Election 2016

Hillary Slows Down Bernie's Insurgent Campaign With Her Victory in Nevada

Working-class voters in Las Vegas tipped the balance to Clinton.

Photo Credit: http://www.nationalnursesunited.org

Bernie Sanders’ path to the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination got harder on Saturday, as Hillary Clinton won 53 percent of the delegates from caucuses held across Nevada, compared to 47 percent for Sanders, who could not turn a buoyant come-from-behind surge into an upset victory.

“I am very proud of the campaign we ran. Five weeks ago we were 25 points behind and we ended up in a very close election,” Sanders tweeted at 3pm. “Proud that we brought many working and young people into the political process. We have the wind at our back as we head into Super Tuesday.”

Sanders’ spokespeople pointed to the bright aspects of their results. Entrance polls by the media found that Sanders won the Latino vote by 8 percent. In 2016’s first three contests, they have done far better than expected, tying in Iowa, winning in New Hampshire and coming close here. They noted that President Obama lost Nevada’s caucuses in 2008 and won the presidency. 

But Sanders was hoping for much more. At Friday night’s Nevada rally, he implored several thousand supporters to “make American history” tomorrow by winning the caucuses so “that people will look back at what happens in Nevada and say this is the beginning of a political revolution.”   

Instead, it was Clinton who got the lift she needed after badly losing the New Hampshire primary by 22 points, and she could point to a stronger than expected boost from working-class voters in Las Vegas, where most unions endorsed her and three-fourths of the state’s Democrats reside. In all six special precincts for casino and hotel workers, who got paid time off to participate, Clinton repeatedly won two-thirds of the vote, with many Latino and African-American hospitality workers saying she was best qualified.

“To everyone who turned out in every corner of Nevada with determination and heart: This is your win. Thank you. –H,”  tweeted Clinton, following with an e-mail blast acknowledging the tight race. “The choice in this primary might be tough for some, because the truth is, Senator Sanders and I agree on a basic premise: Wall Street, big banks, drug companies, and the like all have too much power and influence in our country... Americans are right to be angry. These injustices demand action from all of us.” 

Just what the specifics of that agenda consist of, and who is best able to deliver it, were the deciding factors raised by caucus-goers Saturday at a site set up by MGM Resorts International at its New York New York casino on the Las Vegas strip. A conference room drew 299 employees from every corner of the surrounding casino complex, including uniformed maids, bartenders, card dealers, bellhops, front desk workers, housekeepers, cooks, repairmen and managers.

Nevada’s Working-Class Voters

The first person in line was a Sanders supporter. Michael Rubenstein, 25, is a Las Vegas native, a community college student and a chef at the nearby non-union Mandarin Oriental restaurant, where he does not have health care benefits. “It’s an easy decision. I believe in the cause,” he said, as he waited to be checked in by state party volunteers. “I came early to make sure my vote counted… Bernie seems to make a lot of sense, the college tuition thing, health care.”

But it didn’t take long for the generational divide to appear. Sanders, the entrance polls found, was supported by 76 percent of caucus goers under age 45. He also was supported by 54 percent of Latinos statewide, compared to 43 percent for Clinton. But among employees lining up at New York New York were many middle-aged and older men and women who have been working here for decades, even as their ID badges list faraway hometowns.   

Calvin Brooks, a Louisiana native, has been a bellman for 19 years in this hotel. Speaking slowly and deliberately, he explained why Clinton was his choice. “This is a union state. This is a union city. The president that we need today is somebody that will stand with us, to keep us together as a whole,” he said. “My mind is made up for Hillary, someone who has been in the White House, not around it… and someone who knows the lay of the land and how to do the right things for all people, not just some people.”

Looking at those in line with him, Brooks said lots of people who supported her in 2008 are with her now. That could be a factor that was underestimated by pollsters and others who were surprised to see Sanders surge in recent weeks. Compared to the 2008 caucuses, where it was a fierce fight between Clinton and Obama and 117,000 Democrats turned out statewide, turnout Saturday in Nevada was estimated by party officials to be 80,000. Sanders won in the northern part of the state, where Reno is located and where there were precincts in university campuses. There weren’t precincts on Las Vegas campuses this year, but there was a determination by workers in the hotels to have their votes count.  

