LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton fought off a surge by Bernie Sanders and won the Nevada caucuses Saturday, a display of organizational muscle and support from a racially diverse electorate that put her candidacy back on solid footing as she looks forward in coming days to campaigning in friendlier Southern states.
Clinton secured 53 percent of the vote to 47 percent for Sanders, with nearly 90 percent of precincts reporting. As news spread that Clinton was the projected winner, the crowd gathered at her victory party in a ballroom at the Caesars Palace hotel began chanting “I’m with her! I’m with her!”
“Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other,” Clinton said in her victory speech, “and this one is for you.”
Clinton stood on the stage with her husband, former president Bill Clinton. “We’re going to tear down barriers,” Clinton said. “We’re going to build ladders of opportunity in their place.”
The definitive victory in a state where Sanders’ support grew rapidly in recent weeks should reassure Democrats that Clinton’s campaign is capable of adjusting to adverse conditions and grinding out a victory. It was a crucial rebound for the former secretary of state after Sanders nearly beat her in Iowa and trounced her in New Hampshire earlier in the month.
For Sanders, the loss renews questions about whether he can expand his base of support beyond the mostly white liberals who have fueled his candidacy so far. He will continue to compete in the nomination contest because of his prodigious fund-raising and the strength of his anti-Wall Street message, but a failure to attract minority voters could limit how far his campaign can go.
Sanders called Clinton in the afternoon to congratulate her and concede Nevada, but he rallied his supporters later.
“The wind is at our backs. We have the momentum,’’ Sanders said. “I believe when Democrats assemble in Philadelphia at [the Democratic National Convention], we are going to see the results of one of the great political upsets in the history of the United States.’’
Sanders planned to fly to South Carolina, where Democrats will vote Saturday, and which has a large number of African-American voters. In his concession speech, he seemed to be looking past that contest to 11 states that vote on March 1, including his home state of Vermont and neighboring Massachusetts, as well as Minnesota.
“I believe on Super Tuesday we have got an excellent chance to win many of those states,’’ he said. He appealed for more small contributions from grassroots supporters, which have fueled his campaign, saying he will be up against an expensive Clinton media blitz backed by corporate interests in coming weeks.
Both candidates visited casinos Saturday before voting started here and nearly crossed paths visiting a cafeteria at the Harrah’s casino. Sanders was spotted first, charging through the casino and passing reporters with a big smile on his face. Clinton arrived next and was greeted by a crowd cheering “Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!” when she walked into the cafeteria.
“I need your help this morning, in the show room. 11 a.m.,” she repeated as she walked around. “I need your help. The showroom.”
Down the strip, Bill Clinton stopped by at ballroom at the Caesars Palace casino and sounded more confident. “We’ve done everything we can,” said the former president. “We’ve got a good response.”
The contest turned toward the issue of immigration over the past week, as both camps tried to woo the large bloc of Hispanic voters expected to participate. In 2008, 15 percent of Democratic caucusgoers in the state were Latino, according to the state party.
Hispanic Labor leader Dolores Huerta wrote a scathing post about Sanders’ record on immigration on the website Medium this week, slamming him for voting against a 2007 immigration reform measure sponsored by former US Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and voting to protect the Minutemen, which she labeled an “anti-immigrant militia.”
“My question for Bernie is, where the heck was he for the last 25 years?” Huerta wrote. “Where was he on immigration reform? On indefinite detentions? On vigilante justice against undocumented workers? He was nowhere. That’s where.”
Sanders’ campaign countered some of those allegations on a hastily organized conference call Saturday morning.
“At the end of the day these attacks on Bernie are only a consequence of a campaign that has proven resilient and very, very strong,” said US Representative Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat. “It is more an act of desperation than an act of truth.”
Defending Sanders’ record on immigration, he described Kennedy’s immigration overhaul bill “a gift to corporate America for cheap labor” that he too would have opposed.
Sanders’ surrogates also pointed to Bill Clinton’s record as president, which included signing a welfare reform law that barred undocumented immigrants from using food stamps.
But Nevada voters mostly echoed some of the head-versus-heart considerations voiced by voters in Iowa and New Hampshire as they weighed the choice between the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont and Clinton, the Washington veteran has vowed to be a results-driven president.
For Agron Zejnullahu, 45, the head won out easily. He said he “likes” Sanders but doesn’t believe he’s electable in November. “If Hillary wins we would have a lot more of a chance,” he said.
“I want eight more years of Clinton,” he said, fondly recalling Bill Clinton’s administration.
Sanders hosted a raucous concert Friday evening in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb where a parade of speakers hit on issues dear to liberals, including banning genetically modified food, encouraging solar power, free college education and, as one speaker put it, “the horrors of for-profit prison.”
Many in the crowd came wearing their pro-Sanders T-shirts and buttons, including shirts that just showed an outline of Sanders’ distinctive coif.
“He’s one of the only people who will stand up for what he believes in,” said Cyndi Stearns-Estes, 56. Clinton, she said, has been a disappointment.
“She has become part of the establishment,” Stearns-Estes said. “Maybe she has always been.”
Progressive groups were quick to spin the Nevada loss Saturday as a symbolic victory for Sanders. Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the liberal group Democracy for America, said Sanders closed a 25-point gap in polls in the weeks before the caucuses, making the race far more competitive than Clinton supporters ever imagined.
“While Washington’s professional naysayers are focused on whittling down the list of what’s possible until it’s small enough to be drowned in a bathtub, the political revolution behind Bernie Sanders is doing the impossible,” he said.
But exit polls revealed the strength of Clinton’s firewall. She won a full 76 percent of black voters, according to the surveys.
Among Hispanics, the polls showed Sanders winning 53 percent to 45 percent. However, the Clinton campaign pointed to the fact that she won the majority Latino precincts in Clark County by wide margins, casting doubt on the veracity of those results.
As he has in previous contests, Sanders mopped up young voters, gaining the support of 82 percent of voters under the age of 30.
As the polls tightened here, Clinton looked ahead to the South Carolina primary next Saturday, where she still has a commanding lead.
One Clinton aide said privately Saturday morning that the campaign was particularly encouraged that Clinton’s support among black voters held firm after the New Hampshire blowout, making the next cluster of contests even harder for Sanders.
After South Carolina, the race heads for the March 1 Super Tuesday, which in addition to Vermont and Massachusetts covers a swath of states across the South, where African-American voters make up a large percentage of the Democratic electorate, as well as Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado.
On Friday, Clinton received an endorsement from Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, one of the most influential African-American leaders in the state. The endorsement prompted some of Clinton’s supporters to debut the hashtag #FeelTheClyburn, a take off on Sanders “Feel the Bern” mantra.
Saturday marked only the second time that Nevada Democrats have had caucuses early in the nomination process, and supporters from both campaigns signaled some concerns about whether rules would be followed.
One top Clinton staffer was talking on his cellphone about an hour before the caucuses began, raising concerns that Sanders supporters were wrongly telling prospective caucusgoers that proof of residency wasn’t required for same-day voter registration.
On Friday, Sanders supporters urged each other to videotape proceedings at caucus sites. About 250 caucuses were held throughout the state.