LAS VEGAS (AP) — Bernie Sanders scored a commanding victory in Nevada's presidential caucuses, cementing his status as the Democrats' national front-runner but escalating tensions over whether he's too liberal to defeat President Donald Trump.
As Sanders celebrated Saturday night, Joe Biden was in second place with votes still being counted. Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren trailed further behind. They were all seeking any possible momentum heading into next-up South Carolina and then Super Tuesday on March 3.
Nevada's caucuses were the first chance for White House hopefuls to demonstrate appeal to a diverse group of voters in a state far more representative of the country as a whole than Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders, a 78-year Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist, won by rallying his fiercely loyal base and tapping into support from Nevada's large Latino community.
In a show of confidence, Sanders left Nevada for Texas, which offers one of the biggest delegate troves in just 10 days on Super Tuesday.
"We are bringing our people together," he declared. "In Nevada we have just brought together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition which is not only going to win in Nevada, it's going to sweep this country."
Saturday's win built on Sanders' victory earlier this month in the New Hampshire primary. He essentially tied for first place in the Iowa caucuses with Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has sought to position himself as an ideological counter to Sanders' unabashedly progressive politics.
But for all the energy and attention devoted to the first three states, they award only a tiny fraction of the delegates needed to capture the nomination. After South Carolina, the contest becomes national in scope, putting a premium on candidates who have the resources to compete in states as large as California and Texas.
While Sanders' victory in Nevada encouraged his supporters, it only deepened concern among establishment-minded Democratic leaders who fear he is too extreme to defeat Trump. Sanders for decades has been calling for transformative policies to address inequities in politics and the economy, none bigger than his signature "Medicare for All" health care plan that would replace the private insurance system with a government-run universal program.
Trump gloated on social media, continuing his weeks-long push to sow discord between Sanders and his Democratic rivals.
"Looks like Crazy Bernie is doing well in the Great State of Nevada. Biden & the rest look weak," Trump tweeted. "Congratulations Bernie, & don't let them take it away from you!"
The first presidential contest in the West tested the candidates' strength with black and Latino voters for the first time in 2020. Nevada's population aligns more with the U.S. as a whole, compared with Iowa and New Hampshire: 29 percent Latino, 10 percent black, 9 percent Asian American and Pacific Islander and 2 percent American Indian or Alaska Native.
Unlike state primaries and the November election, which are run by government officials, caucuses are overseen by state parties.
Because of the way the Nevada caucus is organized it will take some time to get a breakout of how the Native vote turned out. However in previous statements many tribal leaders and citizens expressed overwhelming support for Sanders.
Public Radio station KUNR reported that some 20 people showed up at Pyramid Lake High School on Saturday. The caucus lead, Justin Zuniga, told reporter that "having the ability to caucus on the reservation, regardless of turnout, is important to the native community."
The Pyramid Lake caucus voted for Sanders.
There was a small turnout in the community of Schurz home of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. In that caucus Tom Steyer won, receiving 12 delegates to the county convention and Bernie Sanders had three.
Nearly 75,000 people cast early ballots over a four-day period, and the party was able to process those in time for Saturday so they could be integrated into the in-person vote.
Takeaways from the Nevada caucuses
Sanders' convincing win means there is no longer an asterisk next to his status as the front-runner in the race. He proved his strength with a broad coalition that included Latino voters, union members and African Americans.
Now Sanders claims three victories in a row heading into South Carolina next Saturday, and more important, Super Tuesday on March 3 when about one-third of the delegates needed for the nomination are at stake. The biggest prizes that day, California and Texas, look a lot like Nevada demographically.
Another advantage: His opponents remain splintered and, with the exception of billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, under-funded to compete across such a vast terrain.
But now there will be extraordinary pressure to try to consolidate moderate support in an effort to stop Sanders' rise. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren will have a decision to make on how much she tries to draw separation from Sanders since they are both competing for the progressive vote.
There is at least one strong note of caution about Sanders' success. In Iowa and New Hampshire he didn't seem to grow the electorate substantially. Data is still out in Nevada.
