Hillary Clinton won the Nevada Democratic caucuses on Saturday over Barack Obama, after a bitter and sometimes bizarre race waged in part at the casinos and hotels along the Las Vegas strip.
Boosted by backing among the state’s Democratic establishment, Clinton won 51% of the vote to Obama’s 45%, with John Edwards far behind at 4%. But due to intricacies in the way that delegates are proportioned, Obama’s campaign claimed that it actually captured more delegates, winning 13 to Clinton’s 12.
“I guess this is how the west was won!” Clinton shouted to supporters gathered at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney garnered 52%, with Ron Paul squeaking by John McCain in a tight race for second.
But most GOP candidates ignored Nevada, and instead chose to concentrate on the South Carolina primary, where John McCain and Mike Huckabee were engaged in a race that was too close to call.
In contrast to the more homogeneous constituencies of Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada was the first true test of the campaigns in a much more diverse state, in particular the Latino populations in Las Vegas and Reno. In what could be a very good sign for Clinton as the campaign moves to California, she drew 64% of the Latino vote, according to entrance poll information from CNN. She also had sizable wins among women and older voters, while Obama drew strong support from younger voters, African-Americans and independents.
The campaign in Nevada turned into an exercise of managing expectations, a game that continued even after the results came in. The Obama campaign also cited reports of irregularities at some caucus sites, and said that the Clinton campaign had engaged in efforts to “confuse” voters over the validity of caucus locations on the strip. And they played up the delegate count.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said in a conference call, “It does seem like we are headed to a long and protracted fight here.”
In a statement, Obama said, “We came from over twenty-five points behind to win more national convention delegates than Hillary Clinton because we performed well all across the state, including rural areas where Democrats have traditionally struggled.”
The campaigns battled throughout the state, but the caucuses brought presidential politics to the Strip. The day saw cocktail waitresses, nightclub hosts, maids and chefs filing into vote just steps away from their normal duties in showrooms and on casino floors. Election commentators relished in the juxtaposition, and CNN contributor William Bennett, who has admitted to a past gambling addiction, quipped, “Enough to make a man nostalgic.”
In recent days the tone of the campaigns increasingly turned caustic and harsh.
Clinton criticized Obama for comments he made to a Reno paper in which he characterized Ronald Reagan as a seminal political figure and referenced the Republicans as a “party of ideas.” In fact, Obama never overtly praised either Reagan or the Republicans, but it provided fodder for Clinton and her husband Bill on the trail.
An a union that endorsed Obama ran a series of ads on Spanish language radio that called Clinton “shameless.” The Clinton campaign called it “one of the most scurrilous smear efforts in recent memory.”
Much of the fighting came after Obama won the endorsement of the state’s Culinary Workers’ Union, considered an important source of support and organization. It opened up a feud between the Clinton and Obama campaigns over the validity of nine caucus sites along the Las Vegas strip at various casino hotels, locations that were designed to give casino workers a chance to vote during their shifts. Allies of Clinton challenged the “at-large” sites in court, but a judge on Thursday allowed the caucusing to go forward as planned.
Nevertheless, in a last-ditch effort to neutralize Obama’s presumed advantage, Saturday saw Bill Clinton stumping for votes on Saturday at the MGM Grand and Planet Hollywood, courting the workers in the very union that had endorsed his wife’s chief rival. But both Clintons also appeared to be trying to control expectations when they questioned the caucus process itself. According to the Politico, Clinton on Friday charged that he personally heard a representative of the union’s organization try to suppress the vote.
The former president said, “There was a representative of the organization following along behind us going up to everybody who said that, saying ‘if you’re not gonna vote for our guy were gonna give you a schedule tomorrow so you can’t be there.’ So, is this the new politics? I haven’t seen anything like that in America in 35 years.”
His fears were largely unfounded, as Hillary Clinton ended up winning caucuses at Paris, Bellagio, New York, New York, the Flamingo and the Wynn. Obama won a caucus at Caesars Palace — but it was much closer than was expected. At that precinct, populated by a sometimes raucous crowd populated by workers in casino uniforms and men in chef’s hats, 86 went for Obama and 80 went for Clinton. Edwards failed to remain viable in the initial round of caucus voting, and most of his supporters went to the Obama camp.
Although Clinton led in most polls in recent days, turnout was a big unknown, because the caucuses had not received this kind of attention. On the Strip, however, it was lower than expected. The Caesars Palace caucus drew 166 caucus goers, but there were still seats for more than 100 more.
It was apparent, too, that no one had ever seen anything quite like this before. The Caesars caucus felt more like a pep rally of competing high schools — with some workers holding red “Obama ’08” signs and others brandishing “I support my union. I support Hillary” signs. The chairwoman of the caucus, standing at a podium emblazoned with the Caesars logo and shaped like a Roman pediment, was forced to order the vote to be counted several times, as several voters bounced back and forth from the Obama and Clinton campaigns.
“Here’s the deal, guys,” she said, a bit exasperated. “You can no longer move. Stay in your alignment now.”
Finally, they did. After just a half an hour, it was over, and the hotel employees went back to work.
Casino moguls largely kept a low profile, although they have already made their presence known in the campaign via contributions to various candidates. Terri Lanni of MGM Grand has given to McCain, Steve Wynn has given to Joseph Biden and Sheldon Adelson of Sands Corp. has given to Rudy Giuliani. Kirk Kerkorian has given to Biden, McCain and Bill Richardson.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the tenor to come in the coming weeks, the campaigns each tried to spin the results into their favor.
In a statement, Clinton advisers Patti Solis-Doyle and Mark Penn wrote that they won a “huge victory by overcoming institutional hurdles and one of the worst negative ads in recent memory.”
Plouffe, meanwhile, cast blame on Clinton’s campaign for “efforts to confuse voters and call into question the at-large caucus sites which clearly had an affect on turnout at these locations. These kinds of Clinton campaign tactics were part of an entire week’s worth of false, divisive attacks designed to mislead caucus goers and discredit the caucus itself.”
Clinton’s California campaign director, Ace Smith, said that the results “bode very well for us, there’s no question about it.” The New York senator still holds a significant lead in the Golden State, although Obama has narrowed the gap in recent polls. Obama has shown strength and appeal among independents, but Smith said that “California independents are different from independents in most parts of the country.”
“They tend pretty much to be Democrats who don’t want the label,” said Smith, also noting that Bill Clinton captured the “vast majority” of them in the state in his two presidential runs.
Obama’s California campaign spokeswoman, Debbie Mesloh, said that Obama is “enjoying incredible momentum” heading into the state, citing recent endorsements by the Sacramento Bee and other papers, several members of the California congressional delegation and Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles labor leader.