Following Hillary Clinton’s overwhelming defeat in New Hampshire, a loss in Nevada would have unleashed a torrent of potentially self-fulfilling stories about her failings as a candidate. That she was able to escape Nevada with a 6-point victory protected her campaign from a downward spiral just as the primary calendar turns friendly. That she was expected to run away with Nevada just a few weeks ago mattered little, because Bernie Sanders made a strong play for the state and appeared to be within reach of winning. Expectations are funny things.
If Sanders demonstrated in New Hampshire that he could convert crowds at large rallies into voters, Nevada illustrated the challenges he faces in a more diverse electorate. Everything accelerates once the candidates leave behind the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire, leaving little time to change minds, and Sanders – like the broader progressive movement – needs to bring voters of color into his coalition. Entrance polls suggest Hillary cleaned up with African American voters; Super Tuesday will be just plain Tuesday for Bernie if that happens again ten days from now.
But to understand what happened in Nevada in terms of the campaign that Sanders is running, think about it from an establishment-outsider perspective. Sanders is betting his candidacy on the assumption that there is enough rot at the core of the Democratic Party establishment for it to fall over if pushed hard enough by his supporters. He fails if he is unable to assemble a broad-based coalition or if elites are resilient enough to resist the coalition he assembles. In New Hampshire, Bernie’s supporters were an overwhelming force. But Nevada is an organization state, and Hillary succeeded in mobilizing Las Vegas casino and hotel workers with an assist from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who while officially neutral made sure that Culinary Workers Union employees would get paid time off to attend the caucus, a move that boosted her prospects. This time, conventional politics proved strong enough to turn back Sander’s insurgency.
Clinton’s Nevada victory sets her up well for the mad dash ahead. But Sanders has enough resources to keep going, and he continues to drive the message of the campaign. This is an interesting dynamic, because while Nevada leaves Hillary poised to win delegates and states at a substantial pace, the Nevada result has not diminished Bernie’s ability to challenge the status quo and shape the party’s future.