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The Murky Path Out of Nevada for Candidates Not Named Bernie

Uncle Joe gets a reprieve. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The very slow count after Saturday afternoon’s Nevada caucuses didn’t bring the wrath of God (and the media) down on that state’s Democratic Party, mostly because a smattering of returns were available right away and there was zero doubt about the winner, Bernie Sanders. Indeed, most media types spent Saturday night agitating the air about the exciting or terrifying prospect of a Sanders nomination instead of watching the slow drip of returns to see what happened to the rest of the field.

As of Sunday morning, with 60 percent of precincts reporting, the order of candidates is the same across all three results metrics (county delegates, first alignment raw vote, and final alignment raw vote): Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren, Klobuchar, and Steyer. Buttigieg is claiming that his intel shows he will finish second when all is said and done, presumably because of his emphasis on rural “cow county” precincts reporting late. But with each hour that goes by, the exact numbers matter less and less as the political world’s attention shifts to the next contest in South Carolina on February 29, and the next candidate debate on February 25. In the county delegate count that is the official measurement of success, there is currently a pretty clear separation of the field, with Sanders at 46 percent, Biden at 20 percent, Buttigieg at 15 percent, Warren at 10 percent, Klobuchar at 5 percent, and Steyer at 4 percent. Here’s how the post-Nevada path looks for the remaining Democratic candidates not named Sanders or Bloomberg.

Joe Biden lives, for now

After horrid fourth- and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the one-time front-runner found, as he had predicted, partial redemption — or at least life support — from the more diverse Democratic electorate of Nevada. According to entrance polls, Uncle Joe won a solid plurality (36 percent, to Sanders’s 27 percent) of African-Americans — roughly 10 percent of caucusgoers — and was a distant second to Bernie among Latinos (Sanders won 53 percent and Biden 16 percent), who represented an estimated 19 percent of caucusgoers. Biden also won voters aged 65 and over, the only age group that Sanders lost.

The former vice-president was quick to claim a semi-victory on Saturday:

“I know we don’t know the final results yet, but I feel really good,” Biden said. “You put me in a position. You know, the press is ready to declare people dead quickly but we’re alive and we’re coming back and we’re going to win.”

At one point, a member of the crowd yelled that the 77-year-old was “the comeback kid!”

The blasts from the past never end with the Biden campaign. But now more than ever, his candidacy depends on an actual win in South Carolina, a state where he has never trailed in any published poll, and whose majority-black primary electorate provides him an ideal base. Trouble is, his lead there has been steadily eroding under pressure from Sanders, whose growing strength among African-Americans is apparent in South Carolina, too, and Tom Steyer, who has spent a bundle in the state on ads and staff, and has emphasized his own appeal to African-Americans. The latest RealClearPolitics polling averages for South Carolina show Biden at 23.3 percent, Sanders at 21 percent, and Steyer at 16 percent. FiveThirtyEight actually rates Sanders as a slight favorite to win in the Palmetto State. If that happens, Biden is done.

Other than surviving Nevada in reasonably good shape, the best recent news for Biden was the beating that Mike Bloomberg took in the Las Vegas debate. Now “Establishment” elites (including Biden’s donor base) who appeared to be lurching toward Bloomberg in a Bernie-induced panic may be having second thoughts. If Biden can hang on in South Carolina, he may go into Super Tuesday with the ability to win some delegates.

Buttigieg needs more than his white-bread base

Considering the relatively late start he got in Nevada, Mayor Pete did pretty well whether or not his claims of an ultimate second-place finish pan out. He certainly crushed centrist rival Klobuchar. And his campaign presumably has enough money left to look ahead without panicking.

But Nevada again underlined his Achilles’ heel: a weak appeal among minority voters. According to entrance polls, he did manage to win 9 percent of Latinos (it probably didn’t hurt that he was the only candidate in a Telemundo appearance alongside Klobuchar and Steyer who knew the name of the president of Mexico). But his support among African-Americans was a dismal 2 percent, and that won’t cut it in many of the states ahead on the calendar. Even though he’s spent a lot of time and effort in South Carolina, he’s running a weak fourth in the polls there.

He might be best advised to move past South Carolina and focus on some of the Super Tuesday states where he’s doing relatively well, and then hope that bad things happen to Biden and Bloomberg, giving him a one-on-one shot at Sanders down the road.

Warren’s unlucky timing

Had Elizabeth Warren’s dominant debate performance in Las Vegas preceded the early caucusing period rather than following it, she might have had a significantly stronger finish. But though the final breakdown on turnout in Nevada remains unclear, it’s likely that a large majority of caucusgoers expressed their preferences before Warren eviscerated Bloomberg and generally lapped the field.

South Carolina just isn’t Warren Country (though Tuesday’s debate does give her another opportunity to impress voters in later contests), so her campaign is going to need to carefully invest what appears to have been a debate-driven fundraising bonanza for Super Tuesday. She placed staff in some of the Super Tuesday states long before any of her rivals did, and is within striking distance of at least second place in California. But she must also defend her own state of Massachusetts, where she cannot lose and expect her campaign to survive.

Warren needs her famous trait of persistence now more than ever.

Klobuchar’s window is all but closed

After the caucus-night chaos saved her from the consequences of a poor performance in Iowa, and along with a good debate performance, helped her spring to a surprise third-place finish in New Hampshire, Amy Klobuchar’s on-paper potential remains no map to success. She is not in the running at all in South Carolina and her campaign doesn’t have the money to make up for a very late start in Super Tuesday states. The Minnesotan has not, moreover, shown any more ability to attract a diverse base of supporters than has her bitter rival, Pete Buttigieg. Nevada entrance polls showed her winning 4 percent of Latinos, 3 percent of African-Americans, and just 2 percent of under-30 voters.

It’s hard to see exactly here she goes from here, other than to the South Carolina debate stage in search of a big moment. Like Warren, she, too, has a home-state primary to defend on Super Tuesday.

Tom Steyer has more money but little chance

Having spent millions on ads in Nevada, the billionaire must be bitterly disappointed by his apparent sixth-place finish there. Now the state that has become his planned (if unlikely) breakthrough, South Carolina, is just ahead, and Steyer needs to win or place second to provide himself with much hope for the future. His heavy spending on ads and field staff in South Carolina has been supplemented by a very aggressive appeal to African-American voters, including support for reparations and the airing of racism accusations against one of Biden’s key in-state surrogates.

If he does do well in South Carolina, it could boost his prospects in his home state of California, where he has a very elaborate field organization. Perhaps he can hang around as the billionaire whom voters like more than Bloomberg, though he has a small fraction of the former mayor’s wealth at his disposal.

It’s Bernie’s race to lose

Nobody disputes at this point that Bernie Sanders is in the catbird seat, with plenty of money, a strong and relatively diverse (other than old folks) base of support that has no geographical limits, and opposition divided among candidates with glaring weaknesses. The oncoming rush of primaries is now working to his benefit, since no one but Bloomberg has the money to match Team Sanders state-to-state, and every vote won by Bloomberg makes it harder for anyone else to survive the grueling pace. If Sanders can win in the most unlikely venue of South Carolina, the odds of victory will go up sharply. To borrow a phrase from the late George H.W. Bush, the rest of the field is living in Tension City.

The Murky Path Out of Nevada for Candidates Not Named Bernie