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Sanders coasts to victory in Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus, Biden wins second

Megan Messerly
Megan Messerly
Election 2020
Bernie Sanders on television screens at ReBar in Las Vegas

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders notched a decisive victory in Nevada’s presidential caucus on Saturday, cementing his frontrunner status and paving a clear road heading into South Carolina’s primary next week and Super Tuesday soon after.

The victory proved how the multi-generational, multi-racial coalition that Sanders has built could carry him to the Democratic presidential nomination, even as party establishment types fret privately and not-so-privately about what that would mean for the general election come November. During this campaign, Sanders has earned the nickname Tío Bernie, or Uncle Bernie, and his support among younger Latino voters was widely regarded as boosting his support among their parents and grandparents.

“The situation is heavy. It’s very hard for us Latinos,” said 72-year-old Margarita Lemus, a retired casino worker and native of Colombia who said in Spanish that she felt compelled to turn out for Sanders and move the country forward. “We have to unite, and I want them to treat us like we deserve.”

The victory also shows how far Sanders has come since launching a quixotic presidential bid four years ago and losing the state narrowly to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Sanders, with 100 percent of precincts reporting as of 12:17 p.m. on Monday, won with 46.8 percent support, followed by former Vice President Joe Biden at 20.2 percent, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 14.3 percent, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 9.7 percent, California billionaire Tom Steyer at 4.7 percent, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar at 4.2 percent. The Associated Press called the race for Sanders early Saturday evening.

If the wind was at Sanders’ back coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, where he won the popular votes earlier this month, it now is even more so. And entrance polls reveal the broad coalition Sanders has built, with a NBC News entrance poll showing that 54 percent of Latinos supported the Vermont senator in Nevada’s Saturday contest. 

“In Latino homes ... we have a lot of respect for elders, right? We have a lot of respect for our older generations,” Luis Vasquez, the 22-year-old field director who oversees Sanders’ campaign operations in the heavily Hispanic East Las Vegas neighborhood, said about Sanders’ cross-generational appeal. “We live with them, we work with them, we've seen them farm, we've seen them run the household, we know the power of wisdom and the power of experience.”

The victory also serves as a stamp of approval from Nevada Democrats on Sanders’ progressive agenda, which calls for universal health care and free college tuition, among other proposals. Most Democratic elected officials in the state are fairly moderate, and, historically, center-left and center-right candidates have tended to fare well in Nevada elections.

Sanders also weathered a pre-caucus storm created by the Culinary Union, which circulated a one-pager that warned the Vermont senator would “end Culinary healthcare” if elected president. The Culinary Union, a political powerhouse in Nevada, chose not to endorse ahead of Nevada’s caucus, although Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline mentioned Biden by name during their announcement, saying, “We know he’s been our friend.”

Sanders left Nevada before the Saturday victory to campaign in El Paso and San Antonio, Texas, but addressed the results from afar.

“Let me thank the people of Nevada for their support,” he said. “In Nevada we have just put together a multi-generational, multi-racial coalition that is not only going to win in Nevada, it's going to sweep this country.”

It wasn’t just Sanders’ message either. Building on the momentum of his 2016 campaign, the Vermont senator hired an experienced team of political operatives early on, and had more than 250 staffers on the ground in the Silver State before Caucus Day. The sheer size of the operation allowed the campaign to knock on more than half a million doors in Nevada before Saturday.

And the ground game proved effective. Emily Arrivello, 24, said she probably wouldn’t have come out to caucus for Sanders at the East Las Vegas Community Center if she hadn’t received texts and four or five calls this week from the campaign.

“I wasn't excited about it. I was debating coming but their persistence really convinced me,” she said.

But Sanders’ message resonated with her, too.

“I have a college degree, worked my butt off in college, but you know, jobs just aren't offering enough for me to live,” she said.

Saturday represented a victory of sorts for Biden, too, after his fourth- and fifth-place victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively. Biden had dismissed his losses in those states on their lack of diversity and had been banking on his longstanding relationships with Nevada’s communities of color to carry him to victory in the Silver State.

It wasn’t quite a win, but the momentum could give Biden’s campaign renewed energy heading into South Carolina and Super Tuesday.

"We're alive and we're coming back and we're going to win,” said Biden, one of the few candidates who stuck around to wait for results to start coming out on Saturday, at an event with his supporters at a local union headquarters.

Buttigieg came in third place in Nevada, though his campaign has alleged errors in the Nevada State Democratic Party's tabulations.

In a speech at Springs Preserve Saturday evening, he took square aim at Sanders, who he said would continue the “polarization” that’s gripping this country. Buttigieg scored the most delegates out of Iowa’s caucus last month and came in a close second behind Sanders in New Hampshire. But the results out of Nevada show that a viable alternative to Sanders has yet to emerge from a muddled field of moderate Democratic presidential hopefuls. 

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was hoping for the kind of comeback Biden scored in Nevada, was still unable to separate herself from the field on Saturday. But her campaign manager Roger Lau said on Twitter on Saturday that Warren’s vote share went up more than 50 percent between early vote and Caucus Day, possibly buoyed by a strong performance at the Democratic presidential debate.

Several precinct chairs also noted to The Nevada Independent that Warren appeared to have a higher proportion of in-person supporters to early caucusgoers than other candidates, signaling a post-debate boost. The Democratic presidential debate was held on Wednesday, just one day after early voting wrapped up in Nevada.

“Her kick-ass debate performance Wednesday really solidified it,” said Avery Boddie, a 31-year-old librarian who caucused in Las Vegas for Warren. “I have been pretty undecided for this entire process. I thought that I would get here today and then finally figure who I was voting for. But Wednesday really clear things up for me.”

Steyer, meanwhile, failed to break out among the Democratic presidential field in Nevada after spending millions of dollars on television, radio and billboard ads in the state. Though he was hovering in the low double digits in the polls, that support doesn’t appear to have carried through to caucus sites.

“We don’t have official results, but I think we’re going to have a good night tonight,” Steyer told supporters Saturday evening.

Steyer is still banking on South Carolina, where he is polling at an average of 16 percent, and he told supporters here that he was catching a red eye to the Palmetto State.

After skyrocketing to third place in New Hampshire, Klobuchar also had a difficult night in Nevada. Though supporters here were intrigued by her campaign, the Minnesota senator appeared to have caught fire too little too late. She began staffing up in Nevada in November and had roughly 50 staffers on the ground before Caucus Day, but it didn’t appear to be enough to carry her to any substantial victory in the Silver State.

However, she remained undeterred, speaking to supporters in Minneapolis Saturday night.

“As usual, I think we have exceeded expectations. I always note that a lot of people didn't even think that I would still be standing at this point. They didn't think I'd make it through that speech in the snow. They didn't think I'd make it to the debate floor,” Klobuchar said. “But time and time again, because of all of you, and because of the people around this country that want something different than the guy in the White House, we have won."

Sanders’ youthful and energetic voters dominated at individual caucus sites but also sat alongside an older generation that showed a single-minded intention to back Sanders. Even among Democrats sympathetic toward progressives, though, the senator’s momentum introduces major doubts about the party’s ability to oust Trump.

“I am concerned about the possibility of like Bernie winning cause there's not a bone in my body that is sure that he can win. He's just a nonstarter,” Boddie said. “I find his campaign quite divisive. I see him and Trump as two sides of the same coin, just, you know, on the left.”

Riley Snyder, Michelle Rindels, Jackie Valley and Luz Gray contributed to this report.

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