‘Unelectable’ Bernie Sanders scores overwhelming win in Nevada caucuses
"In Nevada, we have just put together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition, which is going to not only win in Nevada, it's going to sweep this country," Sanders boasted at a rally in San Antonio, Texas, shortly after news outlets reported his caucus win. | Patrick Semansky/AP

LAS VEGAS–After slim popular vote victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders achieved frontrunner status in the drive for the Democratic nomination for president by scoring an impressive win in the Feb. 22 caucuses here.

Following the final reallocation of votes, Sanders was eventually awarded 24 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, with 41,075 votes. Former Vice President Joe Biden came in a distant second with 19,179 votes, earning nine delegates. For Biden, whose earlier tallies in Iowa and New Hampshire were dispiriting at best, it was a relief to come in second. Buttigieg came in third with 17,598, just crossing the 15% threshold to secure 3 delegates. Struggling to make the best of Buttigieg’s showing, his campaign manager claimed a “razor-thin margin for second place in Nevada.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who came out punching in the pre-caucus debate against big-spending former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, straggled into fourth place with 11,703 votes, but securing no delegates.

As the most ethnically diverse state so far to hold a primary, and one more similar in makeup to the rest of the country, Nevada holds lessons for the larger races to come, especially on March 3, Super Tuesday. Latinos comprise 30% of the Silver State’s population, and Sanders won 53% of the Latino vote. He also led among youth, union members and also nonunion members, and independents.

Biden, whose continued candidacy would seem to depend on a strong showing among South Carolina’s African-American voters in that state’s Feb. 29 primary, won a slim majority of the Black vote in Nevada, as well as a majority of voters over 65, and voters who oppose Medicare for All.

In the five days of early voting before Feb. 22, some 77,000 caucus voters turned out, or what amounted to approximately 75% of all eventual voters through caucus day, proving the wisdom of allowing voters the convenience of going to the polls over an extended period. During early voting, voters were asked to mark five candidates in their ranked choice, replicating the physical process on caucus day, where supporters of each candidate physically gather in their corner of the hall, thus eliminating from the race all those candidates with less than 15% support. Delays in tabulating the final account stem in part from merging the early vote with the caucus day votes.

Narrowing the field

By this point in a primary campaign, and certainly after March 3, the field narrows sharply. But with the unanticipated entry of Bloomberg into the race as what he imagines himself the surest bet to stop a declared “democratic socialist” from heading the Democratic Party ticket in November against Donald Trump, the knives have come out in the contest over who will unify the so-called centrists against the steamrollering Sanders. None of the other candidates is willing to cede that position to the controversial multi-billionaire Bloomberg who, with all his bucks and a highly vulnerable history, could likely still get beaten by Trump.

In the wake of the Nevada contest, Buttigieg has taken up the mantle of being the uniter on the white horse. “I believe the best way to defeat Donald Trump and deliver for the American people is to broaden and galvanize the majority that supports us on the critical issues,” he pronounced at a watch party on caucus day. “Sen. Sanders believes in an inflexible ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans.”

Buttigieg focused almost entirely on the Sanders threat: “We can prioritize either ideological purity or inclusive victory,” said the distant third-place runner-up. “We can either tighten a narrow and hardcore base or open the tent to a new, broad, big-hearted American coalition.”

“Before we rush to nominate Senator Sanders in our one shot to take on this president,” he said in his post-caucus speech, “let us take a sober look at the consequences — for our party, for our values, and for those with the most at stake.”

This from the candidate who took no more than 2% of the Black vote in Nevada, and not much more of the Latino vote, and who has absolutely no traction in either of those communities anywhere else in the country, calling for others to withdraw and leave the fight against Sanders to himself. Polling analysis on a panel of demographic factors, such as race, age, political leaning, and college degree, showed no result for Buttigieg above 10%. The favorites in all those categories were divided among Sanders, Biden, Warren, and the latecomer to the race, Bloomberg, who has so far spent close to half a billion dollars of his own money on his candidacy.

Looking forward, the more candidates remaining in the race, the better Sanders’s chances are for coming out on top, with numbers in the upper 30s percentile, perhaps higher if his momentum keeps growing. At the same time, the number of candidates also discourages the potential for anyone to cross the majority delegate threshold in the pre-convention stage. Thus the anxiety heard in the call for others to withdraw.

The single biggest challenge to Sanders’s chances in Nevada was the campaign against Medicare for All waged by the 60,000-strong Culinary Workers Union Local 226, on the basis that it had fought long and hard for a fine “gold-plated” medical plan for its members and their families, and did not countenance the prospect of giving it up. Anti-Sanders ads from other organizations also focused on the Medicare for All issue, forming part of the larger hysteria to stop his advance toward the White House. Such opposition to Sanders came in from pro-Israel forces, the medical and pharmaceutical industries, and from the Wall Street financial sector.

What became clear, however, on Feb. 22, is that the largely Latino culinary union membership disregarded their own union’s opposition and voted for Sanders and Medicare for All. Members were quoted to the effect that while they enjoyed good healthcare coverage, their friends, neighbors, and relatives did not; and in any case, if they lost their job or chose to move on to another career, the golden coverage would be gone. Medicare for All, by contrast, would cover everyone in America on the same “gold-plated” level that they now had.

This was a remarkable demonstration of loyalty to the larger working class above the self-interested defense of a narrow, more “privileged” sector of the class. A majority of 6 out of 10 caucus voters in Nevada reported to pollsters that they favored government single-payer health insurance and doing away with private insurance entirely. How “narrow,” “inflexible” and “ideological” is that?

In the enthusiasm for Sanders that Latino voters have so far shown, and that is seen also in polling in future primary states, these rank-and-file voters have stepped ahead of most of their elected and community leadership, who have fallen more in line with the establishment Democrats, especially on the Medicare for All issue.

In Nevada, with its 27 Native American reservations and colonies, the Indigenous peoples’ vote is also critical. Returns so far have been sketchy from some of these isolated communities, but anecdotal impressions reported strong Native support for Sanders.

Despite generations of maniacal propaganda against “socializing” medicine—or “socializing” anything—Medicare for All may become the defining issue of the 2020 campaign. So far it has only bolstered Sanders’s appeal. A well-managed, enthusiastic and mostly grassroots young staff and core of volunteers for Sanders may well be, more than any Wall Street titan’s deep pockets, what it takes to bring Donald Trump down. Early polling has Sanders ahead in both California and Texas, the two largest states up for grabs on Super Tuesday.

At press time, while almost all the newspaper and social media pundits are saying that Sanders, like George McGovern, will lose big-time against Trump, major polls such as RCP Average, ABC/WP, Emerson, NBC/WSJ, NPR/PBS, and Quinnipiac, have Sanders winning the general election by a range of 2 to 8 points. Perhaps voters are remembering that the Democrats’ anointed moderates, such as Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, who never carried the banner for any powerful defining issue in their campaigns, went down to defeat.

Campaigning in Texas on Nevada primary night, Sanders told his supporters plainly and simply: “Americans are sick and tired of the greed, corruption, and lies.”

The 2020 election is turning into an epic battle over the soul of the 250-year American democratic experiment.

Editor’s note: This article was updated after publication to reflect final vote and delegate counts from Nevada.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.