LAS VEGAS, NV. — Bernie Sanders gave Hillary Clinton a real run for her money in Nevada.
She had every reason to perform better: an early polling lead; as well as the best staff and infrastructure available. Her campaign manager, Robby Mook, ran Clinton’s 2008 effort in Nevada. That year, Clinton bested Barack Obama by a margin of 5.7 percentage points. This year, based on the latest results, she beat Sanders by just under that with 5.1 percentage points.
In a grand Caesars Palace ballroom, Hillary Clinton delivered a measured victory speech. The latest tight showing against a candidate that just months ago many political analysts laughed off as a serious challenge.
Of the first three presidential contests, she Iowa won by 0.3 percent of the vote; then lost the popular vote in New Hampshire more than 20 percentage points—and now this tight win in Nevada.
Clinton’s own campaign had previously trumpeted their wide polling lead, one that dwindled dramatically as caucus day approached. In a conference call with reporters last month, Mook himself had said that the former Secretary of State held a 25 percentage point lead in the state.
“It’s humbling to see that the Bernie campaign is running a very strong campaign, and we can’t ignore them. said Fabian Nunez, a national co-chair of Clinton’s campaign in 2008. “There’s a lot of concern about the economy, a lot of concern about the status quo… You can’t take anything for granted. The real lesson… is that you cannot claim victory despite how many people you have on the ground, how much money you invested in the campaign, and how strong a candidate you have—until the voters go to the polls or caucuses and decide who to vote for.”
Across from simple doric columns, the Clinton advance team had set up a series of American flags on the stage, outlined by the soft glow of blue lights on the ceiling. “Fighting for Us,” the Clinton banner read. “Shake It Off,” by Taylor Swift played in the background.
In this dimly lit room, Clinton made the case for her campaign, one that aimed to “break down every barrier that holds you back. We’re going to build ladders of opportunity in their place.”
There was a strange, understated mood as she delivered her speech: surrounded by adoring throngs of volunteers and staffers, she delivered a 12-minute speech more muted than after her loss in New Hampshire less than two weeks ago. Following New Hampshire, she stormed on stage with a fire in her belly—after her win in Nevada, her speech seemed more measured.
“Some may have doubted us,” Clinton said, with some restraint, at her victory party. “But we never doubted each other.”
Sanders, on the other hand, spun the upside to his loss: “Five weeks ago, we were 25 points behind in the polls,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said in a speech Saturday afternoon. “We have the wind at our back as we head toward Super Tuesday.”
“It was closer than I thought it would be. I was hoping for more,” said Shay Taylor, who had traveled from Palm Springs, Calif. to door-knock for Clinton and take in her victory speech. “She really has to get her message out to younger voters.”
Taylor, who was sporting a navy ‘Make America Gay Again’ cap, was critical of the Nevada caucus process for being convoluted, time-consuming and exclusionary.
“If you’re over 75 and you’ve had a heart operation, you can’t come do that,” Taylor said. Clinton’s margin of victory would have been larger had those in their seventies and older been more able to participate in the nominating process in Nevada, she argued.
The caucus process was, as caucuses can be, a hectic and messy process, all up and down the Las Vegas Strip.
On Saturday afternoon, a line to caucus inside the New York New York hotel snaked through the casino, past the slots, past the wafts of cigarette smoke, past the Swatch store and the statue of the New York Jet quarterback (not any quarterback in particular, just a generic one), and to the elevators that led up the Staten Island Room.
Exactly 299 caucus-goers showed up. It took two counts and a few minutes for the for the two sides to try to persuade the independents, but it turned out to be a walk: Clinton 196, Sanders 97, the rest undecided. Clinton took 23 delegates to Sanders’s 11 in that room.
At Caesars Palace, just a floor below where Clinton’s victory party would later take place, Clinton and Sanders’ supporters competed in a vigorous shouting match before the caucus. “Si se puede!” yelled some, a throwback to the 2008 Obama slogan. “Hill-a-ry!” shouted others. “Feel the Bern!” still others cried. Some ‘Nurses for Bernie,’ touting their status as the most trusted profession, showed up to chant.
When the time came for the caucus to begin, dozens upon dozens of voters were still waiting in line to register—state party officials simply let them rush into the room. The registration would have to happen during the caucus, and on the fly. What followed was a chaotic scene: of counting caucus-goers, of splitting the crowd into “presidential preference groups,” and tabulating delegate counts.
Among a sea of blue Hillary t-shirts, Clinton received the support of two-thirds of the crowd and winning the caucus Saturday afternoon, much like she won across the rest of the state. But it was far from a devastating blow to Sanders’ campaign.
“When we began in Iowa we were 50 points behind, when we began in New Hampshire, we were 30 points behind and we were way behind here in Nevada,” Sanders said.
The self-described democratic socialist predicted upsets to come, with “momentum” on his side.
“I believe that when Democrats assemble in Philadelphia in July, at that convention we are going to see the results of one of the great political upsets in the history of the United States,” he said.
—Jackie Kucinich and Michael Tomasky contributed to this report.