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Nevada, Clinton’s Firewall? Maybe Not

Clinton was always supposed to win the Democrats’ next contest. But some factors favor Sanders. Here’s why Nevada won’t be a cakewalk.

02.11.16 5:01 AM ET

So. Nevada. Clinton’s firewall? That’s what they say. It’s supposed to be the state where Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook will work his magic, as Mother Jones reported Wednesday. Mook ran Clinton’s effort there in 2008. She won then. But times are clearly different now. I don’t think for a minute that Nevada is a Clinton cakewalk, especially not after the shellacking she took Tuesday.

Clinton led by 23 points in the last poll, but it was literally taken over Christmas. One expects we’ll start seeing more polls now, but we haven’t because pollsters and the news organizations that pay for polls think it’s a hard state to poll accurately because there’s only been a competitive Nevada caucus one time.

OK, so let’s go through some factors. First is the Culinary Union. Local 226 is big, with 60,000 members, and it has a lot of muscle in Las Vegas. It’s not endorsing. Last time, it endorsed Barack Obama, so that represents an improvement for Clinton insofar it won’t be out working for her opponent.

But two buts. The first is that the Clinton people wanted the endorsement. It’s exactly the kind of big and (dare I say) establishment organization that the presumed frontrunner is supposed to lock down. They had an extra reason to think they might get it a couple of weeks ago after some Bernie Sanders people infiltrated the union, posing as members to gain access to the rank and file. But the union is sitting it out.

Here’s the second but. Remember in 2008, how there were caucus sites set up at the hotels and casinos so on-duty workers could take a break from their shifts and go caucus? Clinton carried them. The union pushed its voters to attend those sites in 2008, but this time around, because it’s staying neutral, the union is not doing so. That could be a setback for Clinton. [NOTE: An earlier version of this article said that the union had set up those caucus sites, which was incorrect.]

Another factor that could help Sanders is that the Nevada Democratic electorate is likely to be pretty young. In 2008, according to exit polls, 13 percent of caucus-goers were under 30, and one can estimate that another 7 or 8 percent were between 30 and 35. That’s 20 percent, of which Sanders is going to win 80 percent or more. And it could be higher still, out of all that Bern-feeling going around. It also favors Sanders that it’s same-day registration, which young people tend to take more advantage of.

Of course, older folks will still presumably turn out in higher numbers. In 2008, 36 percent of caucus-goers were 60 and older. A second factor that could help Clinton is that the caucus is closed to independents and others. It’s Democrats only. That might be the thing that saves her: Even as badly as Clinton got hammered in New Hampshire, she and Sanders tied among Democrats at 49 all.

Then there’s the black and Latino factor that’s also supposed to work in Clinton’s favor. Latinos first. They were 15 percent in 2008 and jumped to 19 percent in the 2012 general election. So might Latinos be close to a quarter of the vote this time? And Clinton won them 64-26 against Obama. Blacks were 15 percent in 2008, but they dropped down to just 9 percent in 2012. They might drop a bit more than that, but still, something around 30 percent of the turnout will be minority.

That should favor Clinton. But right now, who knows? She has gone seriously off the rails. Remember the Clinton of last summer and fall? I’m sure you don’t. I barely do, and I get paid to. She wasn’t getting any props for it because all people were talking about then were emails and Benghazi, but she had a message, and a pretty good one: The middle class needs a fair shake. And she came out with a series of aggressive positions. Remember it’s time to end “the era of mass incarceration”? Or her Wall Street reform plan that even earned praise at the time from Elizabeth Warren? It was proposals like these that back then made her the most avowedly progressive first-tier presidential candidate in history.

Well, now she’s the second-most. And by a lot! One thing about getting elected from Vermont—you can remain as pure as the New England snow. You don’t represent any huge banks or corporations or polluters—think, for example, of how even super-progressive Sherrod Brown has at times walked a careful line on climate change, as he represents a coal state. You don’t have many 1 percenters. And most of all, you don’t have to raise $20 million to get re-elected. You know what Sanders spent to get re-elected in 2012? $3.2 million! And he bagged 70 percent of the vote.

He probably could have spent $500,000 and still won—no pressure to rake in filthy lucre like a senator from a larger state. I think if Sanders were from any other state in the union—literally any other state—he’d have been forced to make a few sell-out compromises along the way. But from Vermont, none.

And she’s totally thrown; reduced to arguing that the other guy’s unrealistic. Well, he is. Ridiculously so, in some cases, like his health-care plan, the tax bill for which the Republicans would just destroy him on. But that isn’t what people want to hear. And he is stating a lot of useful and important principles, while all she’s doing is debating process. That bores people, and much worse, it makes her sound like a (warning: gendered noun alert!) scold.

Lecturing people is never a good idea. And attacking Sanders is, to borrow a phrase her husband once used to me when I interviewed him, a “dead-bang loser” for her. It just makes already angry people angrier. And then throw in Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright’s condescension and it’s just a disaster.

She needs to get back to having a message. Goals and principles. Stay positive. Propose some new things that up the ante on Sanders a little. Pull something new out of her hat about the big banks, pledge that she’s not going to have any Wall Streeters in her administration, say some pie-in-the-sky thing she’s going to do for unions. Something.

She’s in a danger zone. Maybe people are just tired of her. They’re certainly tired of the Hillary who’s been on display these last two weeks. There’s a better Hillary under there, but she’s buried right now. Sanders could win Nevada, and if so, look out—for the first time, he will have won a contest that he wasn’t “supposed” to win. New math.