A warning from Pete Buttigieg
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg ran well behind Sanders, but he tried to cast himself as the strongest alternative to Sanders.
In language uncharacteristically blunt, Buttigieg issued a warning to Democrats about the perils of nominating Sanders, whom he characterized as inflexible and whose ideas are not in the American mainstream.
"Sen. Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans," Buttigieg told supporters. He held himself out as the only viable alternative. "We can prioritize either ideological purity or inclusive victory," Buttigieg said.
He added: "Sen. Sanders sees capitalism as the root of all evil. He'd go beyond reform and reorder the economy in ways most Democrats — let alone most Americans — don't support."
Despite his forceful argument, there's a serious risk to Buttigieg in the upcoming calendar. He will have to win over black voters in South Carolina, then pivot to a multistate primary with comparatively limited resources. Buttigieg put out a plea for $13 million from donors before Super Tuesday.
The former mayor of a city of 100,000 has repeatedly defied the odds in the presidential nominating contests, but the odds are getting longer.
More disappointment for Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden was hoping Nevada would turn things around for him after a disastrous showing in Iowa and then New Hampshire. He argued that he'd do better in a more diverse state.
But Biden again lost badly even as he told supporters at a union hall, "We're alive and coming back and we're gonna win."
His last and best hope may be to win in South Carolina next Saturday. He's counting on his support among the state's black voters — they could make up two-thirds of the voters — to serve as his firewall.
If Biden doesn't win South Carolina, the rationale for his candidacy will much harder to maintain.
In Las Vegas, he tried out a new rallying cry: "I ain't a socialist. I ain't a plutocrat. I'm a Democrat. And I'm proud of it." Party loyalty may be all Biden has left.
Role of unions is changing, even in Nevada
The 60,000-member Culinary Workers Local 226 represents workers in the casinos on the Las Vegas strip, and it's routinely described, correctly, as the most powerful force in the state's Democratic politics. But it's not omnipotent.
Culinary didn't want Sanders to win. It has strongly opposed his "Medicare for All" plan, warning its members that it would eliminate their own generous health plan. Some observers thought the union might end up backing Biden. But after the former vice president's embarrassing performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, Culinary instead stayed neutral.
The calls from leadership went unheeded by many. Sanders had strong showings in some caucuses in casinos where crowds of Culinary members chanted the Vermont senator's name and powered him to wins in most casinos. Culinary is driven by its members, many of whom are Sanders supporters, and there was no consensus among the rest about what they should do.
Leadership decided to refrain from a divisive fight, helping pave the way for Sanders' win. It's a reminder that even in places like Nevada with strong political institutions, those institutions ultimately derive their power from voters.
Amy Klobuchar did not get a bounce in Nevada
Sen. Amy Klobuchar produced one of the few surprises of the race when she surged to a third-place finish in New Hampshire, announced that she had raised more than $12 million, and vowed to prove her doubters wrong.
Her momentum proved short-lived. She finished well behind the leading candidates, and in the process, prompted questions about her viability.
But in a speech to supporters in her home state of Minnesota, she was defiant and said she would continue. She even tried to make a virtue of the fact that Trump mentioned her name at a rally. "By the way, for the first time ever, he mentioned me at a rally," she said. "You know I've arrived now. You know they must be worried."
Probably not. Time is running out for candidates who haven't finished higher than third in any contest. That also applies to Warren, also desperately needs a win. Her strong debate performance came after much of the state had already cast early votes.
Tom Steyer did not get traction
Tom Steyer, the billionaire who made his fortune running a hedge fund, bet heavily in Nevada, more than $12 million on advertising, and lost big, finishing sixth. Steyer has made strong appeals to minority voters, but in Nevada, failed decisively.
But Steyer's impact on the race could come next week in South Carolina, where he has spent even more money. Polls show that he has made significant inroads among African American voters. That would not be good news for Biden, who is counting on those votes to resuscitate his campaign.