Hillary Clinton's lead is shrinking in Nevada: Why the results of that caucus could shape the entire race

Given the dynamics of the race, Nevada might be a turning point in the campaign

Published February 19, 2016 7:07PM (EST)

Hillary Clinton (AP Photo/) (AP/Bryan R. Smith)
Hillary Clinton (AP Photo/) (AP/Bryan R. Smith)

Nevada was long thought an easy win for Hillary Clinton – so much so that no one bothered to poll there until recently. Demographically the state favors her and, as recently as December, she led Sanders by as much as 23 points. After Sanders' surprising performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, however, things have changed. A new CNN/ORC poll released this week shows the race in a dead heat. 48 percent of likely caucus attendees say they support Clinton; 47 percent say they support Sanders.

The shift is due to a few factors. First, by outperforming expectations up this point, Sanders appears to be a much more viable candidate. Less than six months ago, Sanders was raising a lot of money but Clinton was still the consensus front-runner. Now the narrative is dramatically different: Sanders isn't the favorite by any measure, but he's proven he can win at the polls.

Sanders' fundraising prowess has also improved his organization and ground game, which undoubtedly has helped with messaging and turnout in states like Iowa and Nevada. And then there's the issues. In Nevada at least, the economy is the chief concern among likely Democratic caucusgoers. Sanders's perceived strength on this front has propelled him to the top of the polls.

According to a report at The Hill, strategists for Clinton are getting increasingly nervous about the tightening race in Nevada: “Team Clinton maintains confidence that its lead in South Carolina will hold, but the potential loss in Nevada has put people on edge about a possible 'domino effect' in which states could fall one by one to Sanders as he gains momentum.”

“I don't get it,” said a former Clinton aide. “I don't think anyone expected this race to look like this. A big loss in New Hampshire, basically a tie going in to Nevada. You have to ask yourself, 'What's next?''

Clinton's minority firewall in Nevada (27.8 percent of the population is Hispanic) was supposed to secure an easy victory for her, but so far it's not clear that it will. As one Democratic strategist in Nevada put it, these “folks are giving Sanders a second look...He's got some good momentum. There's no doubt about it.”

Team Clinton is right to worry about Nevada. Given the dynamics of the race, Nevada could be a turning point in the campaign – for either candidate. As Iowa and New Hampshire have shown, an unexpected loss (or win) can alter voters' perceptions in a hurry. Clinton will almost certainly win in South Carolina, but a loss in Nevada would likely make the margin of victory much smaller.

As it stands, Clinton leads in 10 of the 12 Super Tuesday states, which hold primaries on March 1. Were she to win both Nevada and South Carolina, odds are she carries that momentum into Super Tuesday and walks away with a significantly higher delegate count than Sanders, putting her in an extremely advantageous position moving forward. If she loses, however, the “domino effect” is entirely possible.

“You don't want a streak,” said another Democratic official with ties to the Clintons. “Inside the deep legions of the Clinton campaign, they remember what happened when Barack Obama won in a streak. It was over.”

The smart money is still on Clinton to win Nevada. Her ground game is unrivaled and she has the institutional support of the state's most important officials and union representatives. But Bernie's populist message is clearly resonating. Nevada was among the hardest hit states during the Great Recession of 2008. Sanders's anti-Wall Street rhetoric ought to play well among progressives and working-class voters there. If he upsets Clinton, this is likely why.

The Most Important Date in the Democratic Primary Election

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

MORE FROM Sean Illing

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections 2016 Nevada Caucus Aol_on Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Hillary Clinton