His signature issue, Medicare-for-all, won in a face-off with the state’s most powerful union. And the race for second through fifth place was muddled, a recurring theme in this primary season, in which no clear center-left alternative to Sanders has emerged.
Sanders rode into Nevada with two popular-vote wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and a near tie in the delegate count with Pete Buttigieg. Nevada was his chance to break away from the pack in the only metric that actually matters: delegates to the Democratic National Convention this summer. A candidate needs a majority to win the nomination.
The Vermont senator was always looking like the favorite, having led the polls in Nevada ahead of the caucuses. The rest of the story was going to be who came in second.
Buttigieg shined in Iowa and New Hampshire, two overwhelmingly white states, but needed to prove he could contend in places with more Hispanic and black voters. Joe Biden has struggled in the first two states, but his campaign hoped a more diverse electorate in Nevada (and, looking ahead, in South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states) will fuel a comeback.
Elizabeth Warren also failed to make a splash in the first two states before a commanding debate performance Wednesday. And Amy Klobuchar was trying to build off her strong showing in Iowa and especially New Hampshire, where she relied on support from white voters for a surprise third-place finish, to show she can attract voters of color. (Mike Bloomberg is technically on the Nevada ballot, but he’s making his big bet on Super Tuesday, March 3, when nearly one-fourth of the DNC delegates are up for grabs.)
So coming out of Nevada, Sanders looks by far like the strongest candidate in the Democratic field, and the rest of the candidates still haven’t distinguished themselves as the best bet to topple him.
Those were the stakes headed into Saturday afternoon in Nevada. Here’s who won and who lost.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
He got the most votes and the most delegates. He won.
In Nevada, Sanders finally got the decisive victory he’d been lacking after effectively tying in Iowa and New Hampshire. His margin of victory over the other five candidates who see themselves as viable threats to the nomination was substantial.
And it comes in a state that has moved up the primary calendar because party leaders think it has the kind of voters — young, diverse — Democrats will need going forward. (Well, and because former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid played an outsize role in getting Nevada third on the schedule.)
Sanders finally put a little distance between himself and Buttigieg. Going by numbers from earlier in the day in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, he is at this point really the only Democratic candidate with a good chance (39 percent) of winning a majority of DNC delegates and the nomination.
But he trails “no one” at this point, raising the possibility of a contested convention if nobody wins the nomination in the primary elections. For Sanders, as a party outsider, accumulating as many delegates as possible and making his nomination seem inevitable — whether he wins an outright majority or not — is incredibly important.
He’s gained some ground in that race, thanks to this strong win in Nevada.
Loser: The race for second place
With everybody anticipating a Sanders win, a lot of the pre-caucus speculation was about who would come in second. Would Buttigieg solidify his place as the Sanders alternative? Could Biden rebound ahead of South Carolina, his must-win state? What if Warren parlayed a strong debate into a surprise second-place finish?
Instead, the story out of Nevada is that Sanders is running away with the nomination and there is little clarity about the strongest opponent to challenge him.
Even before the caucuses, FiveThirtyEight gave Sanders 4-in-10 odds of winning the primary; Bloomberg, barely a blip in Nevada, was second at 1 in 12 on the strength of his national polling and a focus on the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states. A Biden nomination is considered a little less likely than Bloomberg’s. Nobody else had better than a 1-in-100 chance.
As the Republican establishment learned in 2016, you can’t just play for second against an insurgent frontrunner. Democrats are starting to learn the same lesson the hard way.
Winner: Ranked-choice voting
For the first time, Nevada let people “vote early” in the caucuses. What that actually meant (because of the way caucuses are run in real life; read more from Andrew Prokop) is those early voters used a ranked-choice ballot. It looked a lot like ranked-choice voting in Maine (the first state to authorize it in all elections), and several other states will use ranked-choice ballots in their upcoming primaries.
This year, Nevadans could go to an early-voting site and fill out a ballot with their preferences for the Democratic nominee, ranked first through fifth. It mirrors the caucus experience, where voters first congregate with their favorite candidate. But then for candidates who fail to clear 15 percent on that first vote, their supporters must move to a more viable camp.
The new wrinkle seems to have increased turnout in Nevada; upward of 75,000 early ballots were cast, nearly matching the total turnout at the 2016 Nevada caucuses. The only question is whether that decreases turnout on caucus day, but it seems assured overall turnout will be up from the last election.
For Nevada, ranked-choice voting was a way to replicate the caucus experience in absentia. In general, the argument for ranked choice is, in short, that it’s more democratic than relying on a plurality of support or a top-two runoff to declare a winner. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen previously explained:
Ranked-choice advocates say this is simply a more democratic system and less expensive than runoff elections, which have to be held separately and typically have very low turnout (case in point: the Texas runoff).
“We think compared to those other two, it means voters have more say and more reliable outcomes versus plurality,” said Rob Richie, executive director of the nonprofit organization FairVote. “We feel quite comfortable saying it works.”
And we haven’t seen the last of ranked-choice voting in the Democratic contest: Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas, and Wyoming will use it for their 2020 primary elections.
Loser: Culinary Union Local 226
The powerful labor union, which represents 60,000 people in Nevada’s hospitality industry, didn’t technically endorse any candidate, and so it technically did not back a loser.
But the union’s leaders made their displeasure with Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan — and his most zealous supporters — known. Their Nevada workers benefit from high-level health care, including their own clinic, and numerous reporters have talked to union members who are worried about losing that health care if their insurance plan is eliminated. (Overall, union members are more mixed on Medicare-for-all than Democrats generally.)
Workers who caucused for Sanders said they liked their union insurance plan, according to BuzzFeed News. But they worried about relatives and friends who could lose their jobs:
Some workers who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they support Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal, even though they appreciate the union health care they have, because they have friends and relatives who don’t have union health care and worry about what would happen if they lost their jobs.
The way the union blasted Sanders’s plan while softening its language when describing Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare-for-all plan made pretty clear which way it wanted the primary to go. The union’s leaders picked the fight with Sanders quite publicly, with the news of their anti-Medicare-for-all literature breaking on the night of Sanders’s New Hampshire win.
But Sanders won the state handily. Moreover, exit polls found that Democratic caucus-goers overwhelmingly support a single-payer program that eliminates private insurance: about 6 in 10, according to the Washington Post. It looked like Sanders was beating union leadership on their own turf.
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
Again, 6 in 10 Nevada caucus-goers told pollsters they supported eliminating private insurance for good and replacing it with government health insurance. And the candidate who has married his brand to Medicare-for-all was winning caucuses in casinos with union workers, after that union’s leaders made their opposition to the plan abundantly clear.
It’s still an open question how Sanders and Medicare-for-all would fare in a general election against President Trump or how “electable” the candidate and his plan ultimately are. But the issue is not slowing Sanders down at all among Democratic primary voters.