[Author's note: The following piece is based upon a combination of web research and in-person observations. The campaign observations stem from a campaign office in Henderson, Nevada while the caucus observations stem from a local area high school the day of the caucus]
It was fun while it lasted.
Bernie Sanders brought an unexpected dynamic to the 2016 democratic nomination process. As someone who was seen as a longshot and fringe candidate at the onset, Sanders was able to successfully use his newfound national platform to advocate for his lifelong goal of implementing a system of democratic socialism in this country. He stood up and advocated for free universal healthcare, free public colleges and universities, a $15 minimum wage, and a dissolvement of the big banks on Wall Street. This populist message took off among white, affluent millennials and propelled Sanders to a "virtual tie" in Iowa and a commanding victory in New Hampshire.
And that's when the Sanders team realized they were in over their head.
Make no mistake about it: Saturday's result was a resounding victory for Hillary Clinton. Sure, the final result may have been less than 6 percentage points but that number alone doesn't tell the full story. Not only did the Clinton campaign have to deal with juvenile shenanigans from the Sanders camp leading up to caucus Saturday but the campaign also had to deal with Republican casino moguls Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson who allegedly refused to give their casino workers time off to caucus. There were also several reported incidents throughout the state of registered voters being turned away, some for the reason that they chose to be identified as "confidential voters" in an effort to avoid being hassled by robocalls and unnecessary campaign literature. All of these factors could have made Hillary Clinton's victory even more impressive on Saturday.
However, the media says it was a tight race and so that will be the narrative for the next couple of days. But even if Sanders and his team buy into the Marco Rubio Rule that a loss can be categorized as a win (the "wind is at our backs" as his email to supporters read) then there still remains the question as to how and why they lost Nevada on Saturday when they had so much momentum after New Hampshire? Surely Nevada would feel just as much Bern as Iowa and New Hampshire and so it would be a perfect time for the revolution to make it way to the western states, carrying Sanders to an upset victory. This event would cause seismic waves throughout the political world, would shake the Hillary Clinton campaign to its core, and would establish Bernie Sanders of all people as the favorite to become the Democratic nominee for president heading into Super Tuesday. So what happened?
The truth is that Nevada is the first state where we saw the true colors of the Sanders campaign: A disorganized, disjointed, and discombobulated mess. Every political pundit with half a brain knew how important Nevada was yet Sanders and his team didn't get on the ground there until November whereas Hillary Clinton had statewide offices in place starting in April. The Sanders team tried to make up for it by setting up 12 campaign offices throughout the state compared to just 7 for Clinton, yet somehow failed to realize that 75% of Nevada's population resides in Clark County, home to Las Vegas. While those additional campaign offices might have been great for morale, the bulk of the delegates would come from that one single county thereby rendering those more rural offices as being significantly less important to the overall delegate count of the state.
In addition to the late start date and mismanaged office sites, the Sanders team also failed to coordinate its volunteer efforts effectively. Whereas many Sanders supporters from out-of-state simply showed up by word of mouth, the Clinton campaign made an aggressive outreach to its supporters, especially those in neighboring California who would not be participating in their state's primary until June. Clinton supporters, including a large delegation from the "establishment" organization known as the Human Rights Campaign, came in and were immediately sent out to canvass for the candidate. There was also a viable celebrity presence as well both in the film world as well as the political world. In the days leading up to the caucus one particular campaign office in Henderson, Nevada (just south of Las Vegas) was visited by actress Chloe Moretz of 500 Days of Summer fame as well as Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who personally went out and canvassed in support of Hillary Clinton after giving a stump speech for her and her defense of women's health. On the flip side, Sanders and his team were not stumped for by any of their three congressional supporters and for some reason Cornel West was also unavailable to canvass.
The Sanders team also struggled to identify its potential supporters, especially Latinos. The campaign heavily relied on word of mouth to spread the word about Sanders who did not have the same name recognition as Hillary Clinton did. This strategy ultimately backfired as too much time was spent on identifying potential supporters rather than firming up the base. The last week leading up to the caucus highlighted the failed Sanders approach: As his volunteers were on the phones introducing themselves to first time voters and explaining the caucus process, the Clinton campaign team had identified its base of mostly older and reliable voters whom they knew they could count on to not only support Hillary but also attend the caucus and voice their support there. Knowing this was only Nevada's third presidential caucus, the Clinton campaign knew that having established and knowledgeable people in attendance could help swing undecided voters and thus add to their delegate count.
The Sanders campaign also seemed uninterested in reaching out to the African-American population of Nevada. Although only 13 percent of the electorate, African-Americans in Nevada represented the first opportunity for Sanders to show that he could appeal to a core group of the Democratic Party ahead of Tuesday's South Carolina primary. However, Sanders did nothing out of the ordinary during his time in Nevada to reach out to this demographic. Hillary Clinton however, chose to take time out of campaigning in Nevada on Tuesday to give a speech in Harlem about breaking down barriers in the African-American community. The speech not only received rave reviews but it also served as a central theme for her post-Nevada victory speech and seems destined to be a central theme of her campaign moving forward.
