A liberal tidal wave is building within the Democratic Party, but Bernie Sanders is no longer the only candidate riding it.
Hillary Clinton’s crucial victory in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday showed that Sanders does not have a monopoly on liberal voters. Clinton held her own with liberals while winning big among moderates. In the process, she has moved firmly back into the lead in the Democratic presidential race.
On Saturday Clinton won about 52 percent of Nevada’s county convention delegates. Although Nevada has a Byzantine delegate award process, Clinton’s margin of victory will likely give her a majority of the state’s 43 presidential delegates.
The ultimate importance of Clinton’s victory, however, does not really lie in the delegates at stake in Nevada. The state has only a tiny fraction of the 2,382 delegates necessary to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
The real significance of the Nevada results lies in the fact that Clinton demonstrated she can do well enough among liberals to win key states. Her success with liberal voters spells trouble for Sanders, particularly as the campaign moves to the South, where Clinton’s base of support runs deepest.
Here are four reasons why Clinton has reason for optimism after Nevada.
1. Clinton is making inroads with liberal voters
By any measure, the Democratic Party is becoming more liberal. Last year the Gallup Poll found that nearly half of all Democrats describe themselves as liberal or left-leaning, a 17 percent increase since 2001.
On Saturday, Nevada Democrats reflected that trend. The entrance polls found that an astounding 70 percent of Nevada caucus-goers identified themselves as liberal. Eight years ago, only 45 percent of Nevada Democrats described themselves as liberal.
On paper that should have meant a big victory for Sanders. A self-described socialist, he is one of the most liberal presidential candidates in recent history. His campaign platform calls for tax hikes on the rich, free college for everyone, a single-payer healthcare system, and heavy regulation of business and industry.
But despite the large liberal turnout in Nevada, Sanders did not win the state. Clinton attracted enough support from liberal voters to carry her to victory. Although she is a self-described moderate, the Nevada results indicate that Clinton’s unpopularity with liberal Democrats is greatly overstated.
The fact that Clinton won moderates by a huge margin is also crucially important for the general election. Moderates constitute 34 percent of the American population overall. In contrast, liberals constitute only 24 percent of the country.
Clinton’s strength among moderates strongly suggests that she would be a more formidable candidate in the general election than Sanders.
2. Minorities and union members back Clinton
Clinton’s victory in Nevada would not have been possible without support from Latinos, African Americans, and union members of all races.
Nevada is one of the most diverse states in the country. It is 28 percent Latino, 9 percent African American, 8 percent Asian American, and 2 percent Native American. Whites make up just over 51 percent of the population, far below the national average of 62 percent. Nevada also has a heavily unionized casino workforce.
All of those constituencies helped carry Clinton to victory in Nevada, particularly African Americans and casino workers. Clinton won by 10 percent in Clark County, home to 75 percent of Nevada’s population, as well as Las Vegas, the state’s largest city.
Clinton’s strength in heavily urban Clark County bodes well for her chances in large urban states like New York, California and Illinois.
3. Liberal economists side with Clinton
Clinton also benefits from liberal intellectuals' growing criticism of the Vermont senator’s economic proposals.
Last week a group of highly regarded liberal economists warned that Sanders’ proposals would drive up federal government spending by US$2 to $3 trillion annually. The dramatic increase in spending would far exceed the revenues generated from Sanders’ proposed tax increases.
Austan Goolsbee, a former top economic adviser to President Obama, declared last week that “the numbers don’t remotely add up” in Sanders’ economic plans. Similarly, the prominent liberal economist Jarad Bernstein warned that defenders of the Sanders’ economic proposals are engaged in “wishful thinking.” Ironically, even the University of Massachusetts economist who publicly defended Sanders’ economic proposals recently revealed that he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Although Sanders will continue to inspire progressive dreams, the sharp critique of liberal economists takes a bit of the luster off the Sanders campaign.
4. Clinton’s strongest states lie ahead
The biggest ally Clinton has over the next two weeks is the Democratic primary calendar. It unfolds in almost perfect fashion for her.
Next up is the South Carolina Democratic primary on February 27. A majority of South Carolina Democrats are African Americans, a vital constituency that has provided rock solid support for Clinton. She currently leads Sanders 3-to-1 among African-American voters. Not surprisingly, therefore, the polls indicate that Clinton will likely win a landslide victory in South Carolina.
Things only get worse for Sanders on March 1, the date of the “Super Tuesday” primaries. Nearly a dozen states vote that day, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Most of the Super Tuesday states have demographics highly favorable to Clinton, so much so that her campaign views those states as a firewall against Sanders.
Clinton’s campaign has clear reason for confidence in her southern firewall. Although he has a strong base of support among white northern liberals, Sanders has thus far failed to make any inroads in the South.
If Sanders can’t find a way to appeal to southern voters, the next two weeks could be a very rocky and dangerous stretch for his campaign.