Bernie Sanders is on a roll.
The independent senator from Vermont cruised to victory in Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada, where his campaign has been building Latino support for months. As of 7:30 pm Eastern, our partners at Decision Desk are projecting Sanders as the winner. So far, Decision Desk estimates Sanders has added nine more delegates to his count, putting him in first place in the delegate race.
“In Nevada, we have just put together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition, which is not only going to win Nevada, it’s going to sweep this country,” Sanders said in his victory speech, addressing a large crowd in San Antonio, Texas. “No campaign has a grassroots movement like we do, which is another reason we’re going to win this election.”
A win in Nevada helps solidify Sanders’s frontrunner status; this is his second outright win in an early state after New Hampshire. Sanders also won the popular vote in the Iowa caucuses, and as of the latest recanvass of those caucuses’ convoluted results, he was effectively tied with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa state delegates — separated by 0.004 percentage points.
Still, the race for delegates between Sanders and Buttigieg has been closer; they won an equal number of delegates in New Hampshire, and Buttigieg currently has 23 delegates, compared to 21 for Sanders.
Nevada’s win only bolsters his position as he heads into South Carolina and Super Tuesday. Southern states will test Sanders’s strength with black voters, a group he did poorly with in 2016 and one that initially seemed eager to back former Vice President Joe Biden in 2020. Biden’s once-formidable lead in South Carolina has been shrinking, and there are signs Sanders is eating into Biden’s support among black voters; a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of black Democratic primary voters found 31 percent supporting Biden and 29 percent supporting Sanders.
Sanders’s win in Nevada could also be a good sign for him as we barrel toward Super Tuesday on March 3, when a massive chunk of delegates will be allotted. His campaign has put significant resources and energy into campaigning in California, a state with more than 400 delegates.
“He’s done very well with Latino voters,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign. “He’s very strong in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. He’s strong in rural California. he’s campaigned and gone to place like Chico and Fresno and paid attention to the needs of central California, rural California.”
How Sanders pulled off his win
In 2016, Sanders came closer to winning the Nevada caucuses than anyone thought possible. Four years later, he retained much of that support.
“He started with a nice little base,” said longtime Nevada Democratic strategist Billy Vassiliadis. “He carried over most of those average supporters he had four years ago. Those folks stayed active, they stayed loyal, they’re Bernie folks.”
Sanders’s campaign didn’t take their 2016 advantage for granted this year. Even though Nevada is historically overlooked, Sanders started building an organizational machine in the state 10 months ago. By Friday, his campaign had knocked on 500,000 doors across the state’s 17 counties.
“We canvass all day long. ... We canvass, text, and call at all hours because we know people are home at different hours,” Sanders Nevada state director Sarah Michelsen told me recently. “I’m very confident in our program. We’re not taking anything for granted, and we’re not leaving anything on the field.”
In a statement, Michelsen said the campaign has “built a turnout machine that will propel us to victory here in Nevada.”
Sanders’s momentum out of New Hampshire also helped boost this large Nevada campaign operation attempting to turn out a diverse slate of voters. State and national polls show Sanders doing very well among Latino voters; a February Morning Consult national poll showed his support among these voters growing as Biden’s fell.
One potential setback for Sanders was the powerful Culinary Union, a politically powerful hospitality workers union. It issued something of an anti-endorsement of Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan, which its leaders feared would mean the end of their union insurance.
But early reports from Nevada on caucus night suggested Culinary Union members broke with leadership and caucused in wide numbers for Sen. Bernie Sanders, according to Nevada Independent editor Jon Ralston.
Damn: Now looks like Bernie has won caucuses at Bellagio, Mandalay, Park MFM, Rio, and Wynn, tied at Harrah’s and lost Paris. He is the Culinary workers’ candidate!— Jon Ralston (@RalstonReports) February 22, 2020
Even though it made its distaste for Sanders’s plans clear, the union also didn’t take the extra step of endorsing one of his competitors. It stayed neutral in the race, especially after Biden’s lackluster performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada politics experts told Vox.
“If the Culinary were really really mad at Bernie, they would have endorsed Biden and gone all out for Biden,” Ralston told Vox in a recent interview. “Even if they had done that, I’m not sure they would have been able to stop Bernie.”
A Nevada win solidifies a key part of Sanders’s national strategy
Going into 2020, the persistent questions dogging Sanders campaign was whether he could build a more diverse coalition and expand on his 2016 base of young voters and progressives.
The Latino vote was a key part of that expansion. Latino voters are a natural fit for Sanders; they tend to be younger and more progressive and have ties to organized labor. The idea of young Latinos flocking to a 78-year-old white man from the rural state of Vermont can seem a bit odd. But many of Sanders’s Latino supports have an affinity for the gruff politician who hasn’t changed his progressive stances for the past 30 years; they’ve nicknamed Sanders “Tio Bernie.”
Familiarity is also a key component. In 2016, Sanders was just introducing himself to Latino voters; now he’s a known entity.
“Harry Reid unlocked this system in Nevada where you have a young population, you have a population that is integrated into labor unions, and Reid uses particularly labor unions to get Latinos out to vote,” Stephen Nuño-Perez, senior analyst for the Latino polling firm Latino Decisions, told me in a recent interview. “This is the playbook, and it’s a natural fit for Sanders’s style of how he envisions politics.”
With a recent Univision analysis showing Latino turnout doubling in the 2018 midterms in eight states — including Nevada, California, Texas, Florida, and New York — Latinos are a fast-growing portion of the American electorate. But community leaders have also long complained about the Democratic Party and candidates failing to engage with them. Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser for the Sanders campaign who oversees Latino outreach, says he’s ensuring Sanders won’t make that mistake.
“As a chief adviser, I’m going to do what we have demanded campaigns do through generations of being taken advantage of,” Rocha told me. “We went to the community, listened to the community, hired the community, and we ... invested early in that community.”
With the South Carolina primary looming, Sanders has to focus on shoring up support among black voters in the South. Still, building on his Latino support in states like California, Colorado, and Texas will be just as critical on Super Tuesday.