Joe Biden’s campaign has quietly lowered expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, and conventional wisdom would dictate that South Carolina will save his candidacy if he falters in the first two contests.
But that’s skipping a very critical, large, and diverse state. In Nevada, the caucus that helped turn Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign around after a shaky start, the former vice president spent months coasting on his near-universal name recognition, but that’s about to change.
Interviews with plugged-in Democrats on the ground acknowledge Biden started organizing later than other 2020 contenders, frequently pointing to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Kamala Harris (D-CA), who staffed up early and built out powerful grassroots machines across the state. But, sources said, as the contest draws closer, and as Biden heads to Nevada in mid-November, that dynamic is now shifting. While other campaigns got a head start and have more money on hand, he is working overtime to pick up speed in the second caucus state in the country.
“He started a little late here but they’re starting to catch up and be in a good place,” Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress, told The Daily Beast.
“I see a real thriving campaign,” Donna West, chair of the influential Clark County Democrats, added when asked about the current state of play.
On Wednesday, Biden’s campaign announced a new national organizing initiative targeted towards engaging Latino voters, a critical voting bloc in the Silver State. The program, “Todos con Biden,” will expand Latino outreach operations, community events, and fundraising activities across all early voting states, including Nevada, according to a statement from his campaign.
“Joe knows the Latino community and it knows him; he has been fighting beside us for decades. Now we’re going to fight for him: knocking on doors; registering voters; and talking to our friends, family, and neighbors about Joe, and about how absolutely crucial it is to vote in 2020,” said Laura Jiménez, Biden’s national Latino vote director.
During a trip to Reno in early October, Biden launched into a rebuke of President Trump, who has in recent weeks ramped up criticism of his legacy and family, in what some Democrats described as his strongest critique of the president to date.
“I’ll put my integrity of my whole career in public service to this nation up against his long record of lying, cheating, stealing any day of the week,” Biden said, further debunking allegations that his son Hunter engaged in unethical conduct in Ukraine and China, claims Trump has attempted to exploit for political gain.
But perhaps the most notable difference, unaffiliated Democrats and campaign officials alike acknowledge, was the additional focus on the ground. Biden’s campaign now has nearly 40 staff across the state, with five throughout Las Vegas and one in Reno, a campaign official based in the state said. The team is also looking to expand in two rural areas: Mesquite and Elko. And while the campaign has had a presence there since late April, the official said that they have “been scaling up since then” and plan to further increase their “organizing presence and program across the board” in the coming months.
“We’re confident that our operation is going to allow us to pick as many delegates as possible,” the Nevada-based campaign official said.
Biden’s outreach to unions—a strategy that dates back to the first days of his presidential campaign—is also gaining momentum in Nevada, where unions for culinary workers, carpenters and service industry employees are well-organized and politically influential.
“Wall Street, bankers, hedge fund managers, they did not build this country—you built this country,” Biden told union members at the Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 159 Union Hall in Henderson, Nevada, shortly after announcing his run in April. “The only people who benefit when a company does well are CEOs and the shareholders.”
The former vice president made early strides to build on that strategy in the state, speaking in front of unions representing public-sector employees, tradesmen, and hospitality workers, and deploying surrogates with top-notch union bona fides as surrogates in the state, including former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who spoke in support of Biden at an August AFL-CIO convention in Las Vegas.
“We were, I would say, kind of soulmates, because on the Cabinet he was in charge of the middle-class task force,” Solis said, noting that union leaders would often go straight to Biden when they wanted the Obama administration’s ear.
More recently, Biden has also won the endorsement of state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, the former political director of the Culinary Workers Union, which represents roughly 60,000 casino, hotel and restaurant workers and describes itself as “one of the strongest political forces in the state.” The union’s endorsement of Clinton in 2016 steadied her campaign after a bruising primary, and Biden clearly hopes that following potential difficulties in Iowa and New Hampshire, such an endorsement smother the competition making his decision to wade into a fight between the union and Station Casinos earlier this month more than worth it.
In an Oct. 1 letter to Station Casinos CEO Frank Fertitta, Biden wrote that the company’s refusal to recognize a vote by workers to join the Culinary Workers Union last year was “deeply troubling” and “unlawful,” telling the executive and generous Republican donor that “these workers have earned their seat at the negotiating table and they are legally entitled to recognition.”
