Did Hillary Clinton Just Finish Bernie Sanders Off?

Not quite—but close. Here’s what Hillary still needs to do after her big Nevada win.

02.21.16 1:25 AM ET

Let’s get right to it. Three main takeways from Hillary Clinton’s Nevada caucus win.

Takeaway number 1 is the most obvious one. Clinton dodged a huge bullet with this win. Imagine the week of horrible, awful, relentlessly negative press she was in for if she’d lost this. No longer inevitable. Doesn’t have a lock on people of color. Sanders has a vision, all she has is I’m the electable one, and now she doesn’t even have that. People don’t seem to want her anymore. She could be toast.

It would have been brutal, and who knows, it might have created enough bounce in Sanders’s direction that he could have made it close in next Saturday’s contest in South Carolina, could have narrowed the gap considerably with African-American voters; Sanders could have endured a narrow South Carolina loss and charged on to Super Tuesday hoping to win not just the expected states (Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Vermont), but maybe a couple of surprising ones.

All that seems out of reach—for the moment. For the first time, Clinton has a little momentum. And yes, she was 25 points ahead in Nevada two months ago, but that was two months ago. The world changed. After Sanders’s thrashing of Clinton in New Hampshire, Nevada was up for grabs. It’s the first night the Clinton people can exhale.

Takeaway number 2 is interesting. It’s that Clinton may not now feel compelled to go heavy negative on Sanders, which means in turn that she should have an easier time of unifying the party as the nominee if and when that time comes.

That is to say: The Clinton-Sanders race has been pretty pat-a-cake so far. I mean, they’ve tossed some small arms fire at each other, but they haven’t gone anywhere close to nuclear. Compare their race to the Republicans’. Or to Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s in 2008. Or to any contested presidential primary I can think of off the top of my head. This hasn’t been nasty by a long shot.

If Sanders had won, Clinton probably would have stepped that up. She might have gotten desperate and started launching attacks on Sanders that weren’t well-meaning liberal attacks (he’s a nice man but he’s unrealistic) but that began to sound like conservative attacks. I said on Hardball early in the day Saturday that if she really wanted to kneecap him, she wouldn’t just talk about how unrealistic his plans are, she’d talk directly to taxpayers about how much his plans would cost them.

But that’s kind of a conservative attack. And now, she probably doesn’t have to go there. That puts a ceiling on the amount of acrimony that will likely develop on the Democratic side. On Twitter, Berniebros and Hillarybots are scratching each others’ eyes out. But out there in the world, it’s not that nasty. I was on an elevator in New York New York with about 17 Clinton supporters and two Sanders people. The Clinton people joked, “OK, we’ve got ’em outnumbered, let’s get ’em!” Everyone laughed good-naturedly. The leader of the Sanders people, a 30-something black woman, said, “We’ll all be together in the fall.”

There’s still some primary calendar to be played out, and things can go to shit in a hurry in politics. But this win should mean that Clinton will be able to unite the party without anybody’s flesh being ripped.

Takeaway 3, which is related to 2: It now looks like Clinton is going to be the nominee, and that this primary will be over sooner rather than later. She should win nine of 12 Super Tuesday states, and maybe 10; I think she could get Massachusetts, while Sanders holds in Vermont and Minnesota. But barring the email-indictment scenario or some totally unexpected thing (and of course those things could happen!), it’s hard to see a scenario where Sanders could steal away any delegate-rich states. So she seems to be on the way.

BUT: She can’t act like that yet. She and her campaign have to understand the emotional and psychological situation here. Sanders people are very committed to their guy, and for totally understandable reasons. They’re a long way from being ready to say this thing is finished. If Clinton starts acting like it’s finished, she’ll do herself a lot of damage within the party, and it won’t be finished.

Hillary of all people ought to have learned the lessons of 2008 on this front. In 2008, her supporters were the bitter-enders, hanging on long after the math made it obvious that she was going to lose. So she understood what it was like to be in that position eight years ago, and she and her people need to remain alert to that memory. She needs to stay scrappy (without being too negative, see above), and she needs to stay respectful of Sanders and keep alive what is (probably) the fiction that this is still a race until the Sanders people are ready to admit to themselves that it isn’t one, which probably won’t be until mid- to late March.

I woke up this morning thinking Sanders was going to win out here. I went to Clinton’s final rally Friday night, featuring America Ferrara, Eva Longoria, and then Chelsea, Bill, and Hill. There was a good crowd, maybe 1,800, but the energy wasn’t that high. And I went to a caucus site this morning that was heavily attended, in a mixed-race area a couple of miles east of the Strip, and the line of new party registrants was pretty long, suggesting a Sanders turnout. But they fell short.

He’ll carry on, for a good long time. But it’s a different race now, not as dramatic or unpredictable, but still demanding that Clinton hit the right notes for some time to come.