Bernie Sanders Wins Nevada Caucuses, Strengthening His Primary Lead

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LAS VEGAS — Senator Bernie Sanders claimed a major victory in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday that demonstrated his broad appeal in the first racially diverse state in the presidential primary race and established him as the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

In a significant show of force, Mr. Sanders, a liberal from Vermont, had a large lead over his nearest rivals in early tallies, and The Associated Press named him the winner on Saturday evening.

His triumph in Nevada, after strong performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, will propel him into next Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, and the Super Tuesday contests immediately thereafter, with a burst of momentum that may make it difficult for the still-fractured moderate wing of the party to slow his march.

Mr. Sanders, speaking to jubilant supporters in San Antonio, trumpeted what early results suggested would be a landslide victory.

“We have just put together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition, which is not only going to win in Nevada it’s going to sweep the country,” he said, predicting another victory in Texas next month.

While Mr. Sanders boasted that “no campaign has a grass-roots movement like we do,” and was bathed in “Bernie, Bernie!” chants, he otherwise ignored his Democratic opponents.

Mr. Sanders’s success, and the continued uncertainty over who his strongest would-be rival is, makes it less clear than ever how centrist forces in the party can organize themselves for a potentially monthslong nomination fight. The moderate wing is still grappling with an unusually crowded field for this late in the race, the lack of an obvious single alternative to Mr. Sanders and no sign that any of those vying for that role will soon drop out to hasten a coalescence.

As results were being counted on Saturday night, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the billionaire investor Tom Steyer and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota were all competing for what would clearly be a distant second-place finish.

With the full order of finish still in doubt, Mr. Buttigieg used his caucus-night speech to deliver a stern warning about the implications of nominating Mr. Sanders, urging Democrats not to “rush” into anointing him as their candidate. In his most pointed critique to date, Mr. Buttigieg said Mr. Sanders’s agenda lacked broad support and asserted that the senator did not give “a damn” about the swing-state Democrats in Congress who are scared of running with him on the same ticket.

“Senator Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans,” Mr. Buttigieg said.

Mr. Biden appeared at a Las Vegas union hall while most votes were still uncounted to claim a comeback and vowed victory in South Carolina. “Y’all did it for me,” he told supporters, trying out a new line aimed at his rivals. “I ain’t a socialist, I ain’t a plutocrat, I’m a Democrat.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign asserted that he would finish in second place here, a claim challenged by Mr. Buttigieg’s aides.

The apparent scale of Mr. Sanders’s victory margin presented an immediate challenge to the rest of the candidates, many of whom have been counting on a drawn-out nomination fight to give them time to catch up. But time is plainly running short, and few of Mr. Sanders’s rivals have a clear path to closing his advantage. Among them, only Mr. Biden has a realistic chance of winning South Carolina next week, the sole remaining contest before Super Tuesday on March 3.

That may leave the other Nevada runners-up scrambling to accumulate delegates but with few opportunities to win whole states. Several candidates who were counting on a wave of national momentum coming out of the early states showed no sign of achieving that: Ms. Klobuchar, who claimed a third-place finish in New Hampshire as a major breakthrough, appeared to be near the back of the pack in Nevada. Mr. Buttigieg, who nearly deadlocked Mr. Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire, did not come close to him on Saturday.

Should Mr. Biden prevail in South Carolina — an outcome that is no longer seen as a near-certainty — there could be enormous pressure on the other moderates in the race to stand down and give him a clean shot at Mr. Sanders.

Ms. Warren, meanwhile, did not appear to have received a significant bump in Nevada after a debate on Wednesday that was widely seen as her strongest of the campaign. The impact of her dramatic confrontation with the billionaire candidate Michael R. Bloomberg may have been muted here, because so many early votes were cast before it. She now faces the ungainly challenge of seeking to capitalize on the energy of that debate without having triumphed, or even fared especially well, in the contest immediately following it.

At a large rally in Seattle on Saturday, Ms. Warren declared there were “a lot of states to go, and right now I can feel the momentum.” Declining to follow other Democrats in taking aim at Mr. Sanders, she continued deriding Mr. Bloomberg and his self-funded candidacy.

The fragmentation of the vote among the other candidates, not only in Nevada but in the coming primaries, is likely to strengthen Mr. Sanders. After the split decision in Iowa, where he shared the lead with Mr. Buttigieg, and a modest victory in New Hampshire, he appeared to prove his ability to win convincingly in a more diverse state, an outcome that often eluded him in his 2016 bid for the Democratic nomination.

