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%.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney garnered 52%, with Ron Paul squeaking by John McCain in a tight race for second. But most candidates ignored Nevada, and instead chose to concentrate on the South Carolina primary. Results were expected there on Saturday evening.
In contrast to the more homogeneous constituencies of Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada was the first true test of the campaigns in diverse constituencies, 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.
Clinton’s California campaign director, Ace Smith, said that the results “bode very well for us, there’s no question about it.” Clinton still holds a significant lead in California, although Obama has narrowed the gap in recent polls. And although Obama has shown strength and appeal among independents, 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.
The campaign in Nevada turned into an exercise of managing expectations, a game that continued even after the results came in.
The Obama campaign claimed that, because of the intricacies of the awarding of delegates, Obama actually beat Clinton, and captured 13 compared to her 12. They 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.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe stopped short of declaring that his candidate had won, but 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.” He had left the state before the results came in to spend time with his family in Illinois.
Although both campaigns waged a hard-fought battle throughout the state, the caucuses brought presidential politics to the Strip, creating a curious mix driven by the move of the Nevada caucus up in the election season calendar. Election commentators relished the juxtaposition, and CNN contributor William Bennett, who has admitted to a gambling addiction, quipped, “Enough to make a man nostalgic.”
The campaigns themselves turned increasingly bitter, with Clinton criticizing 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 was enough fodder for Clinton and her husband Bill.
Clinton’s campaign also criticized Obama after one of his union allies ran a series of ads on Spanish language radio that called Clinton “shameless,” stemming from a dispute over plans for caucuses along the Las Vegas strip. The Clinton campaign called it “one of the most scurrilous smear efforts in recent memory.”
Obama had won the endorsement of the state’s Culinary Workers’ Union, considered an important source of support, especially in organizing voters to actually make it to caucus locations. In fact, the union’s endorsement 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, Saturday saw Bill Clinton stumping for votes on Saturday at the MGM Grand and Planet Hollywood in a last-ditch effort to neutralize Obama’s presumed advantage among casino culinary workers. In addition to questioning the caucus process and the way it was set up, 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.”
But his fears, or attempts to downplay expectations, were largely unfounded, as early press accounts showed that Hillary Clinton ended up winning caucuses at Paris, Bellagio, New York, New York, the Flamingo and the Wynn. Obama won a caucus at Caesar’s Palace — but it was much closer than was expected. At that caucus, 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, 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 Caesar’s 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 Caesar’s caucus felt more like a pep rally of competing high schools. The chairwoman of the caucus, standing at a podium emblazoned with the Caesar’s 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.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the tenor to come in the coming weeks, including the South Carolina primary on Saturday, 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.”