In all the excitement over South Carolina’s Republican nightmare last night, we didn’t get into the details of the Nevada Democratic caucus, where Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders, 52.7 to 47.2 The general, next-day media consensus is that this win shores up Clinton’s already considerable position of strength and significantly increases the likelihood she’ll take the nomination.
To Bernie supporters, that may seem grossly unfair. After all, Sanders fought Clinton to an essential tie in Iowa and handily swept New Hampshire, despite facing huge disadvantages in money, ground game, name recognition, etc. Why should the vote in Nevada — a state with a population slightly smaller than Arkansas — be considered so decisive?
Well, it’s not, and in such an utterly chaotic election season, I think the consensus opinion is jumping the gun. Prognostication this cycle is all but impossible. There was a time that losing by just five points in a minority voter-heavy state like Nevada would have been seen as a fantastic coup for Bernie Sanders, yet expectations have lurched so wildly these past months that Hillary’s comfortable-but-not-overwhelming margin almost has the feel of a comeback.
Still, there’s a good reason why the Nevada results are considered so significant — because they indicate Clinton’s path to the nomination remains clear. Jamelle Bouie at Slate puts it like this:
By winning, Team Clinton doesn’t just score delegates—it proves its theory of the race. The Clinton campaign believes that Sanders’ strength and enthusiasm is illusory; that it reflects the peculiar demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire—rural states with few minorities—more than any pro-Bernie tide in the Democratic Party. Nevada, in other words, was a test. If Clinton lost, then it presaged a tighter race in South Carolina and beyond, and possibly one that ended with a Sanders nomination. Now, instead, we have a race that essentially looks like it did in the beginning of the year. Clinton has the advantage, and barring a catastrophic decline with black voters, she’ll march steadily to the nomination.
Could that catastrophic decline occur? It’s doubtful, considering the Clinton campaign’s aggressive marshaling of African American political leaders to attack Sanders and rally to her side. Here in Arkansas, where Clinton’s victory seems assured, the only state legislators to have openly endorsed her candidacy thus far are those in the legislative black caucus. Clinton lives or dies by the black vote this election, and she knows it.
Still, I wonder: Over on the Republican side, it hasn’t exactly worked out so well to assume that establishment leaders can effectively convince voters to fall in line behind a candidate. Not this election cycle. In 2016, raw discontent trumps partisan loyalty among Republican primary voters — so what about the Dems? Might Clinton’s surrogates in the black political community be overestimating their ability to deliver voters, much as the Jeb! campaign assumed an appearance by George W. Bush would still have currency among South Carolina Republicans?
One telling fact is that turnout has been disturbingly low on the Democratic side in the three primary contests thus far. That isn’t good news for Sanders, whose strategy is predicated on motivating new voters (just read the guest column in this week’s Arkansas Times from Sarah Scanlon, the Bernie campaign head in Arkansas). It’s also not good news for Democrats in general; Dems tend to be more turnout-sensitive than Republicans in general elections. But it also speaks to the fact that a sense of discontent and disillusionment exists within the Democratic base, and there’s no particular reason to think minority voters are immune. For better or worse, Clinton is always better at winning votes than she is at winning hearts and minds.
That enthusiasm gap spells opportunity for an insurgent like Sanders, in theory, but the turnout numbers in Nevada prove that he’s struggling to capitalize on it. As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza notes, insurgencies are by definition under-resourced, which makes Sanders’ route forward in the accelerating primary calendar seem awfully difficult:
Sanders has also already fared better than two recent Democratic insurgencies: Bill Bradley’s 2000 campaign against Al Gore and Howard Dean’s campaign against half a dozen Washington insiders, in 2004. But there’s been only one successful Democratic insurgency in recent decades—Barack Obama’s, in 2008—and Sanders is not on the same trajectory. There were two major components to Obama’s success. First, Obama expanded the Democratic electorate. This started in Iowa, where turnout hit a record in 2008 when Obama attracted young voters, independents, and even Republicans to caucus for him. If the traditional Iowa electorate of a small number of older Democratic partisans had shown up, Clinton would have defeated Obama. After Obama won Iowa, he opened a crucial second front against Clinton when he began to win over non-white voters. Even after building that strong coalition, he barely defeated Clinton; depending on how you count, she ended up winning more over-all votes than Obama.
Sanders has been expanding the electorate, but not by enough, and the over-all turnout numbers in 2016 are not meeting or exceeding the Obama milestones. Sanders is dominant with young people and political independents—according to the latest figures, he won voters between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine by eighty-two to fourteen in Nevada—but it’s not enough to make up for his deficits among other groups. The Nevada results show Sanders is having trouble breaking into traditional Democratic constituencies, like African-Americans and older voters, especially among women. Clinton won African-Americans by seventy-six per cent to twenty-two per cent in Nevada. Voters over forty-five years old made up sixty-three per cent of the Nevada electorate, and Clinton won that group by more than two to one.
One other tidbit, from Bouie: Nevada’s results confirm that Sanders’ appeal among young people isn’t confined to young, white people:
He will win additional contests and demonstrate the extent to which he—or at least, his ideology—is the future of the Democratic Party. To that point, Sanders continues to excel with young voters, including non-whites. In exit polls, Sanders won 68 percent of non-white voters under 45.