Not far behind Brooks in line was another Clinton supporter, a middle-aged white man with a crew cut and goatee, who said he’s been a slot machine technician for 19 years. “I’m caucusing for Hillary. It’s close. If you care, you need to make a statement,” he said. When asked why he didn't choose Sanders, he said, “People are fed up and want something different and that’s why candidates who you don’t expect to do well are doing well.” He added that Hillary is more competent.

Erlinda Falconer, an African American and blackjack dealer here for 18 years, looked at people in line. “It appears it’s mostly Hillary. She’s more qualified and we all know it,” she said, adding that people are really paying attention. “The majority of us realize how serious this election is and the impact it will have on our country and state,” she said. “This is very, very important. There’s a lot on the line. This isn’t a popularity contest. This is trying to get back on track.”

“I feel like the odd one out in a sea of Hillary supporters,” confessed Aimee Johnson, 37, a wardrobe staffer for the glitzy shows, who came for Sanders. “I am a little surprised, since we are all working stiffs all here on our lunch breaks… especially with his focus on education reform, women’s rights, and more. It’s really surprising.”

Johnson, like many Sanders supporters, said she didn’t trust the Clintons. “Do we really need a third Bill Clinton administration?” she asked, and was quick to say that Sanders has a diversity of supporters. “It’s not just the really young people who are going for Bernie. It’s people who have been dealing with health care, education, student loans.”

The caucus rules permit any eligible or registered voter in line by noon to participate, even if it took a while to get through the check-in process. As the end of the line neared (299 people came to a room with only 100 seats evenly divided between two sides), Bridget Savadge, one of three precinct captains for Sanders, greeted Sanders supporters. A wardrobe tech for the Circ de Soleil acrobatic theatre show, Savadge wore a purple T-shirt, red precinct captain pin and blue stickers, and was handing out campaign buttons. The Clinton chairs were handing out blue T-shirts, prompting one Sanders supporter to say he’d rather have free health care. 

When asked who Savadge saw among her team, she replied, “I see middle-class working people that want somebody that stands up for them and not for a select few. I see many people who are tired of the establishment, that are struggling with the current system in getting what they need.” She continued, “He offers answers to questions about how am I going to pay for my health care, what’s going to happen to my Social Security, how will I put my kids through school? He has answers and plans for that.”

But even before the doors shut and the counting of attendees commenced, it was clear there were more people packed into Clinton’s side of the room. It took another hour before all the votes were counted and recounted, and a final pitch by the campaigns was made to a half-dozen undecided voters.

One of the last to decide voters was Joyce, a 72-year-old African-American housekeeper from the Mandalay Bay hotel, who said she recognized many Latina housekeepers standing across the room for Hillary. “I want to retire soon and I worry about health care and Social Security,” she said, adding that she thought Sanders was offering more than Clinton.

Justin Stokes, another Sanders precinct captain and a bartender at Planet Hollywood, gave his team’s speech to the undecideds. “This is the first candidate who is not the lesser of two evils,” he said, saying that Sanders has fought for civil rights, immigrant rights, Wall Street reform, campaign finance reform and more. “Go to the left and stand for the revolution, don’t sit for a coronation.”

But when the voting was done, there were 97 votes for Sanders and 196 for Clinton—a two-to-one margin. The state party does not release raw vote totals, just the percentages of delegates that are awarded to each of the candidates as they go to the next stage in the nominating process: county conventions. Clinton won 23 delegates at MGM Resorts’ caucus, compared to 11 for Sanders.     

Results like that show how working-class voters in Las Vegas tipped the balance to Clinton. She won 53 percent of the delegates awarded statewide, compared to 47 percent for Sanders. While his campaign sent its surrogates to talk to workers in strip caucus sites before Saturday’s caucus, both Bill and Hillary Clinton were making the rounds in the strip’s hotels as well, said Clinton caucus captain Jillian Matunda. 

“Bill was downstairs in the employee lounge,” she said. “Bernie’s team sent [Chicago mayoral candidate] Chuy Garcia."

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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