The structural changes begin with reforms to party rules over the years that have required states to divide their available delegates among all the candidates who reach a 15 percent voting threshold. Those reforms have eliminated any systems that once provided bonus delegates, and in the process have made it harder for front-runners to pull away from the field.
Two other structural components are encouraging more candidates to stay in the race longer, thus dispersing delegates across more contenders. Traditionally, candidates who struggle in the early states are driven from the race by a shortage of money and media attention. But the advance of online fundraising, as well as the proliferation of campaign coverage across a wide array of media platforms, mean that both are now much more available even for candidates who perform poorly. Additionally, the campaigns of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and (to a lesser extent) the investor Tom Steyer are demonstrating how wealthy candidates who spend huge sums of their own money, especially on TV advertising, can buy a beachhead in the race that further splits the vote.
Then there are the factors specific to this campaign, particularly the constraints all the candidates have so far displayed: None of them delivered performances in Iowa and New Hampshire powerful enough to trigger much winnowing. And none has so far demonstrated an appeal broad enough to span the party’s differences.
The caucus on Saturday seems likely to confirm Sanders’s status as the field’s most formidable contender without answering whether he can expand much beyond his base or elevating one of the other candidates as his principal rival. On the latter front, it seems more likely to cloud than clarify the picture.
Caucuses, which are much more difficult to participate in than primaries, play to Sanders’s greatest strength: his ability to inspire a depth of passionate support that far exceeds that of any of his opponents. That intensity was evident at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas campus yesterday afternoon, when Sanders finished his rally by leading a procession of chanting supporters to a nearby student-union building where they could vote early. Amare Amable, a casino worker who attended the rally, said he did not even seriously consider any of the other contenders before deciding to back Sanders for a second time. “No chance,” he said. “Bernie’s money comes from us and everybody else’s money is coming from rich people.”
But as in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders still faces significant doubts among supporters of the other candidates. While polls show that most Democrats admire Sanders and praise his policy goals, I’ve rarely met anyone at an event for one of his rivals—apart from some at events for Elizabeth Warren—who believes that he can win in November or feels comfortable ideologically with his agenda. “For me, he’s way too far left,” Russ Faulkner, a realtor from Summerlin, Nevada, told me as he waited in line for a Pete Buttigieg event in North Las Vegas yesterday. Angie Clark, a retired financial executive at the same event, was equally dismissive: “I don’t think he’s a Democrat, No. 1. He’s an independent socialist.” If Sanders is the nominee, she said, “I think Trump will be our next president.”