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Bernie Sanders's war with Nevada Democrats, explained

Bernie Sanders has escalated his feud with Nevada Democratic officials after some of his supporters made death threats against party leaders.
Bernie Sanders has escalated his feud with Nevada Democratic officials after some of his supporters made death threats against party leaders.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This weekend's Nevada state convention wasn't the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — when antiwar activists nearly tore the city apart over a brokered presidential nomination — but you could be forgiven for mistaking it as such.

There were death threats against Democratic Party officials. There were chants decrying electoral fraud. A state party chair was forced to flee the convention floor amid shouted obscenities, a physical fight, and thrown chairs.

The scenes were so ugly that on Tuesday Bernie Sanders denied allegations from Nevada party officials that his supporters had demonstrated a "penchant for violence." But Sanders also endorsed the heart of the protesters' key grievances, likely intensifying their feeling that they had been cheated by Nevada officials.

"It is imperative that all state parties treat our campaign supporters with fairness," Sanders said in a statement. "That was not the case at the Nevada convention. At that convention the Democratic leadership used its power to prevent a fair and transparent process from taking place."

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and even the White House press secretary have weighed in on the weekend's events.

As an isolated incident, this fight boils down to an obscure disagreement over the state's convention rules, with little actual consequence for the Democratic race. But the mayhem in Nevada this weekend is worth your attention anyway, because it suggests the depth of many Sanders supporters' anger toward the Democratic Party — and Sanders's willingness to encourage it.

Nevada officials received death threats over the convention fight

Sanders's supporters revolted at the state convention, held at the Paris hotel and casino in Las Vegas, over what will ultimately amount to the allocation of no more than a handful of delegates to the national convention.

Their frustration has spilled over since the weekend, with Nevada Democratic Party chair Roberta Lange being subjected to death threats and harassments, according to multiple reports.

Here are the details from CNN:

The phone number and address of the chairwoman of the Nevada Democratic Party, Roberta Lange, was posted on social media -- prompting a flood of more than 1,000 calls, angry voicemails, text messages and even death threats. ...

"This is a citizen of the United States of America and I just wanted to let you know that I think people like you should be hung in a public execution to show this world that we won't stand for this sort of corruption," an unidentified male caller said on the message ...

One text message read: "We know where you live... where your kids go to school/grandkids. We have everything on you."

The convention itself had to be shut down by security and local police, who were called in amid reports of fisticuffs on the convention floor. Jon Ralston, a Nevada political expert, also reported that Sanders's backers shouted vulgarities at California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who later said she feared for her safety:

By the time hotel security shut down the event late Saturday evening, the Sanders delegates had hurled ugly epithets at Clinton surrogate Barbara Boxer, and used a sign to block her from being shown on big screens...

The next day, a group of Sanders supporters protested at the state Democratic Party headquarters and scrawled messages ('Murdered democracy" and "You are scum" among them) on the outside walls and nearby sidewalks. ...

In his statement, Sanders said he condemns "any and all forms of violence, particularly personal harassment of individuals," and called accusations against his campaign for fostering violence "nonsense."

But he ultimately also turned the attacks against his critics, saying that "shots were fired" at his campaign office in Nevada and that his staff's apartment complex had been ransacked.

What set off the events in Nevada was pretty minor. That's why it's so important.

The upshot of the dispute over Nevada's delegates is this: Hillary Clinton won the state's caucuses at the ballot box in February, but Sanders's supporters then took advantage of a legitimate but little-used vote in April to try to flip the state's delegates to the national convention to Sanders's side.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid said at a press conference on Tuesday that he holds Bernie Sanders responsible for the chaos at the state convention over the weekend. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At this weekend's convention, Nevada's party made some decisions — unfair in the eyes of Sanders fans but legitimate to many neutral observers — that resulted in Clinton ending up with the majority of delegates in the state she won anyway.

