Bernie Sanders’ Nevada Coalition Gives Him Clearest Path to Nomination

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(Bloomberg) -- Bernie Sanders’ commanding win in Nevada dismantled the conventional wisdom about his level of appeal. It broadened his coalition to look more like the Democratic Party as a whole and will make it harder for fearful moderates to impede his path to the nomination.

The knock on Sanders always has been that his energetic but narrow base -- young, mostly white, heavily male and largely disaffected -- would make it easy for President Donald Trump to roll over him come November.

Nevada suggested otherwise, as Sanders, 78, won support from Latinos, African-Americans, union workers, people without college educations and voters up to age 45. In Sanders’ view, that populist coalition is a mirror-image of Trump’s own but just as potent.

His double-digit win there also shows he can take pieces from the support of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, leaving them to split the anti-Sanders vote four ways -- or five, including Michael Bloomberg, who joins the balloting on Super Tuesday, March 3. Sanders already is eyeing a win Saturday in South Carolina, long thought to be Biden’s last redoubt.

“When we win South Carolina, I think it will be a bit of a major signal to the party about the fact that Bernie Sanders has brought together a coalition that is everything they thought he wasn’t, quite frankly,” Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir said. “Something that is multiracial, multigenerational, expanding, bringing new people into it.”

(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

Main Event

If February was prologue, March is the main event. Only 2.5% of the delegates needed to win the Democratic presidential nomination in July have been awarded from the contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Twenty-nine states vote between March 3 and March 17, awarding a total of 2,292 delegates -- 58% of the total -- making it possible to clinch the nomination by St. Patrick’s Day.

That might be a bit optimistic, even with Sanders’ momentum, but he is consolidating strength with every passing contest and soon may simply be out of reach of the others. That includes Bloomberg, who’s signaled he’s willing to spend another half-billion dollars on top of the first half-billion that’s already shown up on the airwaves.

In California, the most populous states that votes on Super Tuesday, Sanders is substantially ahead. He has less of an edge in North Carolina and Texas, and is tied with Bloomberg in the latest Virginia polling.

Tricky Dynamics

The Vermont senator is also polling above the 15% threshold in every March primary with reliable public polling, meaning he may be able to collect some delegates where others can’t.

“If the dynamics of the race did not dramatically change, Democrats could end up coming out of Super Tuesday with Bernie Sanders holding a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead,” says a state-of-the-race memo from Buttigieg’s campaign last week.

A similar missive from Bloomberg’s campaign said a 400-delegate lead for Sanders after Super Tuesday is a “likely insurmountable advantage.”

And a Feb. 11 memo from the Warren campaign estimated that Sanders is competitive in 161 of the 165 congressional districts voting on Super Tuesday. Biden is viable in 159; Warren in 108.

To the Convention

Those memos were written not to lionize Sanders but to shock the so-far fractious moderates into action or prepare to find that Sanders is the nominee.

Moderates can’t seem to decide, though, where to concentrate their stop-Bernie energy. Buttigieg took the prize in Iowa, Klobuchar got a look in New Hampshire, and Biden came closest to Sanders in Nevada, but none of them seems like the centrist favorite, in the way Sanders is the liberal one. Bloomberg hoped to wear that moderate mantle, but a widely criticized debate performance last week raised questions about his ability to play that role.

It’s also possible that Sanders’ can’t quite coalesce enough support to claim victory outright, opening up the possibility -- still slim -- of a convention floor fight to determine the nominee. This would occur if the others can keep Sanders from winning the 1,991 delegates necessary to win the nomination on the first ballot in Milwaukee in July.

That “brokered convention” scenario -- which last happened in 1952 -- could allow the party power brokers known as super-delegates to decide the party’s nominee.

“We will know more, obviously, after Super Tuesday and the two additional weeks of heavy voting that follow it,” Jeff Berman, a veteran delegate counter who now works for Tom Steyer, said on Sunday. “But if multiple candidates have accumulated delegates and are spread out so that no candidate has a commanding lead, the prospects of an open convention substantially increase.”

That’s why a question at the end of last week’s debate may prove crucial: “Should the person with the most delegates at the end of this primary season be the nominee, even if they are short of a majority?”

Only Sanders said yes.

Everyone else had some version of Biden’s answer: “No, let the process work its way out.”

South Carolina and Beyond

National polls suggest that only two candidates have assembled coalitions across Democratic constituencies. Biden leads among moderates, African Americans and Democrats over 50. Sanders has led among liberals, whites and Democrats under 50, but Nevada showed that is expanding.

