After Nevada Loss, Sanders’s Road Only Gets Tougher

The Vermont senator faces the prospect of an unfavorable primary calendar.

Sen. Bernie Sanders in Henderson, Nevada on Saturday. Hillary Clinton captured Nevada's Democratic caucuses Saturday, overcoming an unexpectedly strong surge by Sanders.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Feb. 20, 2016, 9:13 p.m.

Bernie Sanders continues to outperform the low expectations initially set for him last year, but it still hasn’t been enough.

Through three nominating contests, the 74-year-old democratic socialist now has a 5-point loss to Hillary Clinton in Nevada, a big victory in New Hampshire, and a narrow loss in Iowa.

“We have come a very long way in nine months,” Sanders said in his concession speech Saturday in Las Vegas.

With a coalition of white liberals and young voters, Sanders has proven he can compete with Clinton, who was once viewed as a juggernaut. That will likely continue, but the senator from Vermont has yet to show he can expand his base enough to overcome Clinton’s edge across the broad spectrum of primary states.

The relatively easy part of the schedule is over for Sanders. The race now turns in the next 10 days to South Carolina, where Clinton leads in polling by a wide margin, and other delegate-rich states in the South on March 1 and beyond, where minority voters play a larger role and the former secretary of State has deeper ties.

Sanders has the resources to fight well beyond March. He just needs to wage that fight on much less favorable terrain and with Clinton already holding a sizable lead in the delegate count.

“It’s going to take somebody with a lot of imagination to describe his path to victory now,” said Rory Reid, the son of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and the chair of Clinton’s 2008 Nevada campaign. “This was his chance to show he can do well in a diverse population. I think the calendar favors her, and I think there’s every reason for Clinton supporters to be very optimistic.”

After disappointing finishes in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton’s team views the more racially diverse states that follow on the calendar as their firewall.  

In South Carolina, the next Democratic primary, Clinton leads Sanders by nearly 30 points, according to recent polls, including by nearly 50 points among black voters. It’s unclear how hard Sanders will compete there.

“Now it’s on to Super Tuesday,” Sanders said to close out his speech on Saturday, seemingly skipping over the Feb. 27 primary.

Super Tuesday will provide its own challenges for Sanders. He’s focused on March 1 caucus states like Colorado and Minnesota, but the delegate treasure troves are in Southern states like Texas and Georgia, where nonwhite voters and more conservative Democrats hold significant sway.

Clinton will also be favored in Virginia, another major Super Tuesday prize, given her connections to the party’s establishment there. Sanders announced Saturday that he’ll be holding a rally in Norfolk on Tuesday, one week before the primary.

“I think folks are realizing Bernie was fun to hang out with for the weekend, but the workweek’s starting again and we’ve got to get down to business,” said Boyd Brown, a Democratic National Committee member from South Carolina who previously backed Martin O’Malley but now supports Clinton.

One positive for Sanders in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses was a stronger-than-expected performance among Latinos. Entrance polls showed he beat Clinton among that subgroup by 53-45 percent. Clinton won that bloc in the state in 2008, 64-26 percent, over Barack Obama.

The two candidates ran about even with white caucus-goers, but Clinton won black voters 76-22 percent. That gives Clinton plenty of confidence going into South Carolina, where African-Americans accounted for more than half of the Democratic primary electorate in 2008.

A major challenge for Sanders if he loses in South Carolina and a chunk of the Super Tuesday states will be maintaining enthusiasm among his supporters and the stream of small-dollar contributions that have carried him through so far. Sanders announced on Saturday that he raised $21.3 million in January with individual contributions averaging $27.

“I think the big question is what happens to the momentum. Does it wane? And if it does, he’s going to be in trouble,” said Dan Hart, an unaligned Nevada Democratic consultant. “If the enthusiasm goes, you’re not going to be doing the fundraising. If you’re not doing the fundraising, you won’t be able to compete in these states. It just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He has to keep the enthusiasm level high.”

The Sanders campaign has plenty to take away from his performance in Nevada, noting in a Saturday evening statement that he was down 25 points in polls in the state five weeks ago and will emerge from the caucuses “with a solid share of the delegates.”

But he will soon need to start winning the more diverse states, not just coming close.

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