February 21, 2020

It was the former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg who took most of the hits during Wednesday’s Democratic primary debate at the Paris Theatre on the Las Vegas strip. Bloomberg only entered the race 10 weeks ago, but has managed to force himself into contention for the nomination with colossal advertising spending, burning through nearly a quarter of a million dollars so far.

Nearly 75,000 people have already voted for a Democratic candidate in Nevada — an extraordinarily high number: the overall turn out four years ago was 84,000. There are 36 delegates in play. Heading into the Paris Theatre for the final match-up before tomorrow’s caucuses, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders looked the favourite to take the state.

The debate did little to change that. Instead, the Democratic frontrunners honed their fire on Bloomberg, with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts particularly fierce in her attacks on the former New York Mayor. Warren talked of a “billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians”:

“No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

The Sanders campaign received a big boost ahead of the caucus debate when it won the backing of Mijente, a grass-roots Latino group. The group has a 300,000-person email list of supporters whom it will now mobilise to canvas for the Vermont senator. Sanders has already raised four times as much money from Latino contributors as any other Democratic candidate.

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A victory for Sanders in Nevada would stand him in good stead for the Democratic nomination, after victories in the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. The campaign of his biggest challenger, Joe Biden, is visibly flailing. Indeed, a voter asked Biden bluntly during an event in Nevada What the hell is going on with your campaign?”

Eric Lee, a joint coordinator of the Sanders 2020 campaign in the UK, told me that Sanders will win the Nevada caucuses “because he understands better than any other Democrat the two things that have changed in American politics in this century”.

“The first is that the economic crisis of 2008 dealt a death blow to the ‘American dream’, with rising inequality, poverty wages and a trade union movement in terminal decline. The second is that with the collapse of Communism, democratic socialism — which was never a dirty word here in Europe — is no longer a dirty word in America either, especially among young people.”

For some, it may be comforting to put the rise of Bernie Sanders (and Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter) down to youthful irresponsibility and even historical amnesia when it comes to socialism. But there is a real material base for disillusionment with contemporary capitalism.

As Sanders pointed out during a speech at George Washington University in the summer, “the average wage of the American worker in real dollars is no higher than it was forty-six years ago”. He also noted that “life expectancy is declining for the first time in modern American history”.

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Nevada — and specifically Las Vegas — is often associated with the vulgar trappings of the free market. Vegas is home to giant casinos, bottle service clubs, prostitution, pawnshops and ostentatious wealth. Yet trade unionism remains strong — built into the sprawling casinos, hotels and restaurants. Nearly a quarter of North America’s powerful UNITE HERE union members are based in Nevada, forming a branch known as the Culinary Workers Union; the northwestern city of Reno, like Vegas, is a union stronghold.

The Las Vegas skyline is dominated by the giant, gold-coloured hotels belonging to the Wynn group — of Steve Wynn, the long-time Vegas hotelier who opened the first big hotel on the Strip, the Mirage, back in 1989. It was Wynn who struck the first big neutrality agreement with The Culinary (as the Culinary Workers Union is known), ensuring that the union would not be persecuted by management during attempts to sign up members. Other hoteliers soon fell into line.

Today, virtually every hotel on the Las Vegas strip is organised. This bodes well for the Sanders campaign, with much of the Vermont Senator’s rhetoric focusing on issues of class and economic justice.

Yet The Culinary — which is the most powerful union in the state — dislikes Sanders’ Medicare for all bill, which it fears will eliminate the private insurance it won for members. As it did in 2016, the Culinary has declined to endorse any of the candidates (in 2008, it backed Obama). After the announcement on Friday, two leading Culinary officials received threats by phone and online from Sanders’ supporters.

Michael González, a 45-year-old housekeeper who works for MGM resorts and has already voted, told me over the phone that he hadn’t voted for Sanders because of specific concerns he has over the Senator’s healthcare plans. “The plan I [currently] have through the union works for me,” González said.

“I see why the people with no healthcare at all are liking Bernie and what he’s saying, but when you’ve already got a good … plan you’re not gonna necessarily take a gamble on this Medicare for all. My plan could get worse [under Sanders’ vision] and it’s hard for me to vote for something like that.”

The row highlights a friction between ‘fortress unionism’ and the universalist, social democratic message of the Sanders campaign. But he nevertheless remains on course: a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released on Tuesday gave Sanders a double-digit lead over the rest of his competitors in the Nevada primary.

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Still, it was Warren who undoubtedly ‘won’ Wednesday’s debate. It is probably too late for her to take the primary, however (though she did reportedly raise $425,000 in just 30 minutes). Meanwhile, Sanders didn’t slip up: he did a good job of deflecting attacks on him, and so finished the debate as he started it — as the frontrunner.

And so the Nevada caucus probably won’t be the game-changer hoped for by the underdogs. We’ll find out for sure when the post-debate polls start coming in. An improved showing for Warren seems likely, with Bloomberg faltering as the attacks on the billionaire business tycoon gain traction (many younger Democrats will not have known that Bloomberg supported George W. Bush in 2004 until Sanders raised the point in Wednesday’s debate). In the background, Biden continued to flail, and Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old politician from Indiana, failed to set the stage alight as some hoped he would.

Following the vote-counting debacle in Iowa earlier this month, the Nevada Democratic Party will mainly be hoping that the vote-counting process runs smoothly after tomorrow’s caucus. As things stand, the nomination looks increasingly like Sanders’ to lose.

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