Other candidates have narrower lanes. Bloomberg is a close second to Biden among African Americans. Buttigieg does as well as Biden among white voters. Warren is second to Sanders among liberals and those under 50.

But those candidates have glaring weaknesses, too. Bloomberg has just 5% of voters under 35, and Buttigieg is in single digits with both young and older supporters. Buttigieg and Warren have little pull with African Americans.

That means the South Carolina primary will be a final measure of Sanders’ broad appeal before Super Tuesday, where the population of the 14 states voting is 25% Hispanic.

African Americans make up the majority of Democratic voters in South Carolina, and the RealClearPolitics average of South Carolina polls has Sanders trailing Biden there by 3.7 percentage points.

From there, it’s on to California for Super Tuesday, where Sanders has built the strongest field operation of any candidate there, and it shows.

According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll, he’s at 32% support in the Golden State, the only candidate above the 15% threshold for delegate-collection. If those numbers hold, Sanders would be positioned to win the vast majority of the 415 delegates.

“We’re only a couple of contests in, but Sanders certainly has some advantages that may make it hard for someone -- anyone -- to catch him in the delegate count if he establishes a decent margin on Super Tuesday,” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist who tracks delegates at Frontloading HQ.

Bloomberg’s Debut

But there is a big wild card on Super Tuesday. Bloomberg will be on the ballot for the first time, after spending close to $500 million of his personal fortune on advertising. The PPIC poll in California shows him tied for second place with Biden, Warren and Buttigieg.

All can argue they’re best positioned among the three. Biden claims he can build the most diverse coalition, benefiting from his years as Barack Obama’s vice president, and his insistence that he can beat Trump, a claim damaged by his inability to yet win a state.

“Before we rush to nominate Senator Sanders as our one shot to take on this president, take a sober look at the consequences,” Buttigieg said in Las Vegas Saturday night. “Senator Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans.”

Who Drops Out?

Bloomberg’s campaign sounded a similar alarm.

“If we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base -- like Senator Sanders -- it will be a fatal blow,” said Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey.

The campaigns have turned their attention to Sanders, from criticizing his muted praise of Fidel Castro to attacking his record supporting some gun rights.

All three campaigns say that if none of the others drops out before Super Tuesday, it may be too late for any of them to catch up to Sanders. Except for Bloomberg, fund-raising could force their hands even before the delegate math does.

While the other candidates are focused on the big delegate prizes on Super Tuesday, Bloomberg is also paying attention to the smaller states like Alabama, Arkansas and Utah to pick up delegates where other candidates can’t afford to spend time.

Sanders, who holds no fund-raisers and takes mostly small-dollar donations, has raised $132 million, more than any candidate who’s not a billionaire.

Hillary Country

The contest known as Mini Tuesday on March 10, with six states holding primaries, could also be a good day for Sanders, based solely on 2016 results. He won those states in 2016 with 56% of the vote.

One of the states was Michigan, where Sanders eked out a surprising 1.4-point victory over Hillary Clinton.

“Sanders has to be the presumptive winner in the Michigan primary unless some moderate candidates get out,” said Bernie Porn, a longtime Michigan pollster. He said Nevada proved that Sanders could win over union voters by appealing to them directly, and that his stature among African Americans is steadily improving.

Sanders has picked up the support of Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American from Detroit who, like Sanders, is a self-described democratic socialist. She’s also a member of “The Squad,” young, progressive minority women elected to the House in 2018, whose most famous member is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

For Sanders, the most problematic date on the primary calendar could be April 26, when six northeastern states vote: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Pundits are calling it the “Acela primary,” after the high-speed train that ferries political and business figures between Washington and New York, and serves as a metaphor for the party’s establishment.

Clinton won 58% of the primary vote in those states in 2016.

By then, 87% of pledged delegates will be decided.

So the last stand against Sanders could come in mid-July, when 4,750 delegates arrive in Milwaukee for the convention.

If Sanders arrives with less than a majority of pledged delegates, power brokers and losing candidates could forge their support behind one of the moderate alternatives to Sanders.

“People may say that’s not fair,” said Tad Devine, a campaign strategist who worked for Sanders in 2016. “But you know what, together they’ve got a majority of delegates.”

“We’re in uncharted territory here,” he said.

(Updates with new attacks on Sanders in 35th paragraph)

--With assistance from Emma Kinery, Mike Dorning, Jennifer Epstein, Tyler Pager and Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Korte in Washington at gkorte@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Ros Krasny

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