Bernie blows the casino doors off in Nevada

This was a statement victory

(Image credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders continued his methodical march to the Democratic nomination on Saturday with a blowout victory in Nevada over his chief rivals. As was the case after Iowa and New Hampshire, none of his competitors has a clear path to the nomination, even though Sanders only has a slim delegate lead with a tiny percentage of all delegates allocated. And crucially, Sanders broke through the polling ceiling that seemed to hang over his campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, not only beating expectations but registering the kind of statement victory that tends to lead to further momentum down the line.

For the other candidates, it is tough to find a Silver State lining in these results. Despite her widely praised debate dismantling of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Wednesday's debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign was coming in fourth at the time of writing and did not see the kind of rebound in Nevada that she was hoping for. New Hampshire momentum darlings South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar also failed to capitalize on their earlier success and weren't viable in most locations. It is unclear exactly what billionaire Tom Steyer is still doing in this race or what he hopes to achieve.

Only former Vice President Joe Biden may have been given new life by coming in (a distant) second at the time of writing, largely on the strength of second-preference votes from non-viable candidates. If it holds to the final count, Biden's performance in Nevada — the first time he's cracked the top 3 finishers — could bolster his flagging campaign headed into next Saturday's crucial South Carolina primary. Indeed, after Michael Bloomberg's Hindenburg of a debate performance, Biden may very well be the last moderate standing. Unfortunately for him, he has to survive another debate first.

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But this was Bernie's day from start to finish. He registered a towering lead on the so-called "first alignment" and added substantially to his tally on the "final alignment," when non-viable candidates were eliminated and their supporters given the option of realigning with another candidate. Even though his impressive first alignment totals made it a moot point, he still did better than any other candidate in picking up second choice votes. The blemishes on his Iowa and New Hampshire performances were convincingly erased.

Unsurprisingly, Sanders swept his key demographic of under-30 caucus-goers. He also cleaned up with Latino voters, an advantage that might be decisive on Super Tuesday when super-diverse California and Texas weigh in with their massive delegate hauls. Perhaps best of all for Sanders: The powerful Culinary Union's decision to oppose Medicare-for-all while not endorsing a candidate seems to have had little to no effect on him, even in Vegas casino precincts. It suggests not only that his core supporters don't care about endorsements, but also that traditional party and interest group mechanisms of influencing the vote or stopping a disfavored candidate will no longer work.

Bernie's big day in Nevada will be a real test of whether momentum in primaries is real, or whether his problems appealing to moderates and Democratic Party loyalists will result in an extended nomination contest. The first two states suggested that he might have some kind of ceiling. In Iowa, he barely bested his polling averages. In New Hampshire he fell short by 3 points. Had he faced similar problems in Nevada, Sanders might have had to confront a narrative that he can't close the case with late-deciding voters — a problem that would keep the nomination race alive all the way to the convention. After all, if the field remains splintered, everyone from Biden down to Klobuchar might stick in the race hoping to end up as the nominee on the second ballot or to extract the vice presidential slot or some other concession as a kingmaker's ransom.

This is, in its own curious way, by design. When Democrats unilaterally created the modern nominating system after the debacle of their 1968 convention in Chicago, they deliberately made their nominating contests proportional, so that results would fairly represent the division of preferences in any given state. Republicans, preferring decisiveness over fairness, followed suit by making their primaries and caucus results binding on delegates, but chose instead to operate a hybrid system with more opportunities for candidates to sweep delegate slates and put away the opposition for good. The elevated risk of a brokered convention is embedded in the Democratic Party's rules. But Bernie's blowout in Nevada means that one more cycle may pass without this nightmare scenario coming to pass.

That's not to say that he doesn't have any work to do. Sanders has so far invested minimal effort in building bridges to holdouts who are either still bitter about his perceived effect on Hillary Clinton's general election loss in 2016 or worried that he cannot win the general election with such a far-left platform. These kinds of qualms have almost no basis in polling data that suggests Sanders is at worst the second-strongest possible general election candidate behind Biden. But dreams can make your heart race just like waking-life terror. Some nightmares can stick with you all day. And a lot of Democrats over the age of 45 or so truly believe that Bernie is going to steer the party directly into a 1972-style catastrophe.

The stunning results out of Nevada might convince the Sanders camp that they don't need to extend an olive branch to these kinds of voters at all. And they may be right, in the narrow sense that he looks to have a path to the nomination without them. But there are ways of solidifying his standing with core party supporters without sacrificing his reputation or his principles. And there are costs — perhaps ones which might not be felt until after the election — to not doing so.

Obviously, the Sanders brand is built on consistency. Retreating from major issue positions that he staked out long ago is untenable for him . A pivot to a long phase-in for Medicare-for-all, or backing off his student loan forgiveness demands would seem less like tacking pragmatically to the center and more like a betrayal of what many of his supporters find most appealing about him.

That leaves, ultimately, the way that Sanders talks about and interacts with the Democratic Party itself. This Tweet from last night is a case in point of the kind of rhetoric he could usefully avoid. He wrote, "I've got news for the Republican establishment. I've got news for the Democratic establishment. They can't stop us." Again: Nevada suggests he might be right about that. But his campaign really should be having an internal debate at this point about what can possibly be gained by railing against the elites of a party that he looks to be on the verge of conquering and which made a number of changes to its nominating system after 2016 at his express request. Remember: They might be the establishment in a few months.

The party's rules make that bridge-building an important hedge against the uncertainty of a contested convention. Let's say that Biden wins South Carolina and does well on Super Tuesday — well enough that the Sanders coronation does not look inevitable when the dust is settled on March 4. If Bloomberg also captures some delegates, and Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Warren all stay in, it could make it difficult for Sanders to put it away. If he rolls into Milwaukee with a plurality of delegates, he may find that on the second ballot, hundreds of superdelegates plus Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar's delegates might be willing to join forces to torpedo his candidacy.

While I think that would be tantamount to the Democratic Party committing suicide, and while it looks a whole lot less likely after Saturday, it remains a real possibility. But that's months from now. For now, the Sanders campaign will be taking a well-justified victory lap.

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David Faris

David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. He is a frequent contributor to Informed Comment, and his work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Indy Week.