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3 winners and 2 losers from the Nevada Democratic caucus

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

There are only two candidates in the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and a presidential nomination is a zero-sum game. So in one respect, Clinton's win over Sanders in Nevada is just that — a win for Clinton and a loss for Sanders.

But politics is a multifaceted world, with more at stake than the narrow question of who will be the nominee. The 2016 race shapes not just the current election year, but also the future trajectory of American politics.

So with an eye to the long term, here are three winners and two losers in Saturday's Nevada caucuses.

Winner: Hillary Clinton

Clinton won the most votes and the most delegates. Not by a landslide, but by enough to break Sanders's momentum. The number of delegates at stake was not enormous, and Nevada is in no way decisive, but the map ahead looks very rough for Sanders.

Next up is the South Carolina primary and it is going to feature a huge number of African-American voters, with whom Clinton has an enormous advantage. Then comes Super Tuesday on March 1, featuring many other black-heavy Southern states. The race isn't over yet, but Clinton is breathing a huge sigh of relief, and Sanders's path to victory now looks very difficult.

Winner: Harry Reid

The idea of the Nevada caucuses as the third event in the Democratic presidential primary process is entirely the brainchild of outgoing Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid. On the one hand, it enhances the prestige of his home state, while on the other hand, the caucus format serves as a party-building exercise for Nevada Democrats.

With Reid on his way out the door, there's been a big chance that the state's newfound status could be jeopardized by the national party. But by successfully turning out casino workers, who in turn helped deliver the state for Clinton, Reid has managed to establish a role for Nevada that's bigger than his parochial agenda — insurgent stopper.

New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status is too well-entrenched to get rid of at this point, but the state's liberal voters have a tendency to boost rogue candidates. A more diverse state whose more urban voters are friendly to establishment candidates suddenly looks like an appealing countermove. Nevada's status early on the calendar looks a lot safer today.

Winner: democratic socialism

Clinton has formidable advantages in this campaign — including a much broader network of endorsers, surrogates, and policy experts along with superior name recognition and a bigger, more experienced staff.

Sanders had really only one advantage: a message about transforming the Democratic Party into a much more ideologically rigorous political party than it has historically been. He advocates for a robust, European-style social democratic agenda of free public provision of health care and higher education.

It looks like this message won't be enough to put him over the top, but it took him much closer than the Democratic establishment believed possible 12, six, or even three months ago. Ambitious politicians in the party are going to be paying attention, and something like the Sanders agenda will be the agenda of the Democratic Party's future.

Loser: democracy

Caucuses are more time-consuming than ordinary primaries, but also require participants to be available during a very specific window. Both factors serve to depress turnout. In Nevada, the powers that be attempted to counteract some of the undemocratic nature of this process by organizing special caucuses for shift workers in the casinos on the Las Vegas strip. But of course, many Nevada shift workers don't work in casinos on the strip — there are restaurants, gas stations, hospitals, and shops all throughout the state, just like in every other state.

Meanwhile, actual administration of the caucuses was a bit of a mess, with some workers not able to finish voting before the end of their lunch breaks and others having trouble obtaining proper paperwork. There's a right way to hold an election, and these caucuses are not the way.

Loser: the political revolution

Sanders has brought two distinctive ideas to the 2016 primary campaign. One is a policy agenda. The other is a theory of politics, the notion that a candidate who eschewed corporate cash and spoke bold truths could spark a political revolution grounded in mobilizing vast hordes of new voters. What we're seeing so far is that there's no sign this works.

Sanders is doing very well with young people and with liberals, but he's not transforming electorates. Even if he were to win the nomination, he would still have to grapple with the basic reality that the median voter in the United States is politically moderate.


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