, Culinary has emerged as Sanders’s most dedicated local critic, and other Democrats are watching and taking cues.

The issue is Culinary’s own health plan, which has no premiums for workers who put in more than 30 hours per week, with out-of-pocket spending limits of $6,350 for individuals and $12,700 for families. On paper, the benefits of Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan would be better — no co-pays whatsoever, once the progressive tax rates hit. But like many of Sanders’s opponents, Culinary has portrayed Medicare-for-all as a wrecking ball that would scrap current health-care plans, without saying what the new plans would give people.

“Some politicians say ‘the only way to fix health care for everyone is to take others’ away,’ ” read one handout to members, a quote that neither Warren or Sanders had ever said (or would say).

The union has been just as negative about Warren, who wants to get to a single-payer system that replaces private insurance only after phasing in most of the new system’s benefits. But Sanders is the clear target of the union’s new attacks, and his six Democratic rivals in Nevada (Mike Bloomberg is not competing) are giving him no cover. 

Pete Buttigieg has continued to promise that “Medicare for all who want it,” his framework for a government insurance option, would not touch union plans. Tom Steyer is up with ads in the state making the same promise and attacked Sanders in a statement today over the lack of a campaign cost estimate for Medicare-for-all; Steyer’s plan, the campaign said, was cheaper and “has the added benefit of protecting the health plans that unions have fought hard to secure for their members, especially here in Nevada.”

Another Culinary move against Sanders revealed another fissure between the candidates. The union claimed that its criticism of Sanders had led it to be “viciously attacked” by online supporters of the senator. Elizabeth Warren chimed in not to defend Sanders but to defend the union.

“No one should attack @Culinary226 and its members for fighting hard for themselves and their families,” Warren tweeted. “Like them, I want to see every American get high-quality and affordable health care — and I’m committed to working with them to achieve that goal.”

An isolated Sanders has kept making his argument, that his presidency would leave all workers better off, fully covered and no longer exploited by the health-care industry. And while no union’s support is more sought-after than Culinary’s, its record in Nevada’s short-lived caucuses is not as fearsome as its record in state-level politics. In 2008 it backed Barack Obama’s candidacy, but its membership, which skews nonwhite and female, broke for Hillary Clinton. In 2016, it stayed neutral, and Clinton won again. 

On Thursday, with some fanfare, it announced that it would make no endorsement for 2020. But Joe Biden, a critic of Medicare-for-all, would be touring the union’s hospital Saturday.

Ad watch

VoteVets, “Divided.” Last week, Pete Buttigieg spokesman Michael Halle tweeted about a powerful argument for the candidate that someone, somewhere, might want to make: “Pete’s military experience and closing message from Iowa work everywhere especially in Nevada where it’s critical they see this on the air through the caucus. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau cried foul, suggesting that Halle was trying to tell VoteVets, which runs a pro-Buttigieg independent expenditure but cannot coordinate with the campaign, to go on the air Nevada. An ad that evokes Buttigieg’s message, starring a Vietnam veteran from Nevada, is now on the air: “Our country now is way more divided than it was when I came home from Vietnam, he says.

Henry Cuellar, “Two Candidates.” The conservative Democratic congressman from Laredo is finally up with his closing, negative message against Jessica Cisneros, an immigration lawyer running with the support of Justice Democrats. “One stands with families; one supports allowing minors to have an abortion without parents’ knowledge,” says a female narrator. “One helps create middle-class jobs; one who wants to shut down the oil and gas industry.” It’s a play to the district’s many personally conservative Latino Democrats, who may not be as engaged with the presidential primary as Cisneros’s more liberal San Antonio voters.

Poll watch

Does Mitt Romney’s vote to remove Trump make you more or less likely to support him? (Deseret News, 500 Utah voters)

Less likely: 37%
More likely: 36%
No impact: 22%

When he became the only senator in history to vote for the removal of a president from his own party, Mitt Romney was in a unique position: Utah is much more strongly pro-Republican than it is pro-Trump. The damage to Romney has been minimal inside Utah, where Trump won just 45 percent of the vote in 2016, winning despite a third-party campaign by Mormon conservative Evan McMullin.

Debate season

The New Hampshire debate changed the trajectory of the Democratic primaries, as Amy Klobuchar pulled herself from the low single digits into a strong third place in New Hampshire, collecting $5 million on the way. 

Over the next two weeks, there’ll be two more debates, with five candidates, Klobuchar included, guaranteed to stay onstage. The Democratic National Committee has reserved a microphone for any candidate who has won delegates; that includes Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and the narrow leader in the delegate count, Pete Buttigieg.

That leaves just three candidates offstage, having not yet hit either of the DNC requirements: get a delegate from any primary or caucus, hit 10 percent in four polls, or hit 12 percent in two polls of Nevada and South Carolina. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has largely ignored Nevada, is not anywhere close to hitting those thresholds. Mike Bloomberg has cracked 10 percent in three DNC-approved national polls, so he’s three-quarters of the way to the debate stage. 

But Tom Steyer, who has spent more money than any other candidate in Nevada and South Carolina, is at serious risk of being pushed out. The reason is simple: There have been no DNC-approved polls of either state since before the Iowa caucuses, and the DNC has shrunk the time frame for polling, dropping off Fox News polls from January that would have put Steyer onstage.

“The voices of Nevadans and South Carolinians are being left out by the DNC’s bizarre decision to narrow the polling window by almost 20 days while refusing to push for more qualifying polls or expand the list of credentialed pollsters, Steyer spokesman Ben Gerdes said on Thursday. “There has not been a single qualifying poll conducted in Nevada or South Carolina during the DNC’s arbitrary window even though Tom met the criteria for the Nevada debate one week prior in two Fox News polls that showed him earning 15 percent support in South Carolina and 12 percent in Nevada.”

Gerdes added a swipe at Bloomberg: It would be especially unfortunate for Nevadans if the DNC’s process led to a candidate who is not even campaigning or on the ballot in Nevada making the stage in Las Vegas.” 

Candidate tracker

For the past few weeks, this newsletter has published on the daily plans of the presidential candidates. Now that it’s returning to a three-days-per-week schedule, it’ll cover their longer-term schedules and the party events and cattle calls they’ll be heading to.

Bernie Sanders. He’ll hold rallies in North Carolina and South Carolina on Friday, then head to Nevada for rallies and party events before starting a trip back east with a Sunday rally in Denver.

Pete Buttigieg. On Friday, he’ll appear at the Faith in Action 2020 forum in Las Vegas, then head to northern California for a town hall in Sacramento and a party dinner in Turlock, before a return swing through Nevada.

Joe Biden. He’ll start a swing through Nevada with a Friday night early vote event in suburban Henderson, followed by stops across the Las Vegas area.

Elizabeth Warren. She’ll campaign in Nevada on Saturday and Sunday, with town halls in Las Vegas, Reno and Henderson.

Amy Klobuchar. She’ll stay in Nevada after Thursday’s LULAC forum, holding a Friday event in Reno.

Tom Steyer. He’ll stick in western states this weekend, following the party activities in Nevada with a climate town hall in Riverside, Calif.

Tulsi Gabbard. She’ll head from South Carolina to campaign in Maine, a Super Tuesday state, with town halls in Portland and Hallowell.

Mike Bloomberg. He’ll speak at the Blue Commonwealth Gala in Virginia on Saturday night, another opportunity to have a Super Tuesday state to himself.


… six days until the ninth Democratic debate
… nine days until the Nevada caucuses 
… 12 days until the 10th Democratic debate
… 16 days until the South Carolina primary 
… 19 days until Super Tuesday

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