With its mix of Hispanic, African-American and Asian-American voters, Nevada offered Mr. Sanders a rejoinder to critics who claim he cannot broaden his appeal beyond his base of white liberals.

Mr. Sanders’s steady progress in the primary contest has come amid widespread grumbling and occasional howls of alarm from the Democratic establishment, which views Mr. Sanders — a 78-year-old democratic socialist who has never joined the party — and his movement with a combination of fear and distrust. The anxiety deepened this weekend in the aftermath of reports that government intelligence officials believe the Russian government is aiding his candidacy, and after Mr. Sanders acknowledged that he was briefed on the Russians’ apparent intervention a month ago.

Yet his coalition in Nevada — where 35 percent of the voters were not white, according to entrance polls — bodes well for his prospects in the 15 states and territories that will vote on the most important day of the race in just over a week. The Super Tuesday contests include large, diverse states such as California, Colorado and Texas, and the delegate lode is so hefty that if Mr. Sanders performs well, it will be difficult for one of his rivals to catch up given the unflagging dedication of his supporters.

Making that task more difficult is that the more moderate candidates continue to split votes and, more important, they all seem determined to forge ahead either by using their own fortunes or by raising enough money from donations to proceed. That was evident on Saturday, as candidates like Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Klobuchar, as well as Mr. Sanders, traveled to rallies in states that will cast ballots soon.

Further complicating matters for those hoping to stop Mr. Sanders is the diminished standing of Mr. Bloomberg, the candidate some moderates hope can defeat Mr. Sanders. Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, is reeling after a poor debate performance here, and some who were counting on him to become the moderate standard-bearer have been left to wonder whether he has what it takes.

Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, warned in a statement on Saturday that “the Nevada results reinforce the reality that this fragmented field is putting Bernie Sanders on pace to amass an insurmountable delegate lead” and said nominating Mr. Sanders would be a “fatal error.”

Even as many of the candidates left the state Saturday, Nevada retained the political spotlight as the caucuses appeared to run relatively smoothly after the debacle in Iowa this month.

Democrats in this state made drastic changes to their own caucus procedures after Iowa, scrapping the software they had been planning to use and intensively training thousands of people to pre-empt problems. There were scattered reports of volunteer shortfalls at some precincts, though not on a scale that seemed to alter the contest in any appreciable way, and some precincts had problems getting through on the telephone hotline to report caucus results, prompting the state party to add phone lines.

More revealing than the caucus process was who voted — and the coalition that Mr. Sanders built in a state that derailed his then-promising candidacy four years ago.

He performed well across a range of voters, winning men and women, union members and nonunion workers, and those who attended college and those who did not, according to entrance polls of caucusgoers.

Mr. Sanders not only won among self-described liberal voters, but also made inroads with moderates for the first time. Among self-described moderate or conservative caucusgoers, Mr. Sanders was the top vote-getter, albeit narrowly: He captured 25 percent of such voters, while Mr. Biden won 23 percent, according to entrance polls.

That was in part because many black and Hispanic voters described themselves as moderates, and because Mr. Sanders outpaced the field with Hispanics, taking 53 percent, and was second only to Mr. Biden among African-Americans. Mr. Biden captured 36 percent of black voters, while Mr. Sanders won 27 percent, the entrance polls showed.

He made less progress with older voters, whom he has repeatedly struggled with, but claimed new evidence that his calls for “a political revolution” were motivating new voters. He won an extraordinary 66 percent of voters under 30, and dominated among the broader universe of voters who said they were attending their first caucuses, a demographic that made up just over half of the electorate.

Mr. Sanders’s performance will echo beyond Nevada and surely focus the minds of his rivals.

Asked before the results were announced how he would slow Mr. Sanders’s march should he triumph here, Mr. Biden, stopping at a caucus site in North Las Vegas, said: “I beat him by going to — just moving on. People want to know who’s the most likely to beat Donald Trump.’’

Mr. Biden emphasized the importance of keeping the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and taking back seats in the Republican-controlled Senate, and noted that he had raised “over a million bucks” since the debate on Wednesday.

Ms. Warren has raised considerably more than that since her standout performance, and on Saturday her campaign said it had taken in $21 million so far this month — a huge sum by any standard, and one likely to allow her to compete seriously at least through Super Tuesday. Her campaign manager, Roger Lau, said on Saturday that he believed the debate would ultimately “have more impact on the structure of the race than the Nevada result.”

Reid J. Epstein and Shane Goldmacher contributed reporting.

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