By Miriam Raftery
Photo: screenshot from video uploaded by Sanders' campaign; speaking after in Texas after his Nevada win
View video of Sanders' victory speech, delivered before a large crowd in San Antonio, Texas
February 23, 2020 (San Diego) – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders scored a decisive win in yesterday’s Nevada caucus, winning 46% of the votes, more than twice as many as any other candidate. His big win raises questions over whether Sanders' has the potential to mobilize his substantial grassroots support to defeat President Donald Trump in November, or whether the divided moderate wing of the party should unify to block a Sanders' win.
He also proved wrong critics who claimed he couldn’t appeal to minority voters in swing states, picking up support of over half of Nevada’s large Latino population and holding his own (along with former Vice President Joe Biden) with strong support among African-American voters, as well as most white voters according to exit polls. He had by far the biggest support among voters age 30 or younger, drew many moderate voters and even won five of seven caucus sites at casinos among rank-and-file union workers, despite the culinary workers union opposing his Medicare for All proposal.
With 60% of votes tallied, Sanders has 46%, Biden 19.6%, Pete Buttigieg 15.3%, Elizabeth Warren 10.1%, Amy Klobucher 4.8%, and Tom Steyer 4.1%.
Of note, Nevada’s early voting period had already closed before last week’s debate, in which Warren attacked billionaire Michael Bloomberg over efforts to buy the election and over Bloomberg’s history of demeaning comments toward women as well as settling many sexual harassment and discrimination claims filed against Bloomberg or his company.
Warren’s campaign reported a $14 million bump in fundraising after the debate, too late to help her in Nevada, but she could potentially see a rise in South Carolina, the next state to vote, and/or on Super Tuesday, March 3rd, when 14 states will hold primary elections, including California.
Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, was not on the ballot in Nevada, skipping caucus states but investing over half a billion dollars on ads in Super Tuesday states.
Sanders has won all three of the first states to vote: Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Of 74 delegates awarded so far, Sanders has won 31, Buttigieg 22, Warren 8, Klobucher 7, and Biden 6.
Looking to South Carolina, Steyer, another billionaire who has long supported efforts to address climate change and gun violence, has invested heavily in TV ads and polls show him potentially viable.
For Biden, former Vice President under Barack Obama, black voters have long been a stronghold. Biden has never carried a single state in his multiple presidential runs. But if he wins South Carolina, his campaign hopes to gain momentum. If he loses to Sanders in South Carolina, many pundits believe it would be unlikely for him to rebound. If moderate votes are split in South Carolina and Sanders comes out on top, he could be unstoppable after Super Tuesday. He is polling far ahead of others in California, which has 416 delegates, and has a strong team on the ground in Texas, which like Nevada and California, has a large Latino population.
But many establishment Democratic leaders fear a ticket with Sanders as the nominee could scare off moderate voters who disagree with Sanders’ self-proclaimed democratic Socialist policies. Buttigieg has suggested Sanders could harm down-ticket races in swing states with a worst-case possibility of seeing the House flip to the Republican column and reducing already long odds of Democrats regaining the Senate.
Those who favor Sanders, however, contend that unlike other candidates, he has built a massive grassroots movement starting in his 2016 campaign – drawing thousands at his rallies and inspiring many new voters, young voters, union members and Latino voters – key constituencies needed for Democrats to win. His anti-establishment stances railing against corporate power, along with new TV ads showing working people with a message that Trump “betrayed you” could resonate even with some disaffected former Trump supporters. Some Democratic leaders have acknowledged that the stances Sanders supports are materially similar to those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who started Social Security and Medicare, and whose New Deal programs put Americans back to work during the great Depression.
Sanders’ age, 78, and prior heart attack are also concerns. However President Trump, Biden and Bloomberg are all in their late 70s; having a younger and well-prepared vice presidential nominee with cross-party appeal if Biden or Bloomberg wins the nomination could alleviate the issue.
Some have also voiced concerns over Sanders visiting the Soviet Union in his youth (due to a sister city agreement with his hometown of Burlington, Vermont and a Russian community). However voters concerned about Russian influence would likely be more worried over Trump’s ongoing close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump’s invitation to Russian interference in the U.S. election, meetings with Putin with no translator present, and Trump withholding aide to the Ukraine for fighting Russian forces in order to pressure the Ukraine to investigation the son of Trump’s rival, Biden.
The reality of Sanders being able to deliver Medicare for All or free college education are aspirations are all but impossible to pass Congress, given that Republicans oppose such proposals along with some Democrats. A Sanders presidency however would mean issues of healthcare costs and college debt would be addressed from the bully pulpit of the presidency, potentially leading to compromise measures put forward to provide at least significant relief to those burdened by unaffordable healthcare or concerned about vanishing college opportunities for many young people.
Absent a crystal ball, it’s impossible to know how voters would actually respond in a hypothetical Sanders-Trump matchup. Most national polls indicate Sanders would win, but what’s missing are polls in swing states only, where the results could be very different and benefit Trump.
Another stumbling block for Democrats could be if Sanders wins a plurality of votes, not a majority, which would result in a brokered convention, allowing super-delegates who are party leaders to influence the outcome. If the nomination is awarded to someone other than Sanders in such a situation, it could lead to resentment among Sanders’ legion of followers, who may or may not support an alternative Democratic nominee, actively walk precincts or man phonebanks-- though Sanders himself has indicated he will support whoever wins the ticket.