Lastly, there was the approach of both candidates to stump for last-minute votes on the Las Vegas strip. Sanders felt it would be best to hold a series of rallies throughout the city while Hillary Clinton was up at 3:00 A.M. talking with and engaging local union workers in the laundry room at Caesar's Palace. In addition, Senator Harry Reid worked his magic making multiple phone calls to both hotel executives as well as the head of the Culinary Union to ensure that their workers would be given time off to vote. The Culinary Union chose to not endorse a Democratic nominee during the primary but they were greatly perturbed when members of Sanders' campaign pretended to be hotel workers in order to stump for their candidate back in January. By having Reid work to ensure the members could caucus, it gave the Culinary Union an opportunity to express how they felt about the Sanders shenanigans.
So how did this Sanders strategy of setting up scattered field offices, having coordination problems, not properly targeting Latinos, ignoring African-Americans, and bypassing the support of local unions work out for him?
Just as swimmingly as you might imagine.
Because all the factors helped contribute to Bernie Sanders' massive defeat on Saturday. In terms of geography, Clinton won 55% of Clark County (home to Las Vegas) which accounted for 76% of her total delegates. In terms of coordination, the Clinton campaign had the clear advantage at multiple caucus sites with not only precinct captains but also volunteer caucus chairs who instantly relayed caucus results directly to the campaign. In terms of Latino outreach, despite faulty exit polls there seems to be a consensus that Clinton won about 60% of the delegates in Latino areas. That percentage was even greater among African-Americans where she won 76% of their support including an absolute domination in the five precincts with the highest percentage African-Americans, which she won by a combined delegate count of 76-0. And lastly, Clinton would up with an 11 point advantage with those workers who identified themselves with a union.
The Sanders campaign officially ran full on into a locomotive named Clinton in Nevada. This wasn't an absolute must-win for the campaign (Barack Obama lost 2 out of the first 3 primaries in 2008) but the campaign didn't want to take any chances. It also held a spot of sentimentality for the Clinton team: Hillary's current political campaign strategist Robby Mook was her Nevada state director in 2008 and the torch in 2016 was passed on to Emmy Ruiz who adopted the same ground-and-pound style that gave Clinton her first victory there. The strategy this time around was simple: Shore up the base. For the third time in as many states, Sanders and his team failed to galvanize the "revolution" and turnout in Nevada was 2/3 of what it was in 2008. Knowing that it wasn't likely to be new caucusers but rather veterans that made the difference, the Clinton campaign targeted its street canvassers to people they identified as likely Clinton supporters while Clinton herself and her husband Bill worked with Harry Reid to ensure that union workers at the casinos were given the opportunity to express their support. That plan, along with Sanders' complete failure to connect with people of color, ensured that Hillary Clinton would retain her "firewall" and advance on to South Carolina where a second straight victory on Tuesday seems imminent.
As much as Bernie Sanders would like to like to play this off as a one-time loss, the truth is Nevada is a microcosm for his campaign. They are simply behind the eightball when it comes to how to run a national campaign. They should have been in Nevada mid-summer at latest if they were seriously considering this type of run and they should have stressed the importance of having out-of-state volunteers coordinated and dispatched ahead of the Nevada primary. They are struggling with the Voter Activation Network (VAN) to properly identify their supporters which could very well explain why the campaign tried to hack Hillary Clinton's information in December. Despite making progress with Latino voters in Nevada, Sanders supporters chose to denigrate civil rights icon Dolores Huerta at a Las Vegas casino caucus, which won't bode well for Sanders in Texas. Sanders himself is simply unable to resonate with African-American voters while Hillary Clinton is not only winning over Harlem but is also winning over prominent African-American congressmen like John Lewis and now James Clyburn ahead of the South Carolina primary. Lastly, Sanders and his team made a powerful enemy in Harry Reid and the Culinary Union. Had the Sanders campaign simply respected the union's wishes to remain neutral it would have made Saturday's results a lot closer than they were.
These are not simply "whoopsie" kind of mistakes. They are indicative of a campaign breaking down in front of our very eyes. Despite outspending Hillary Clinton in January, Bernie Sanders and his team have a single primary victory to show for it, and it was in Sanders' backyard. His message is only resonating with millennials and independents and he has yet to find a way to reach out to the African-American community. Sanders himself is too busy trying to start a "revolution" that he has failed to realize that the way you win elections is not by holding large rallies and shouting slogans but by talking face-to-face with late shift workers at 3 in the morning. You win elections by ensuring that all eligible people can vote. You win elections by playing by the rules and not creating powerful enemies. You win elections not simply by hoping new people show up but by talking to your oldest and most staunch allies to ensure their support. And you win elections by being prepared, taking nothing for granted, and fighting for every last vote.
If Bernie Sanders and his team haven't learned those lessons yet, they never will.