Politics & Policy

Black Voters Reject Sanders as Clinton’s Nevada Firewall Holds

Hillary and Bill Clinton campaign in Las Vegas, February 20, 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Hillary Clinton scrubbed the stain of her mortifying New Hampshire defeat from her campaign Saturday, blunting Bernie Sanders’s Nevada surge and dealing what may prove a mortal blow for his national campaign.

It was by no means a blowout — with over three-quarters of precincts reporting, Clinton earned 52 percent of caucus-goer support to Sanders’s 48 percent. But it also wasn’t the razor-thin victory Clinton eked out in Iowa. For the first time, Clinton has proven she can win — and win convincingly — in the state her campaign long touted as her firewall.

The former secretary of state was ebullient during her speech in Las Vegas. “I am so thrilled and so grateful to all of my supporters out there,” she said, beaming. “Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other. And this one’s for you.”

It’s a devastating blow for Sanders. In a fundraising e-mail Friday, his campaign manager fantasized about “creat[ing] a real domino effect” with a win in Nevada. But the Vermont senator loses more than his momentum. After struggling to connect with minority voters in the first two Democratic contests, in recent weeks Sanders made a concerted push to reach out to blacks and Latinos. Forty percent of Nevada caucus-goers were minorities, making Saturday the first test of that outreach. And it appears to have failed: Though narrowly winning the Latino vote, Sanders lost black voters by an overwhelming margin.

The senator tried to put a positive spin on the loss. “You know, five weeks ago we were 25 points behind in the poll,” he said during his concession speech in Henderson. “We’ve made some real progress.”

He has a point — the race was never supposed to be this close. In a poll taken around Christmas last year, the only one taken before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton trounced Sanders by 23 points. But polls over the last two weeks showed a virtual tie between the two Democratic candidates, sending the Clinton camp into conniptions.

Brian Fallon, her campaign spokesperson, tried to downplay the ground lost by claiming Nevada was “80 percent white” — an inaccurate assessment that angered top Nevada Democrats, including Senate minority leader Harry Reid, and forced Clinton herself to disavow the remarks. “The Clinton panic is palpable,” wrote Nevada political expert Jon Ralston earlier this week.

#share#That Clinton nevertheless pulled out a win Saturday proves the difficulty in handicapping Nevada’s caucus. Few voters participate in the process, which is held in the middle of the day and can last for hours. And outside of Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and its suburbs, voters are thinly-spread throughout the state’s wide-open spaces. Throw in the weird work hours of Vegas voters — many of whom work all night and sleep during the day — and it can be difficult for pollsters to find enough likely caucus-goers to make a reliable determination.

Clinton had many organizational advantages in Nevada. Most of the state’s Democratic establishment fell in behind her campaign — including Harry Reid, who pushed service-union bosses in Las Vegas to help casino workers come out and help push Clinton over the top. Her national campaign manager Robby Mook is a veteran of Nevada politics, and the architect of her 2008 win in the state against Obama.

But Sanders can’t chalk up the loss to a lack of a ground game. Since December, his campaign spent twice as much on political ads as Clinton. And with over 100 paid staffers and twelve field offices, they outnumbered the Clinton team on the ground.

Entrance polling points to a more fundamental reason for Sanders’s defeat. While an NBC poll showed him winning Hispanics 54 percent to 43 percent, the senator lost black voters by a crushing 52-point margin, vaulting Clinton to an easy overall victory with minority voters. That bodes poorly for his chances in South Carolina next weekend, where 55 percent of the Democratic electorate is black. And it makes his uphill climb on Super Tuesday that much harder in states like Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia.

#related#Not everything is sunshine and roses for Clinton. Young voters still went overwhelmingly for Sanders — including minority voters under 45, who broke for him by a full 40 points. Clinton lost among independents, and lost big among voters who were looking for someone honest and trustworthy. Voter turnout as a whole was down as much as 50 percent compared to 2008, illustrating a lack of enthusiasm that could prove damaging to Clinton’s chances in a general election match-up this fall.

Still, it’s hard to overstate the importance of Clinton’s win to her overall chances. Having halted Sanders’s momentum and highlighted his weakness with black voters, she’s thrown the Vermont senator into a tailspin from which he seems unlikely to recover.

“The wind is at our backs, we have the momentum,” Sanders insisted during his concession speech on Saturday. For the first time since the Iowa caucus, the senator’s claim rings hollow.

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