Here's the blow-by-blow of how the controversy unfolded:

  • When Nevada held its caucuses in late February, Clinton won the popular vote total by a 53-to-47 margin.
  • But, confusingly, that's not where the contest actually stopped. As in many states, Nevada sends two kinds of pledged delegates to the National Democratic Convention: 1) those awarded by congressional district after the vote totals, and 2) those chosen and awarded at the state convention in May.
  • Because she won the initial popular vote, Clinton locked up 13 of the 23 delegates that are awarded by congressional district. But 12 additional Nevada delegates in the second category were still up for grabs — again, to be determined by the state convention.
  • These additional 12 "at-large" national delegates are chosen by the more than 3,000 delegates who go to the Nevada state convention, who are themselves chosen during little-noticed county voting in early April.
  • During these county-level contests, Sanders's team out-organized Clinton and won more of the state delegates to send to the statewide convention — meaning they looked likely to flip some of the remaining 12 delegates not locked up after the original caucuses, according to the Washington Post.

But Clinton's team had a firewall: the leadership of the state convention.

The reporting here is a little fuzzy, but Sanders's supporters are claiming that Nevada state party officials gamed the rules this weekend to help ensure that the majority of the remaining delegates ended up going to Clinton.

At the state convention, Clinton ultimately had 1,693 delegates while Sanders had 1,662, according to the Las Vegas Sun. That lead was only possible because state officials disqualified 56 Sanders-supporting delegates who had filled out incorrect paperwork or hadn't registered as Democrats in time, the Sun reported. (Fewer than 10 Clinton delegates were similarly disqualified.)

The fact that 56 Sanders delegates were excluded in Nevada might sound like a big deal, but remember we're not talking about delegates to the national convention. The delegates — who state officials say were legitimately disqualified — were part of a pool of more than 3,300 state representatives that then choose the national delegates.

Ultimately, Lange, the state's party chair, awarded seven of the remaining 12 national delegates to Clinton and the other five to Sanders.

The bigger picture: The process actually worked reasonably well

At the end of the day, what presumably matters most to both sides is how many delegates get sent to the national convention to pick the presidential nominee. And by that more critical metric, the system held up reasonably well: Sanders ultimately received 47 percent of the state's popular vote and 15 of 20 of its delegates to the national convention (or 43 percent).

Sanders, in other words, got just about as many delegates as the state's popular vote total would suggest. Not even Sanders's most hardcore loyalists would claim that what happened on Saturday will sway the outcome of the Democratic primary.

"Thanks to Clinton's victory in Nevada on Saturday, hard-fought on the carpeted floor of the Paris hotel and casino in Las Vegas, her lead over Sanders extends to 282," the Washington Post reports. "Had Sanders's supporters been successful on Saturday, that margin would have been 278 — a number that still demands that the senator win two-thirds of the remaining pledged delegates to take the lead."

What's notable here, then, is not how high the stakes were but how low. A minor rules flap spawned a fight, the mobilization of local police, graffiti on public buildings alleging that "democracy" had been "murdered," and the vandalizing of party headquarters.

Business Insider's Josh Barro summed it up this way:

The bigger worry: Sanders's supporters are increasingly distrustful of the electoral process

Even before Sanders himself decried Nevada's particular rules, his supporters were echoing complaints he's made for months now about the fairness of the Democratic Party's primary contest.

It's not clear how fair those critiques are. The party has a hodgepodge of election rules, like closed primaries, that certainly have hurt Sanders's candidacy. But some rules, like the caucuses that reward fired-up activists, have clearly helped him.

Overall, the cumulative impact of the confusing patchwork of state rules has been to cast doubt over the legitimacy of the nomination process. And Sanders himself tends to encourage this. When he issued his statement in Nevada on Tuesday, he also issued a set of demands on how Nevada's process could be altered to "welcome" his new voters.

In 2008, 67 percent of Americans thought the presidential nominations were being conducted fairly, according to Gallup. That number is now at around 30 percent for 2016, with only 32 percent of Democrats saying that they trust the election system. (About 51 percent of voters told Reuters they consider the primary system "rigged.")

I've written several stories arguing that Democrats shouldn't worry too much about the "Bernie or bust" movement — polling says Sanders's fans vastly prefer Clinton to Trump, Sanders himself has promised to support Clinton if he loses the race, and Democrats enjoy overwhelming consensus on the vast majority of policy questions.

But the bigger worry for Democrats may not be that Sanders's supporters view Donald Trump as a better presidential candidate, but rather that they come to regard the whole electoral system — and Clinton's nomination — as inherently fraudulent.

In Nevada, it didn't take much for Sanders's supporters to turn complaints about an election's legitimacy into real violence. But if Sanders continues to foster discontent over both the party's establishment and its nominee, this weekend's uproar suggests his supporters will be ready to have his back.

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