Sanders cements front-runner status with resounding win in Nevada

A coalition of young and working class voters propelled Senator Bernie Sanders to a decisive victory in the Nevada Democratic caucuses. Sanders finished with over 46 percent of the vote, more than 20 percentage points ahead of former Vice President Joe Biden, who finished a distant second. The rising moderate contender, Pete Buttigieg, ended up in third.


Nevada's importance

The state is considered an early bellwether of how well a candidate will do with a diverse electorate. 30 percent of the state's population of 30 million is Hispanic; 10 percent is Asian.

Nevada has also reliably gone to the winning candidate in the general election. Hillary Clinton's victory there in 2016 was the first time since 1976 that the state was carried by the losing candidate.

Bernie Sanders, favorite

The results in Nevada solidify Sanders position as the overwhelming frontrunner for the eventual nomination. He has now won two consecutive states after finishing in a virtual tie with Buttigieg in Iowa. And while he trails Biden in South Carolina, which is next on the primary schedule, he is the favorite in almost every Super Tuesday state, including delegate-rich California.

Many analysts say that in 2016, the Sanders campaign was driven by a young, liberal core, energized by his calls for universal healthcare and the elimination of student debt. But four years later, his success in Nevada has made it clear he has the support of a much larger base.

"We have just put together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition, which is not only going to win in Nevada, it's going to sweep the country," he said on Saturday, as he declared victory.

But Professor Masaru Nishikawa of Tsuda University in Tokyo, an expert on US politics, says Nevada's result was only a "passable victory" for Sanders.

"The numbers show some cause for reservation. In 2008, Clinton won 51 percent of the vote ahead of Barack Obama, who went on to win the presidency. And in 2016, she took 53 percent of the vote. But this time, Sanders won the state with less than a majority. This suggests his victory may be down to a split between the moderate candidates, rather than his own popularity. So I think it's still too early to label him as the runaway frontrunner."

Masaru Nishikawa, US politics expert at Tsuda University, Tokyo.

Moderate struggles

As Sanders continues to climb, he has been increasingly attacked by his moderate rivals who label him as "unelectable." They say a self-declared "Democratic socialist" would not generate enough support to prevail in the general election.

Biden has been among those repeating this claim. He entered the race last April as the presumed favorite but his support has steadily declined over the year. And Nishikawa says things will not get any easier for the former Vice President.

"The results in Nevada are going to give voters the impression that Joe Biden is even weaker than Hillary Clinton."

Nishikawa says Biden's fate largely depends on the South Carolina primary, which will take place next Saturday. He is currently leading polls there, but Sanders is rising.

"South Carolina has many African-American voters, a bloc that Biden has been able to reliably draw support from in the past," Nishikawa says. "If he loses here, it would be difficult to see him building any momentum toward the nomination."


Biden will also have to see off Buttigieg , who has established himself as Sanders' most credible moderate challenger. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, edged out Sanders in the delegate count in Iowa, and finished a close second in New Hampshire. But he dropped to third in Nevada, a result which raises further questions about his viability in the diverse states coming up in the primary calendar.

"Nevada proved that Sanders benefits from division among the moderates. If they unified under a single candidate, they could challenge Sanders. But it will probably be a while before this happens, at which point it may be too late."


Meanwhile, all the candidates will soon have to grapple with a new rival in billionaire Mike Bloomberg. The former mayor of New York City has skipped the first four contests and will jump into the nomination process on Super Tuesday. He made his first debate appearance last week in Nevada.

Bloomberg has been aggressively warning about the risks of nominated Sanders. Following Nevada, his campaign released a statement saying, "this fragmented field is putting Sanders on pace to amass an insurmountable delegate lead. If we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base--like Sanders--it will be a fatal error."

But Nishikawa says it is Bloomberg himself who is splitting the field.

"If no candidate drops out and Bloomberg splits the moderate vote, that will push Sanders one step closer to the nomination."