Saturday’s Nevada Democratic caucuses delivered Senator Bernie Sanders an indisputable victory and solidified his position as the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
After the initial lack of results (and then error-laden results) in the poorly run Iowa Democratic caucuses followed by a razor-thin win in New Hampshire, Sanders lapped the field in the Silver State: he won 46.8% of the vote in the first alignment while the runner-up, former Vice President Joe Biden, won just 20.4%.
In third place was South Bend’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg, with 13.9%, followed by Elizabeth Warren (9.8%), Tom Steyer (4.6%), and Amy Klobuchar (4.2%).
Sanders’ win exceeded already-high expectations; over the past couple of weeks, polls had shown him winning around 36% of the vote in Nevada. The Vermont socialist drew on a broad coalition of support to claim this victory, winning men and women, union and non-union households, Latinos and whites, and all but the oldest age category. The core of Sanders’ support came from young voters, Latinos, and very liberal voters, all of whom voted over 50% for him.
Sanders’ campaign has been praised for its superior grassroots organizing, which helped drive a large turnout in Nevada, especially among young and Latino voters. The campaign organized community events – such as soccer tournaments – in Latino neighborhoods, worked alongside immigrant-rights groups, offered training for volunteers in Spanish, and provided translation services at the caucuses.
The vote also proved the power of Sanders’ grassroots movement against established political interests. In the run-up to the caucuses the most powerful labor union in the state – UNITE HERE Local 226, which represents over 60,000 culinary workers – attacked Medicare For All (Sanders’ signature policy) as “the end of Culinary healthcare.” Despite these and other dire warnings, most culinary workers bucked their union leaders and voted for Sanders, in large part thanks to engagement by motivated young pro-Sanders activists.
Joe Biden will likely be quietly pleased by his outcome in Nevada.
Despite the vote definitively handing the front-runner status to Sanders – a status Biden held onto for over a year – second place is the best result Biden has achieved so far, and was slightly better than the polling indicated for him.
Biden’s team have touted the result as the start of a “comeback” for the former-Vice President. In the aftermath of terrible results in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and the appearance of Michael Bloomberg as an alternative figurehead for voters who don’t lean towards the Democratic party’s liberal wing, this is not an unreasonable claim. However, Biden and his team still have a lot of work to do if they are to overtake Sanders and return to the dominant position they held early in the campaign – a daunting prospect, given the campaign’s precarious finances.
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg is also likely to be cautiously pleased by his third-place position in Nevada. While he slightly under-performed his polling, he is by no means facing the kind of collapse Joe Biden saw in the first two states.
His result is largely due to his campaign’s clever strategic approach to the state, focusing on rural counties that the other candidates largely neglected; a similar approach helped Barack Obama clinch Nevada in the 2008 caucuses.
Buttigieg’s team is likely to spin this result in the most racially-diverse state yet to vote as evidence against his weakness with minority voters – although the looming South Carolina primary will prove much more definitive on that issue.
Senator Elizabeth Warren had a disappointing night in Nevada.
Her electrifying performance in Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas came too late to pull her out of the slump her campaign is currently experiencing.
Nevada is the third disappointment in a row for Warren, and comes in spite of her campaign investing significant resources in the state.
Warren’s path to the nomination is becoming more and more difficult – she is not expected to do well in this Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, and a recent poll suggested that she may not even win her home state of Massachusetts (which votes on March 3rd, also known as Super Tuesday).
At first glance, Californian billionaire and activist Tom Steyer has reason to be pleased by the result in Nevada – he placed among the top five, the first time he has done so. However, Steyer has plunged a staggering quantity of cash (over $16 million) into advertising in Nevada; more than the rest of the field combined, and six times as much as Bernie Sanders. If all that money can only buy a man 5%, it is hard to see why Steyer is even still bothering to continue his run.
Senator Amy Klobuchar’s Nevada result was an undeniable flop – especially coming off of a surprise third place in New Hampshire – but it was little surprise. Klobuchar has so far failed to connect to Latino voters, a significant part of the Democratic electorate in Nevada (her trademark jokes apparently don’t translate well into Spanish, or even Spanglish) and her campaign team struggled to fill even basic positions, making the result somewhat of a foregone conclusion for her.
As well as solidifying Sanders’ position at the front of the Democratic pack, Nevada offers some insight for Democrats looking forward to the general election.
If Sanders wins the nomination (which now seems increasingly likely) and goes up against Trump, his strategy in Nevada will help him in November.
Democrats have historically relied on high voter turnout to carry them to the White House, and the Nevada caucuses saw a massive increase in voter turnout compared to 2016. This turnout was driven largely by pro-Sanders activists among the Latino community, a vital constituency for Democrats in border states such as Texas and Arizona that voted for Trump in 2016.
The fact that Sanders has so far been able to out-perform billionaire-backed candidates (and actual billionaires) also bodes well for November.
Trump is a walking fundraising machine (thanks to his policies that almost exclusively benefit racist old billionaires) and has an efficient advertising machine, but Sanders has so far defied the normal financial rules of politics, breaking small-donor donation records and using social media and his grassroots support in ways that are both cheap and highly effective at winning over skeptics.
Furthermore, the fact that Sanders managed to win over workers despite major union opposition shows that his policies such as Medicare For All and the Green New Deal are not – as some right-leaning Democrats would have you believe – “too radical” for the working-class voters whose votes (particularly in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) ultimately decided the 2016 election, but are capable of winning back Obama-Trump voters to the Democratic cause.