Although every major Democratic presidential hopeful has voiced their support for the Culinary Workers Union in its fight with Station Casinos, Biden was the first to take his condemnation straight to the casino chain’s top executive.
But, Biden wrote, “this isn’t about partisan politics—it’s about what’s good for your workers, your business and Nevada’s economy.” An official from his presidential campaign emphasized the same point in a separate interview.
Biden’s other 2020 efforts in Nevada haven’t always been so robust.
In the months after Biden launched his third presidential bid in April, his campaign had focused much of its early state strategy on South Carolina, the fourth to vote and the first with a majority of African Americans, where Biden enjoys a comfortable lead. Spend time and resources there, the thinking went, and gradually move towards other key contests.
Democrats in Nevada, similar to other early nominating states, said the strategy makes sense. As the former vice president to the most popular Democrat in the country, Barack Obama, he had less to do to introduce himself to voters. In the most recent average of state polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, Biden has narrowly maintained his lead, coming in at 22.5 percent, ahead of Warren at 18.5 percent and Sanders at 18 percent.
But they cautioned that he can’t afford to take the state for granted.
“That is one of my criticisms of Joe Biden—he got here later,” Magnus said. “He didn’t have to do the legwork. I do think that puts him at a disadvantage. It gives other campaigns time to staff up with a lot of good talent.”
Even among union leaders, who Biden clearly considers his bread and butter nationally, some feel that Biden’s particular focus on the powerful culinary union—which represents more members than any other union in the state—comes at their expense. Brian Shepherd, chief of staff for the SEIU Nevada Local 1107, which represents 20,000 members, said that the union’s members have met with every one of the major presidential candidates—except Biden.
“I know he’s met with the culinary union, and maybe that’s all he thinks he needs,” Shepherd said, noting that Warren and Sanders had reached out to the union back in the spring. “All his competitors have met with our members. Other candidates—I don’t know if they’re hungrier—are doing the work.”
A campaign official based in Nevada said that Biden’s outreach “has been alive and consistent with unions in the state.”
“Whether in a formal or informal capacity, we’ve partnered with a lot of unions over the course of this campaign,” the official said.
Additionally, unions aren’t anywhere near ready to hand out endorsements quite yet, particularly with a presidential field as wide and pro-worker as this one. National unions have taken steps to tamp down any premature enthusiasm from local chapters, lest they weaken the importance of endorsements down the line.
“Local unions may be tempted to endorse on their own, but with so many candidates in the field, they risk diluting their union’s endorsement and creating their own version of a primary,” said one spokesperson for a national labor union. “It makes more sense to wait and continue the conversations with candidates that seem to be genuinely interested in listening to the issues workers are struggling with.”
“The 2020 presidential candidates are working hard to win the support of educators in Nevada. That is why the presidential candidates have sat down with Nevada educators, hosted roundtables, and laid out their visions for providing opportunity for every student and strengthening our public schools,” said Nevada State Education Association President Brian Rippet. “So, as Caucus Day approaches, our members continue doing their homework to learn about which candidate has the best ideas for ensuring all students receive support, tools, and time to learn.”
Part of the increased legwork facing the campaign lies in fundraising. Biden has significantly less cash on hand than other frontrunners, with just approximately $9 million in the bank. Sanders, by comparison, has $34 million in cash on hand, and Warren has $26 million, according to recent third quarter filings with the Federal Election Commission.
But strategists, asked whether Biden will have enough money to go the distance, said that having significantly less money to work with than his rivals isn’t a candidacy-killing problem for the former vice president—yet.
“I’d rather have $20 million in the bank than $9, but it isn’t a problem yet,” Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist told The Daily Beast. “The reality is they do and will have enough to compete in the early states. There’s no reason at all to panic now.”
In the past six months, Biden’s team has made five trips to Nevada to woo caucus-goers and influential party members, with the pace picking up considerably over the past several weeks, Democrats said.
“They’re working closely with the state party,” West said. “To me it’s a very active well-built campaign that’s working.”
Correction: This article initially misstated that the CWU’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as having been announced during the primary campaign, rather than after its conclusion.