Here's why political pros are scratching their heads over Nevada

In the ocean of polling that has come to define presidential campaigning, with new numbers released seemingly every hour, there has been but a trickle from Nevada.

More precisely, there have been just two publicly released surveys ahead of Saturday’s Democratic caucuses, according to the aggregators at RealClear Politics.

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Both reflect what has become the common wisdom here in Nevada: A state once seen as something close to a lock for Hillary Clinton has suddenly grown very competitive, with Bernie Sanders riding a strong wave of momentum after a near-tie in the Iowa caucuses and his crushing victory in New Hampshire’s primary.

Polling is a mix of both art and science. Even the best surveys involve a degree of educated guesswork, assuming, for instance, the likelihood of certain voters — women, young people, Latinos — turning out. The horse-race numbers, or candidate match-ups, are then weighted based on those estimates.

Some places are easier to poll than others, which may help explain the dearth of data from Nevada. It is among the most difficult places in the country to survey, meaning any poll numbers should be viewed with even more than the usual amount of caution.

Mark Mellman is a Democratic pollster with a strong track record in the state. His surveys showed Harry Reid winning reelection in 2010 while others had the Senate’s then-majority leader headed to defeat.

Here, according to Mellman, are some of the factors that make Nevada such a tough place to read:

  • The state has a highly transient population, with people constantly coming and going. That makes it difficult not just to track them down, but to divine any sort of voting history that would suggest the likelihood of their participating in an election. (A lot of people will tell a pollster they are certain to vote, since it’s the virtuous thing to do. Given the actual turnout, many people aren’t telling the truth.)
  • The state has a large and growing minority population, which skews on the younger side. Young people as well as Latinos are more likely to use cellphones as opposed to land lines, making them harder and, not incidentally costlier, to reach. So despite the best efforts, those who answer a pollster’s questions may be older and whiter than those who actually turn out to vote.
  • Nevada has a lot of people working odd hours; think of casinos and those 24-hour restaurants serving their clientele. If a pollster conducts a survey at night, they will miss many of those shift workers when they are on the clock. Poll during the day and they will miss the 9-to-5 employee. Not every pollster goes to the trouble and expense of conducting polls both day and night.
  • Polling in a caucus state is always more difficult because of the arcane nature of the process, which discourages many from participating. (It’s not as easy as mailing in a ballot, or dropping by a polling place on the way to or from school or work.) It’s even harder to guess who will show up at noon Saturday because the Nevada caucuses are a relatively new phenomenon. The first, and only competitive, Democrat caucuses were held here in 2008. That's not much history to go on. And there's not yet the level of voter awareness that exists in other early-voting states “It’s not like Iowa, where not everybody participates, but certainly everyone knows about [the caucuses],” Mellman said.

Blessedly, for those obsessed with numbers, relief is not far off. The balloting is now less than 60 hours away. Then there will be real votes to count.

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