COLUMBIA, S.C. – Hillary Clinton’s “firewall” cracked, sure, but it didn’t crumble.
Clinton earned a much-needed win over Bernie Sanders in Nevada's Democratic presidential caucus on Saturday, demonstrating her enduring strength with non-white voters and setting herself up for a potentially decisive run of victories.
This triumph was far from overwhelming: she was up 52.1 per cent to 47.8 per cent when television networks called the race at 5:15 p.m. ET with 64 per cent of locations reporting. But it slows the narrative of a surging Sanders. And it confirms the former secretary of state as the heavy favourite for the nomination even after a lopsided loss in New Hampshire and a tiny near-tie victory in Iowa.
Sanders, a left-wing Vermont senator, had hoped to use a Nevada win to prove he could succeed in states with substantial racial diversity. He showed he could earn the loyalty of many Hispanics, who make up about 30 per cent of the Nevada population. But he did not do well enough, with them or with others, to change the arc of the race.
Clinton can now breathe easier. She holds leads ranging from substantial to massive in 11 of the next 13 states to vote, almost all of which have substantial African-American populations Sanders has so far failed to reach. If she were to win all 11, starting with South Carolina next Saturday, she would amass enough delegates to make a Sanders comeback highly difficult.
Clinton had invested heavily in Nevada, treating the state where she beat Barack Obama in 2008 as the first of her defensive fortification against an early Sanders streak. Sanders nonetheless did far better than he had been expected to do as recently as late last year, when he trailed in the state's notoriously unreliable polls by more than 15 percentage points.
There was, again, a massive age gap in support for Clinton and Sanders. Among voters under 30, Sanders beat Clinton 84 per cent to 11 per cent, entrance polls suggest; among voters 65 and older, Clinton beat Sanders 71 per cent to 26 per cent.
Caucuses, which require voters to physically stand in their candidate's corner, demand far more commitment than regular primaries in which voters simply cast a ballot. These caucuses, which began at 11 a.m. Nevada time, were marred by disorganization and long registration lines that forced some substantial percentage of would-be voters to leave and go back to work at casinos and hotels.
"Organized chaos," top Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston wrote on Twitter.
"Bally's gave this worker 90 min paid break time to caucus. But lines so long she had to leave before even checking in," wrote Des Moines Register reporter Jennifer Jacobs.
Most of the caucuses were at schools and other public buildings, but six were set up at Las Vegas casinos like Caesars Palace and New York-New York so employees could dart over during the work day. Clinton won all six.
Clinton set up a Nevada ground operation long before Sanders and hired top local organizers. By the end of the race, Sanders was vastly outspending her on advertising. But she remained strong with the Hispanic voters, in part because of her relentless focus on immigration issues. Her final Nevada ad showed her promising to help a teary young girl afraid her parents would be deported.
The Republicans' critical South Carolina primary is also being held on Saturday. The polls close at 7 p.m.
Businessman Donald Trump had led for months in South Carolina polls. But his lead has shrunk in the final days of the race as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio rebounded from a poor debate performance in New Hampshire and earned the endorsement of popular governor Nikki Haley.
The race was wild even by South Carolina's high standards of campaign nastiness. Trump threatened to sue Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, called Cruz a serial "liar," and lambasted Pope Francis. In his last big rally in the state, Trump approvingly told a false story about a U.S. general massacring Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in the blood of pigs, the most openly Islamophobic comments of his campaign.
Cruz, meanwhile, spent his final day of South Carolina campaigning holding rallies with eccentric Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, who rambled about sexually transmitted diseases. An outside group supporting his candidacy launched a wave of last-minute robocalls depicting Trump as pro-gay.
A large Trump victory in South Carolina could make him an unstoppable force on "Super Tuesday," when 12 states vote on the Republican side. A poor showing for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson could push them out of the race before the Republicans' Nevada caucuses on Tuesday.