The big news out of the Democratic caucuses Nevada on Saturday was what didn’t happen: Hillary Clinton didn’t lose to Bernie Sanders. If she had, Clinton’s “inevitable” nomination as the Democratic candidate for U.S. President would have been seen as anything but. Winning puts her campaign back on course to what had once seemed like a foregone conclusion.
This time, Sanders was the victim of the expectations game. In the weeks leading up to the Nevada ballot, Sanders had dramatically erased Clinton’s 20-point lead; the force seemed to be with him. In the 48 hours leading up to the caucuses, bolder prognosticators were even starting to predict a Sanders upset. Thus, what would have otherwise been billed as an amazing comeback by the Senator from Vermont was now being cast as a significant achievement for the candidate who was supposed to have won from the outset.
Though it’s hard to dissect the results based on often-sketchy entrance and exit polls, Sanders maintained his crushing lead among younger and more liberal voters. He seemed to have made significant inroads among Hispanic voters as well, and the word “significant” could very well be an understatement. Nonetheless, despite his enthusiastic operatives and lavish spending on political ads, Sanders and his campaign failed to generate the kind of voter turnout that would have enabled him to turn the tables. According to NBC, 80,000 Democrats voted in Saturday’s caucuses, compared to 90,000 in 2008, when Clinton beat Barack Obama.
More significantly, perhaps, Sanders seems to have crucially failed to win over African American voters, who remained loyal to Clinton by a whopping 76%-22% margin, according to the exit polls. This could prove significant in next Saturday’s primaries in South Carolina, where African Americans comprise the largest voting bloc, as well as in some of the states participating in the March 1 Super Tuesday races.
Another factor contributing to Clinton’s victory was the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a Las Vegas labor powerhouse in a city in which, incongruously, organized labor is still powerful. The 80-year-old-union – which has a colorful history that includes decades of mafia influence and the 1977 mob killing of its leader, Al Bramlett – was persuaded by Nevada Senator Harry Reid to lean on casino owners to allow caucuses to operate on their premises. In these caucuses, in which Hispanic and African Americans dominate, Clinton won overwhelming victories.
Though they refrained from backing Clinton openly, the pivotal role played by Reid, the Culinary Workers Union and old style politics can be described, to continue with the Star Wars vernacular, as The Establishment Strikes Back! For the first time since primary season began, the “machine” of one of the two big parties registered a significant achievement. Whether it signals a sea change or not will be quickly ascertained in the upcoming primaries: it is certainly a shot in the arm for those who had bemoaned the triumph of “outsider” politics.
Clinton’s victory speech after the results were made known reflected her great relief at not having been humiliated for the third time running, following her ultra-narrow win in Iowa and her crushing defeat in New Hampshire. Her victory reinvigorates her supporters, who had started to show signs of demoralization after her previous underperformances. Now it’s Sanders’ turn to prove that he can come back from a loss, though his task may be much harder than Clinton’s, if only because his eventual defeat had until recently seemed to be the only realistic result of the Democratic race. And to borrow another movie title that has become a cliché, reality bites.
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