Inside the Clinton-Sanders Nevada showdown with Jon Ralston

The 'three states' of Nevada politics
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Story highlights

  • The dean of Nevada political journalists set the tone
  • Ralston has been covering state politics for three decades

(CNN)Every four years, when the presidential election circus rolls into Nevada, the eyes of political reporters and campaign aides turn to the same man: Jon Ralston.

His tough reporting and insightful analysis -- informed by decades of covering the state's politics and players -- go a long way toward shaping the national narrative leading up to the Nevada caucuses. In a state that suffers from a dearth of polling, a quirky caucus process, and relatively little time in the national spotlight (when compared to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina), his word often serves as a guide for political analysts and reporters.
"He knows everyone and everything, he has triple sourcing on even the most scandalous stuff he reports, and he has a knack for explaining his state to us national-media mugs in a way that makes sense," Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC host, told CNN.
"He knows the politics, culture and history of his state in a way that makes him an invaluable resource for those of us who descend on 'LAS' looking for everything from Harry Reid's latest thinking to the best restaurant on and off the strip," said Jonathan Martin, The New York Times' national political correspondent.
In recent days, Ralston has been squarely focused on the Democrats, who will hold their caucuses Saturday. A key issue in the contest centers on the state's Hispanic population, he says. A win for Hillary Clinton with Latinos would bolster her standing as the preferred candidate among one of the party's most important constituencies, while a victory for Bernie Sanders would disprove the argument that his appeal does not extend to minorities.
Ralston, 56, has been covering Nevada politics for nearly three decades. He hosts a nightly political talk show called "Ralston Live" on the state's PBS affiliates and writes a morning email that is seen as the state's most influential politics newsletter. Since leaving The Las Vegas Sun in 2012 amid disputes with the publisher, he has contributed to various national publications and this week joined MSNBC as a contributor.
Ralston is known for being outspoken, though he is an equal opportunity offender. In Nevada and Washington, Ralston is perhaps best known for his longstanding contentious relationship with Reid, who once blacklisted Ralston for two years after the journalist wrote a story about Reid accepting speaking fees.
When it comes to the current Democratic presidential hopefuls, Ralston is tough on both. He has reported critically on Clinton and Sanders, and recently broke the news that Sanders' campaign operatives had posed as union workers in Las Vegas in an effort to win supporters.
"Both campaigns have been pissed with me at different times," Ralston told CNN in an interview. "I treat Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders the same way I treat other politicians, and I don't change my behavior based on the candidate."
Nevertheless, it so happens that the national media are descending on Nevada precisely at the time that Ralston's criticisms of the Clinton campaign are at a high.
For days, Ralston has been slamming the campaign's effort to portray Nevada as a largely white state as it seeks to lower expectations ahead of the Saturday vote -- a CNN poll this week showed the contest in a virtual dead heat -- and suggest that the lack of diversity will benefit to Sanders, as it did in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"There's an important Hispanic element to the Democratic caucus in Nevada, but it's still a state that is 80% white voters," Brian Fallon, the Clinton campaign press secretary, said last week. "You have a caucus-style format, and he'll have the momentum coming out of New Hampshire presumably, so there's a lot of reasons he should do well."
Ralston has called that "a canard," noting that "Nevada's Hispanic population is about 27%," and that "nearly half of the state's population is made up of minorities." In response to a Clinton source's claim that the campaign's modeling showed an 80-percent white turnout in Nevada come Saturday, Ralston wrote: "This would be the model constructed after 14 martinis, perhaps."
He added, "Lately, the Clinton campaign has not been thrilled with what I've said about their absolutely ludicrous spin, which is blatantly false."
The Clinton campaign declined to comment for this story, but in an interview with Ralston on Tuesday, for his local PBS show "Ralston Live," Clinton distanced herself from those comments.
"That's not me," Clinton said. "I have a great campaign, they work hard, but I love Nevada. Nevada was put into this early process because of diversity."
Still, following Ralston's lead, the national media are focusing more and more on the Clinton's challenges in Nevada.
"I don't smell a rat," Ralston wrote last week. "I smell something much more pungent from the Clinton campaign: fear."