Sabato's Crystal Ball

Clinton Hangs on in Nevada

But she could still be in for a long slog

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley February 20th, 2016

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After very narrowly winning Iowa and losing New Hampshire in a blowout, Hillary Clinton has moved on to her “firewall” — the more diverse states that come after the lily-white leadoff contests. Clinton’s wall held in its first test in Nevada, but her modest margin of victory isn’t going to scare Bernie Sanders into surrendering. Clinton remains on track to win the nomination, barring intervention by the FBI or some unrelated, unexpected development, but Sanders is hanging around. And with the money he’s raising and the enthusiasm he’s generating among the young, he likely can continue for quite some time.

In essence, while Clinton is very likely to be the candidate of the Democrats’ present, Sanders may better represent the Democrats’ future. Despite a more diverse electorate in Nevada, Sanders maintained his staggering margins among the youngest voters, winning 18-29 year olds 82%-14%, effectively the same margins he captured in Iowa and New Hampshire among what must certainly be a more varied population of young people. (The entrance polls did not drill down on the racial makeup of the youngest voters.)

However, let’s treat the caucus entrance polls with some skepticism. They showed Sanders winning Hispanics by eight points, more than he won whites (two points). Possibly, this could be a function of Sanders’ big lead among younger voters: 36.5% of Nevada’s eligible Hispanic voters are in the 18-29 group, while just 21.1% of the state’s voters are in that age bracket overall, according to the Pew Research Center. So the fact that Nevada Hispanics skew younger might explain the entrance polls. It will be fascinating to see whether this age differential in the Hispanic vote continues in future contests.

African Americans only comprised 13% of the voters, and they went to Clinton by an impressive 76%-22% margin. That’s a good sign for Clinton as the race heads to South Carolina, where the electorate next Saturday will be more than half African American (55% in 2008). Realistically, Clinton should win South Carolina by about as much as Sanders won New Hampshire. That’s how we should measure the results there.

After the difficult struggles in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Clinton organization now has an undisputed win, albeit a narrow one. There are many elements to the victory. For example, national manager Robby Mook ran Clinton’s Silver State operation in 2008, and it was the only caucus state where Clinton won the statewide vote against Barack Obama that cycle. The most important Nevada Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid, remained publicly uncommitted, but one suspects he was helpful to Clinton behind the scenes. It’s hard to imagine Reid was pulling for Sanders, with Democratic insiders and many analysts believing the Vermont senator would be a vulnerable general election candidate. Reid pushed for casino workers, many of whom are a part of the Culinary Workers Union, to be able to caucus. Clinton’s campaign had previously expressed concern about their ability to participate.

Six months ago, the smart bet would have been on the Republican race lasting longer than the Democratic one. However, because of proportional delegate rules, the Democratic contest could go on for a very long time, perhaps deep into the spring, much like 2008.  The Republicans have several winner-take-all states starting in mid-March, which might help a presumptive nominee emerge within the next month or two, while delegates in every Democratic contest are awarded proportionally, meaning that both Sanders and Clinton can keep battling for a long time. Because of superdelegates, the free-agent party leaders and elected officials who make up about 15% of the delegates and who overwhelmingly back Clinton, the former secretary of state will probably have a delegate lead throughout the process. But Sanders can keep fighting on.

An aside: Nevada has demonstrated anew why caucuses are simply inferior to a primary system. Yes, caucuses are good for organizing at the local level. But the process is murky, confusing, and often disorganized. In a primary, voters have at least a 12-hour window in most states to make their voices heard; in a caucus, voters have to show up at an appointed time to vote. What if they’re working? What if they’re handicapped or elderly and have trouble getting to the caucus site? Sure, some caucuses have implemented absentee voting. But it’s nothing like a regular primary election, particularly in the case of active military personnel. Primaries enable many more people to be involved and are arguably far more representative of the electorate.

Also, transparency in delegate allocation is far greater in a primary, while in caucuses such as Iowa and Nevada, the tabulated public votes were for county convention delegates, not individual popular ballots. At Nevada’s county conventions, delegates will be selected for the state party convention, and it’s at the state convention where national delegates will be allocated. The Silver State’s Democratic precinct caucuses are, in fact, “non-binding,” as the Nevada delegate selection plan plainly states. The same was largely true in Iowa, though in the Hawkeye State, it’s even more confusing because there are also congressional district conventions separate from the Democratic state convention. Shouldn’t voters be able easily to see — and understand — the process that picks their presidential nominees?

In this Thursday’s regular Crystal Ball newsletter, we’re going to be taking a detailed look at the Democratic race in contests to be held over the next several weeks. While there are many states where Clinton should do very well, starting in South Carolina, there are plenty of others Sanders could win. Certainly he’ll handily carry his home state of Vermont on March 1, and he could capture neighboring Massachusetts as well. Super Tuesday caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota provide appealing targets, and Sanders could also test to see whether his strength with white working-class voters translates to places like Oklahoma and perhaps even Arkansas, where Clinton served as first lady.

Again, just as we have emphasized from the very beginning, Clinton is strongly positioned to be the 2016 Democratic nominee. But her path to the nomination remains rockier than she would have hoped. The early voting has exposed several key Clinton weaknesses — among the young, white liberals, independents, and even women under age 45. Clinton’s campaign has to wage her primary battles with an eye to correcting those multiple deficiencies if she is to secure the White House come November.