Hillary Clinton has ground out a crucial victory over her rival presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in the Nevada Democratic caucuses, a result her campaign surely hopes will mark the end of the so-called “Sanders surge”.
At one caucus location, a cavernous conference room mere yards from the slot machines of the Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas, the blue t-shirts of Ms Clinton’s supporters – among them many low-income and minority workers from the city’s hospitality industry – outnumbered Mr Sanders’ by more than two to one. It is a margin she was unable to replicate across this unpredictable state.
Ms Clinton’s once-unassailable lead had been demolished in recent weeks. Nevada polls remain notoriously unreliable, but in December she looked to be as much as 20 points ahead of Mr Sanders; by Friday the two were polling neck-and-neck. The Vermont Senator, who took the lead in a national poll for the first time in recent days, was finally vanquished here by a projected margin of almost four per cent.
In her victory speech in Las Vegas, Ms Clinton said: “To all my supporters out there: some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other. This one’s for you.” Noting that she and husband Bill Clinton were now bound for campaign stops in Super Tuesday states such as Texas and Colorado, she concluded: “The fight goes on; the future we want is within our grasp.”
After calling Ms Clinton to concede defeat, Mr Sanders said in a statement: “I am very proud of the campaign we ran. Five weeks ago we were 25 points behind and we ended up in a very close election... I want to thank the people of Nevada for their support that they have given us and the boost that their support will give us as we go forward.”
Nevada has only held its early slot in the primary calendar since 2008, but now acts as a bellwether for the western US, with a diverse population seen as more reflective of the nation at large than Iowa and New Hampshire, which precede it in the presidential process. This year, for the first time, it has been thrust into the electoral limelight by the unexpected narrowness of the Democratic race.
The former Secretary of State had hoped to gain some long-needed momentum in the Silver State, after her paper-thin win in Iowa and a thrashing from Mr Sanders in New Hampshire. Her Nevada triumph, however slim, will propel her into next weekend’s South Carolina primary, where she is expected to win comfortably and at last begin to silence some of her Democratic doubters.
Ms Clinton won the popular vote over Barack Obama when they faced off in Nevada in 2008, and the state is almost one-third Latino – a group thought to favour her candidacy. At a Vegas campaign event on Friday night, the crowd of around 500 was serenaded by a Mariachi band before Latina actresses America Ferrara and Eva Longoria introduced Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton.
But there were plenty of prospective Sanders supporters here, too. The socialist Senator’s attacks on inequality – and his call for a $15 (£10) minimum wage – attracted much of the state’s burgeoning young population, not to mention its unemployed and low-income workers. Nevada’s unemployment rate is still more than two per cent higher than the US average.
Pepper Mashay, 62, a Hillary supporter who attended Friday’s rally, and who performed as a backing singer at both of Bill Clinton’s presidential inaugurations, said she wasn’t pleased with the young voters flocking to Mr Sanders. “Young people were not there during the midterms when we needed them, like in the Obamacare fight,” she said. “They only show up for presidential elections.”
As images emerged this week of Mr Sanders being arrested during a civil rights protest in Chicago in 1963, Ms Mashay, who is African-American, said she remained sceptical of the Senator’s credentials on race issues: “He says he was involved in the civil rights movement, fine. But there are no black people living in Vermont, and that is a problem for me.”
The state’s 250 caucus locations included several casinos such as Caesar’s, where shift workers could take part rather than return to their home precincts. Some, though, had to be given extra time off from their shifts after a chaotic registration process delayed the vote.
Democratic chiefs feared Republicans would attempt to disrupt the Nevada caucuses by registering falsely as Democrats and taking part. The party vowed to pursue legal action against anyone who participated in what Nevada Senator Harry Reid called “trickery and gimmicks”.
Some gimmicks are part of the fun: In Nevada, if a caucus is deadlocked, the result can be decided by a card draw; the rules state that the pack must be fresh and shuffled seven times. At least one caucus was decided that way, with Hillary’s ace card beating Bernie’s six at a precinct in Pahrump. The Clinton campaign must hope its luck will hold.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies