Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will win the Nevada caucuses, according to a CNN projection, showing the power of his organization and amplifying his argument that he can broaden his appeal across the Democratic electorate based on the results from the most diverse state in Democrats' nominating contest thus far.
Though former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to have the lead in polls as late as January, Sanders made an enormous organizing push beginning in the middle of last year, putting some 250 paid staffers on the ground in the Silver State. His campaign also harnessed their grassroots fundraising machine to build roots within the state's large Latino community, advertising in Spanish not only on television, radio and social media, but through ads on music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify.
Early entrance polls in Nevada showed Sanders winning Latino voters by 54 percent, some 40 percentage points ahead of the next candidate, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Sanders also won among white voters; Biden led among black voters in those early snapshots of the electorate.
Some wondered whether Sanders would face headwinds among the considerable number of union members in Nevada after tensions flared between the powerful Culinary Union -- which represents 66,000 hotel and casino workers -- and Sanders supporters, because of the Culinary Union's opposition to Sanders' "Medicare for All" plan. The union decided decided not to endorse a candidate.
The Culinary Union posted flyers throughout Las Vegas underscoring that Sanders' plans would force them to give up the excellent health care benefits they fought for. That led to a backlash among some Sanders supporters online. In the end, it does not appear to have been a major factor in the election.
Among Nevada voters, the overriding concern was supporting a candidate who could beat President Donald Trump. On the issues, health care was the top concern and 63 percent of voters said they supported a government run health care plan like the one Sanders has proposed.
Sanders' win was also particularly notable given the ideological split within the Nevada electorate: 30 percent described themselves as very liberal, 35 percent said they were somewhat liberal and 31 percent said they were moderate in entrance polls.
In his final rally Friday night, Sanders said he was hoping for "the largest voter turnout in the history of the Nevada caucus," but was already looking ahead to the Super Tuesday states like California and Texas where he made stops on Friday and Saturday -- showing the confidence of a front-runner.
"Here in Nevada, we've had volunteers knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors. I just came back from California two hours ago, they're close to a million doors that they have knocked on," Sanders said. "And we're knocking on doors in Texas and in Massachusetts and all across this country."
During a rally in Texas on Saturday, Sanders said that if his campaign does well in the state, "Trump is finished." He highlighted the growing diversity of his supporters as he greeted the crowd in El Paso Saturday.
"When I look out at an audience like this and I see the diversity and the beauty in this audience. And let me tell you, you do look beautiful from here," Sanders said. "When I look out at this audience, I have absolute confidence that we can create a government that is based on compassion, is based on love, is based on truth. Not what we have now -- of greed, corruption."
Other Democrats fall short
Pointing to the diversity of Nevada as evidence that it would be a better fit for his campaign than Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden had hoped for a comeback in the Silver State after his fourth and fifth place finishes in the first two states. But he still fell short -- even after heavy campaigning in the past week -- underscoring the uncertainty among Democratic voters over the former vice president's stamina against Trump.
Biden told CNN in an interview on Friday that he would consider a first or second place finish in Nevada to be a win.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also made a vigorous push this week in Nevada, seeking a last-minute surge after she led the charge against former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Wednesday night's Las Vegas debate. (Bloomberg is not competing in the state).
She touted her debate performance at her Friday night rally as a final pitch to voters that she would be the toughest candidate against Trump.
"If anyone doubts whether or not I can fight (Trump) on a debate stage I think we have the video from Wednesday, I'm ready for that man," Warren said. "You all live in Las Vegas, this is the place you put down the betting line, I'm just offering you this: I think there's a 50/50 chance that Donald Trump looks at debating me and doesn't even show up. He ain't that brave," she said.
Businessman Tom Steyer made an enormous investment in Nevada, plowing more than $14.8 million into television ads -- far outpacing Sanders, who was a distant second in spending at nearly $2 million.
And Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar had hoped the momentum they've built over the first two contests would continue in Nevada.
Entrance polls showed that both Buttigieg and Klobuchar did well among late-deciding voters who made their decision over the past month. Sanders far outpaced the others among voters who decided earlier than a month ago.
Klobuchar said her campaign would be "viable no matter what."
"We're already running ads in Super Tuesday states," Klobuchar said Saturday speaking to reporters at her caucus kickoff event inside her Las Vegas office. "We're headed to South Carolina for the debate and there we go."
How Sanders won Nevada
Sanders' victory in Nevada was a credit not only to his organization and outreach in minority communities, but also the way he has transformed his 2016 upstart candidacy to the formidable operation of a front-runner.
Four years ago, Sanders was viewed as the renegade candidate of the progressive fringe as he challenged Hillary Clinton, who defeated the Vermont senator in the Nevada caucuses but was drawn into a long and protracted race with a rival few had taken seriously.
With the benefit of experience, reams of voter data and an unmatched ability to raise money from small-dollar donors, Sanders has built a very different campaign this time -- one that increasingly seems to be convincing Democratic voters that he will be able to take on Trump.
One of the most striking facets of the Nevada entrance polls was that Sanders won convincingly within an electorate where nearly two-thirds said beating Trump was more important than choosing a candidate who shared their views.
It showed that Sanders is increasingly persuading Democrats that he can defeat Trump by galvanizing working class voters who feel left behind in the Trump economy and bringing new voters into the process.
Changing the perception of Sanders has been a deliberate effort by his campaign since early 2019. Instead of simply holding rallies where he gave long, stem-winding speeches, he held more intimate events in the early states and spent much more time questioning voters about their economic struggles.
At the same time, he continues to burnish his appeal as an outsider willing to take on the Washington establishment, including those in his own party.
Sanders has fired up his supporters by promising to take on a lengthy list of powerful interests, from the pharmaceutical industry to the military industrial complex to the "crooks on Wall Street."
He has also cast his campaign as one that will drive revolutionary change in the area of economic justice, emphasizing polices like raising the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, forgiving student loan debt, providing free college, reforming what he calls a "broken and racist" criminal justice system, and making universal health care a human right.
In minority communities, Sanders' campaign also made a very deliberate effort to connect with voters by sharing his family's immigrant story. Sanders often talks on the trail about how his father came to the United States at the age of 17 without any money and minimal English skills, but was able to make a living through determination and hard work.
He has portrayed the Trump administration's actions on immigration as cruel, immoral and heartless, casting the President as a racist and a xenophobe, while promising to reverse Trump's policies as soon as he takes office.
'No Iowa repeat'
Uncertainty about the caucus process had cast a shadow over the race leading up to the contest.
Democrats in the Silver State showed their enthusiasm in early voting when nearly 75,000 people participated over four days, nearing the 2016 Caucus Day turnout of 84,000 (when there was no early vote). And the party estimated that more than 50 percent of the early vote participants were first-time caucusgoers.
National party leaders sent in teams of aides to help the Nevada Democratic Party avoid the kind of caucus counting disaster that befell Iowa.
In the lead up to voting, the Nevada State Democratic Party offered "round the clock" caucus trainings to show volunteers how to work the special caucus calculator that precinct chairs used to enter results.
State party officials asked caucus site leaders to sign non-disclosure agreements that would bar them from speaking to the media. A state party official told CNN that the request was standard and said staff and volunteers were asked to sign the agreements because they would have access to strategic information.
After abandoning plans to use the same faulty app that was used in Iowa, the Nevada Democratic Party has also worked hard to create low-tech reporting systems to transmit results.
"No Iowa repeat," Jon Summers, a senior adviser to the Democratic Party, said during an interview with CNN Friday. "The party has been working around the clock to make sure they get everything right, to build in redundancies in the system. They've gone from what was going to be a very, very high-tech operation for the caucuses to one that's very low tech now -- that's paper-based and based on phones."
"They're going to have phone lines manned by about 200 people who will be accepting calls from the precincts when it's time for them to report the results," said Summers, the former communications director to then-Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid.