The Vermont senator Bernie Sanders won the caucuses in Nevada, solidifying his frontrunner status in the race for the Democratic nomination.
“We’ve brought together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition that is not only going to win Nevada, it’s going to sweep this country,” Sanders told supporters in San Antonio, Texas, after the Associated Press and several US networks projected his win.
With more than 43% of precincts officially reported, Sanders held a large lead on Saturday night. At this stage of results, the former vice-president Joe Biden appeared to be in second place, with the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren trailing behind.
The Nevada caucuses come at a critical moment in the Democratic primary, a week before the South Carolina race and just before Super Tuesday, in March, when 14 states will vote. In a state that is nearly 30% Latino, 10% black and has a rapidly growing Asian American community, the Nevada results were a compelling sign of Sanders’ strength in diverse states that more closely reflect the demographics of the Democratic party.
The victory for the self-proclaimed democratic socialist follows strong results in Iowa and New Hampshire this month and his momentum comes as the support of more centrist Democratic voters remains divided among his rivals. With none of those moderate Democrats indicating they’ll drop out anytime soon, Sanders has a solid lead in the race to win the nomination and take on Trump.
Across Nevada, Sanders supporters celebrated on Saturday as it became clear early on that the senator was getting significant support at the caucuses. Unlike traditional private votes, the caucuses have voters gather in groups based on their top-choice candidate, allowing them to switch to a second choice if their first pick doesn’t garner enough support to get a delegate.
“Bernie Sanders means hope to me,” said Donny Brooks, a 19-year-old student caucusing at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Bernie represents a push against the status quo. A win for Bernie is like an actual win for the public.”
Nevada is the third contest in the Democratic primary race. The first two primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire, which are 90% white, also delivered strong results for Buttigieg. But the Indiana mayor appeared appeared to have been unable to capture strong support among Nevada’s diverse electorate.
Buttigieg, who took the stage in Vegas before his standing in the Nevada results was clear, directly targeted Sanders in his speech, criticizing the “inflexible, ideological revolution” of the Vermont senator and urging Democrats not to “rush to nominate” him.
Nevada’s “first-in-the-west” caucuses were also a major test for the campaign of the former vice-president Biden, who was a frontrunner in polls last year but performed poorly in the first two state contests. Biden gave a triumphant speech in Vegas before the results were finalized, and his campaign manager said he appeared to be in second place. “The press is ready to declare people dead quickly. We’re alive. We’re coming back,” Biden said to cheers. “We’re going to win in South Carolina, and then Super Tuesday.”
The Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, another midwestern candidate vying for moderates, had earned an unexpected third-place win in New Hampshire, but also polled poorly with voters of color. With 43% of precincts reporting, Klobuchar appeared to be near the bottom in Nevada.
Warren was pushing for a surge in Nevada after her widely celebrated performance at the debate days earlier in Las Vegas. The Massachusetts senator announced on Saturday she had raised $14m in the last 10 days, double the amount her campaign had set out as a goal ahead of the caucuses. She came in fourth in Nevada, making a path to the nomination increasingly difficult.
At a Saturday night rally in Seattle, Warren congratulated Sanders and thanked Nevada voters “for keeping me in the fight”. She emphasized her recent fundraising surge, adding, “We have a lot of states to go, and right now I can feel the momentum.”
The former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg was not on the ballot in Nevada due to his late entrance into the race, and the billionaire’s campaign has faced intense scrutiny this week after a particularly embarrassing first debate performance in Vegas.
After days of perma-blue skies, it was raining in Las Vegas on Saturday, with volunteers bracing against the conditions to welcome voters to their sites. On the Las Vegas Strip, hotel and casino workers streamed into the Bellagio, one of seven casino-resorts there that served as caucus sites.
Angelica Romero, 54, gained citizenship last year and said it was a privilege to cast her vote for the first time. Romero, who works as a guest room attendant on the Strip, was caucusing for Sanders. “The morals of Bernie are the same as those of my family and myself,” she said, mentioning his Medicare for All plan and his proposal for free college education.
At Sparks high school in northern Nevada, a group of Sanders supporters were the first to arrive hours before the caucus, encouraging voters to back the Vermont senator as they lined up.
Essie Richard, a 73-year-old resident, was not swayed.
“I’m Biden all the way. He was vice-president for eight years. He has the experience,” said Richard, adding that protecting social security and Medicare was the most important issue to her: “I’m barely surviving.”
Naomi Zamarripa, an 18-year-old high school senior, also arrived early to caucus in Sparks and said she was excited to cast her first vote for Sanders: “I love his commitment. He’s been around for so long. He keeps fighting and stays true to his beliefs.”
Linda Hunt, a 68-year-old Sparks voter who showed up to caucus with “Nevada for Bernie” signs, said it was hard not to be moved by Sanders’ message: “To be truthful, I love his passion, how he feels about the way we are supposed to be going in this world.” She said she was also terrified of four more years of Trump: “This guy in the White House will be the end of life as we know it.”
This was the first year Nevada offered early voting opportunities, and nearly 75,000 residents had cast their votes before Saturday. A majority were first-time caucus-goers, according to Democratic party officials.
“Nevada determines how things are going to go in the rest of the country,” said Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the secretary treasurer for the Culinary Union, the state’s most powerful labor group, which represents Las Vegas casino workers.
Nevada Democrats had been scrambling for weeks to avoid the technology failures that caused chaos in the Iowa caucuses, due to mishaps involving an app. Results on Saturday trickled in slowly, as Nevada officials tabulated the results.
Cat Dow, 29-year-old Reno voter, said she was excited that this was an election with two candidates she actually liked – Sanders and Warren. “Elizabeth’s debate really shook me. I love her, she kicked ass, everything she said was so salient and so relevant and she was so tough.” But Dow, who works in computer technology, said she was sticking with Sanders, adding: “I want the national embarrassment out of office more than anything else.”
Just minutes before the process started, Sam Difulvio, a 19-year-old Reno student, said she was still torn between the two progressive candidates: “I’m trying to hone in on their character and see who I like as a person. I want to hear what normal people have to say about the candidates.”
At one precinct at the university, Sanders won overwhelming support, leaving a small handful of Buttigieg and Warren supporters unable to win a delegate. Carissa Bradley, a 23-year-old Warren fan in the group, said she hoped Nevada would move away from the caucus system in the future: “It’s super archaic. It’s not conducive to introverts or people who aren’t politically active. And it creates issues for people who work on the weekends or can’t take all this time off.”
Bradley said she was ready to back any nominee: “It doesn’t matter who becomes the candidate – as long as we all vote blue.”