Tonight’s Debate in Nevada Is the Most Consequential Moment of the 2020 Race

Thanks to the location of tonight’s Democratic debate, we are all doomed to a common fate: the cringeworthy moment of hearing a pundit proclaim, “One thing’s for sure: What happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas.” We will inevitably hear about candidates “putting all their chips on the table,” and of candidates “going all in.” For journalists in search of an easy metaphor, this is low-hanging fruit, and it will be inescapable. You have been warned.

Now that we have that unpleasantness out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks, because tonight’s debate in Nevada promises to be a fascinating affair. If the roster only included Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden, the potential for contest-altering contention would still be high. The inclusion of billionaire Mike Bloomberg for the first time, however, adds a strange and galling dimension to an already labored nomination fight.

All of the candidates have their own rows to hoe during this debate. Sanders is tasked to fortify his standing. Warren has a stellar opportunity to foster a fresh start for her campaign. Buttigieg and Klobuchar need to capitalize on their strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden, in contrast, is receding like Gatsby’s green light. Bloomberg, to make one last facile gambling analogy, is the wild card in the deck. The intersecting tensions between these six candidates and what they seek to gain tonight, for themselves and from each other, make for a fine latticework of dueling imperatives.

Sanders arrives at the debate leading his rivals by an impressive margin, according to a variety of polls. The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll has him leading the pack nationally by 12 points. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll has him leading nationally by 15 points. There is a dearth of polling in Nevada itself, but the latest poll taken there by Data for Progress shows him leading in that state by 19 points.

Sanders’s signature Medicare For All plan has been attacked by Nevada’s powerful Culinary Workers Union. Members of that union fought long and hard to secure the health benefits they now cherish, and they are wary of the changes Sanders has proposed. A significant number of other unions do not share these concerns, and have endorsed Medicare For All. Rising to the criticism from the Culinary Workers Union, which will likely be underscored by Biden, will be Sanders’s biggest test of the evening.

For the Warren campaign, tonight’s debate on the eve of Saturday’s caucus stands as a potentially pivotal moment. Poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire blunted the momentum that saw her riding high last year, and another third or fourth place finish will do her no favors. Shouldering her way through the curious media blackout that has cloaked her campaign in recent weeks, Warren has a thousand staffers working for her in 31 states, and her campaign is built for the long haul. She also appears to have overcome her unwillingness to throw elbows at her primary opponents, evidenced by her Tuesday demand that Sanders rein in his most obstreperous online supporters.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg have enjoyed the coveted media “flavor of the week” status after Iowa and New Hampshire, though neither has been able to translate those successes into higher standing in the national polls. Both candidates are vying for the same “centrist” turf they hope Biden will soon abandon. Likewise, both candidates come to the debate tonight in dire need of support from voters of color. Nevada will be the first test of that, followed by South Carolina. If neither can distinguish themselves to these voters, and if Biden remains in the race after Super Tuesday, Klobuchar and Buttigieg’s path to the nomination becomes exceedingly narrow.

As for Biden, what else is there to be said? After long months spent running a listless campaign better suited to 2008 — the last time he failed to secure the Democratic nomination — the former vice president appears to be going through the motions at this point. His most energetic campaign performances wither and wander at the midpoint, and tonight will likely prove no different. For Biden, this debate and the Nevada Caucus itself are things to be endured. South Carolina awaits as possibly his campaign’s last shot at recovery, or as its potential Waterloo.

And then, there’s the new guy. After spending $338.7 million on media advertising alone, and with the cynical connivance of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) at the expense of every candidate of color this contest once enjoyed, billionaire Mike Bloomberg will be the sixth person on the debate stage tonight. Had the DNC loosened its debate qualification rules for Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Andrew Yang the way they have for Bloomberg, the debate stage tonight would likely come closer to reflecting the diversity of the constituency that these candidates seek to represent in November.

By any meaningful metric, Bloomberg’s presence should be the equivalent of someone leaping into a shark tank with a ham under each arm and a pork chop tied around their neck.

Bloomberg is famous for pushing racist policies on the people of New York City. He is a notorious misogynist. Until it became politically inconvenient, he was a robust Republican who enthusiastically endorsed George W. Bush at the 2004 GOP national convention. His plan to regulate Wall Street may have been picked from the pockets of Warren and Sanders, but he remains devoted to the dismantling of Social Security. His foreign policy views would make Dick Cheney smile.

Though he has thrown a sliver of his vast wealth at worthy causes, Bloomberg remains what he has always been: A wealthy right-wing authoritarian seeking to buy his way into the White House. He is, in the words of Warren, running in the wrong primary for the wrong party’s nomination. For Warren and Sanders in particular, whose campaigns center on the grossly distorting effect of wealth in politics, Mike Bloomberg is the proverbial broad side of a barn. If they fail to hit him, they will only have themselves to blame.

The same holds true for Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Each seeks the mantle of establishment Democratic candidate, a position Bloomberg says he is willing to spend $1 billion to buy. If those three candidates fail to stagger Bloomberg tonight, his first presidential debate, he will be in a strong position to run their campaigns off the road one by one. His campaign is already arguing that it would be in the national interest for the lower-polling candidates to quit and clear the field for him, so he can concentrate on his chief adversary: Bernie Sanders.

The five other candidates have an opportunity tonight to stifle Bloomberg’s ostentatious vanity campaign before it truly gets off the ground. They have a staggering array of weapons at their disposal.

If the pieces fall together just so, and the other candidates hit their marks, Mike Bloomberg may well experience the single most trying evening of his political life. Failing that, it may be difficult to stop him and the tidal wave of cash he brings to the race.

In that instance, the odds favor a Sanders v. Bloomberg fight for the nomination, and the Democratic Party may well be in ashes at the end of it … or it may emerge stronger than it has been in years. Much depends upon the Nevada debate tonight, and on the caucus to follow.