First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Why the Stakes Are So High in Nevada
LAS VEGAS -- We’re just hours away from tonight’s Democratic town hall and two days out from the state’s caucuses, and both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have plenty on the line here in Nevada. A Clinton loss -- in a state where she held the early organizational and demographic advantages -- would launch another week’s worth of negative headlines for her campaign, hardly the momentum it wants going into South Carolina. (“Will there be a shakeup?” “Is Mike Bloomberg going to jump in?” “Is there any way that Joe Biden could reconsider?” “How is she losing to a democratic socialist who didn’t even belong to the party until now?”)
So it would be painful loss. But as we wrote earlier this week, a Sanders loss could even be more impactful because it would set up Hillary Clinton to start running the table over the next two weeks in South Carolina and the southern March 1 states. And if that’s the case, come March 2, she might have a delegate lead that’s impossible to catch up to given the proportional nature of all of the Democratic races. So Sanders needs a win to keep the pressure on Clinton, and Clinton needs a win to finally start pulling away.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders compete over black votesFeb. 18, 201602:29
Tonight’s MSNBC Clinton-Sanders Town Hall
Beginning at 9:00 pm ET (6:00 pm local), Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will participate in a town hall from Las Vegas moderated by NBC’s Chuck Todd and Jose Diaz Balart. Sanders will go first (which was determined by a coin toss), and Clinton will go second.
Tonight’s Rachel Maddow Interview With Joe Biden
Also tonight on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow will interview Vice President Joe Biden, and the interview will air an hour before the town hall.
Outlier or Canary in the Coal Mine?
We have to admit: Even we were shocked by our new NBC/WSJ numbers yesterday -- that Donald Trump had dropped to second in the national GOP horserace. According to the poll, it’s Ted Cruz 28%, Trump 26%, Marco Rubio 17%, John Kasich 11%, Ben Carson 10%, and Jeb Bush 4%. And given all of the other polling in the GOP contest, both nationally and also in South Carolina, it’s very possible our poll is an outlier. (It happens to even the best of polls.)
Or it could be a canary in the coal mine. As NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff puts it, "When you see a number this different, it means you might be right on top of a shift in the campaign. What you don't know yet is if the change is going to take place or if it is a momentary 'pause' before the numbers snap back into place." And yes, a new national CBS poll shows Trump with a 17-point lead over Cruz. Then again, half of that poll (Feb. 12-16) was conducted before Saturday’s GOP debate, while the entire NBC/WSJ poll was conducted after it (Feb. 14-16).
Ted Cruz pulls ahead of Donald Trump in new national pollFeb. 18, 201603:03
Public Split Over Whether Senate Should Vote on Obama’s Eventual Supreme Court Pick
Also from the NBC/WSJ poll: American voters are divided -- especially along party lines -- whether the U.S. Senate should vote this year on President Obama's eventual nominee to succeed Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Overall, 43% say the Senate should vote this year on a replacement, versus 42% who prefer to leave the position vacant and vote next year on a replacement nominated by the new president; 15% have no opinion. Among Democratic voters, 81% want the Senate to vote this year, while just 9% disagree. But those numbers are flipped among Republicans – 81% of them want to leave the position vacant, while 11% prefer to vote this year. Independents are split -- 43% this year, 42% next year. The rest of the NBC/WSJ comes out later today.
African Americans See Bias in Opposition to Obama Court Pick
Don't miss this New York Times piece with frustrations from African Americans when Republicans say they won't consider ANY Obama Supreme Court pick. “They’ve been fighting that man since he’s been there,” Mr. Gadsden, who is African-American, said of Mr. Obama, before pointing at his forearm to explain what he said was driving the Republican opposition: “The color of his skin, that’s all, the color of his skin.” “Our president, the president of the United States, has been disrespected from Day 1,” Carol Richardson, 61, said on Wednesday as she colored a customer’s hair at Ultra Beauty Salon in Hollywood, S.C., a mostly black town near Charleston. “The words that have been said, the things the Republicans have done they’d have never have done to another president. Let’s talk like it is, it’s because of his skin color.”
On the Trail
Before tonight’s Democratic town hall, Hillary Clinton holds a get-out-the-vote event in Las Vegas, while Bernie Sanders meets with civil-rights leaders in DC… Donald Trump holds a pair of rallies in South Carolina… And Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Ben Carson also campaign in the Palmetto State.
Countdown to Dem Nevada caucuses: 2 days
Countdown to GOP South Carolina primary: 2 days
Countdown to GOP Nevada caucuses: 5 days
Countdown to Dem South Carolina primary: 9 days