LAS VEGAS — Who is ready to pick the next Democratic presidential nominee?
Not Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader and Democratic kingmaker here, who is holding off on endorsing a candidate before this Saturday’s all-important Nevada caucuses. Not the Culinary Union, a powerful labor force in this state, that last week endorsed their “goals” instead of singling out a chosen candidate.
And not Nick Russo, a 62-year-old chauffeur from Las Vegas, who was undecided even as he stood in a winding line for early voting under a resplendent blue sky here on Monday morning.
“You’ve got the ultimate evil in there now,” Russo said as the line inched forward, using every last second to puzzle over the question of who could beat President Trump. “I have to use my better judgment as to who’s going to get in there on the other side.”
After more than a year of presidential campaigning and voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats in Nevada and around the nation are confronting a moment of excruciating, frustrating, and perhaps unexpected ambiguity: It is just plain hard to figure out who to put up against Trump.
Iowa offered up a muddled result — one that is still, more than two weeks later, being tallied — and New Hampshire offered the nation a first-place finisher, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, separated from the second-place finisher, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, by 1.3 percentage points.
Now, as all eyes turn to Nevada, which is the first early-voting state with a diverse population, many voters interviewed in Las Vegas and Reno were still struggling to decide or were second-guessing themselves. Some of the influential figures they could look to — including Reid or the popular first-term governor Steve Sisolak — are publicly sitting out the race instead of clarifying it with their influence and, more crucially, their organizational muscle.
“They’re putting it off,” said Karen Mulawski, a retiree who attended an Elizabeth Warren event in Las Vegas, who said the paucity of leading endorsements was leading her to put off her own decision.
“A lot of people are saying they’ll vote for anybody that’s against Trump, anybody,” said Mulawski. “But if they say that, then how do we pick?”
The indecision here, among rank-and-file voters and influential political figures, is both a cause and an effect of a deeply unsettled presidential race in which candidate’s “electability” looms larger for voters than a candidate’s policies or ideology, and a possible sign of a drawn-out nomination battle to come.
“Democrats are desperately searching for the candidate who has the best chance to beat Donald Trump . . . and it isn’t clear,” said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. “I think people are hanging back, especially the moderates, hoping there is some coalition that emerges.”
Endorsements do not always influence rank-and-file voters, but they can help a candidate secure momentum and are often a sign of a party’s willingness to coalesce around a leading candidate.
Any unwillingness to choose is certainly not limited to Nevada. Former president Barack Obama and much of his inner circle has stayed far away from making any endorsements. Newspapers like the Las Vegas Sun and The New York Times have decided to endorse two candidates, while others have held off on deciding at all.
Some voters in Nevada have found themselves as confused as ever. Melanie Scott, 69, a retiree who saw Warren speak in Reno on Sunday, listed four top choices in an interview: Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, and (Amy) Klobuchar. “And,” she added, “I really like Joe Biden.”
She admitted she was thinking more about other voters than she was about herself. “I don’t know who those mystery voters are who voted for Trump,” Scott said. “I don’t know what would appeal to them.”
Here in Nevada, no endorsement — or lack thereof — is seen as more consequential than that of the Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 hotel workers, bartenders, and cooks, more than half of whom are Latino, and runs a robust voter turnout operation here.
Last week, the union warned in a flyer to its members that Sanders’s Medicare for All plan would end culinary workers’ hard-fought health care benefits, but when it came time to announce their endorsement on Thursday, they said they weren’t throwing their weight behind any single candidate.
“We want the members, they decide,” said Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, in an interview on Saturday.
The union’s nondecision has been widely seen as a blow to Biden, who appears to be well-liked by rank-and-file union members and whose flailing candidacy needs every boost it can get.
“If the union decided to bring all of its muscle to bear, it’s very good at its messaging and turning out its members,” said Jon Ralston, the editor of the Nevada Independent. “If they had decided to harness their horsepower behind Joe Biden with enough time, it would have made a difference.”
The union did name-check Biden when it announced its lack of an endorsement, saying he had “been our friend,” and some union members who lined up outside of the local for early voting Monday said they planned to support him.
“What we are looking for is people who protect our health plan,” said Gerardo Saldivar, 64, a busser at the Top of the World restaurant, who planned to choose Biden as his first choice, Buttigieg as his second, and the billionaire Tom Steyer as his third. “No Bernie Sanders,” he said.
Many voters in Iowa and New Hampshire also had difficulty deciding and a recent Nevada poll by the Las Vegas Review Journal and AARP said 8 percent of respondents were undecided. Some 26,000 Nevadans had cast their ballots in early voting as of Monday morning.
One thing making it harder for voters and party elites to settle on a candidate is that the ongoing primaries seem to be expanding the number of viable contenders instead of reducing it. Amy Klobuchar finished third in New Hampshire, triggering an infusion of cash and momentum. The billionaire Tom Steyer could have his strongest finish yet in South Carolina, where he has spent heavily. Biden collapsed in the first two states, but he may do better as the contest moves forward through the primary calendar.
“He’s going to do well in Nevada, he’s going to do extremely well in South Carolina,” said Harry Reid when he voted on Saturday. “People should not be counting Joe Biden out of the race yet.”
Reid told reporters he voted “uncommitted” for his first, second, and third choices, and had warm words for several other candidates running, including Klobuchar and even Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor.
The apparently expanding field of viable candidates left voters like Bonnie Barnett, a health care consultant, second-guessing themselves. Barnett was planning to vote for Buttigieg as she stood in line at the early-voting site at the Culinary Union on Monday.
“I’m a little conflicted because of Bloomberg’s coming on the scene,” Barnett said. And though she was sticking with Buttigieg for now, she said, she wondered if Bloomberg would ultimately be a stronger candidate. “I just don’t know that Buttigieg can beat Trump.”
Russo, the chauffeur, spoke with some regret as he acknowledged that his final decision — still unmade as he stood in line — would be more about electability than politics or policy.
And how was he going to make it?
“You’re going to leave me alone,” he told a reporter, “and I’m going to be with my own thoughts.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of the governor of Nevada. It is Steve.