Hillary Clinton won Nevada's Democratic caucuses on Saturday, NBC News projected, scoring a much-needed boost in the nomination race and depriving rival Bernie Sanders of a victory in a racially diverse state. The loss is a blow for Sanders, who hoped to use the state's contest to prove himself as a viable candidate in a state with an electorate made up of more minority voters and fewer self-described liberals than the race's earlier contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
As of yesterday morning, no one could say with any confidence who was even favored. But when the dust settled, there was nevertheless a clear winner.
With just about all of the precincts reporting, it looks like Clinton's margin of victory was about six points, 53% to 47%. In terms of delegate distribution, it was also fairly close, with Clinton picking up 19 delegates to Sanders' 15.
But what makes yesterday's developments so important has less to do with these precise totals and more to do with the impact on the Democratic race overall.
There are two broad angles to keep in mind. The first is the fact that if Clinton had come up short in Nevada, as many observers predicted, the coverage was going to be brutal. The Washington Post ran a piece last week with an ungenerous headline -- "Hillary Clinton could blow it in Nevada" -- which seemed emblematic of the general media buzz.
Nevada, the conventional wisdom said, was supposed to be a Clinton "firewall" state, which would help the former Secretary of State bounce back after Sanders' landslide victory in New Hampshire last week. A Sanders victory would have created chatter about a crumbling "firewall" and a renewed sense of panic among Clinton's supporters in the party.
Her six-point victory does the opposite.
The second angle is that Nevada was a real opportunity for Sanders to change the trajectory of the race. When the Vermont independent nearly tied Clinton in Iowa, and cruised to an easy win in New Hampshire, skeptics noted that the first two states were practically custom made for the senator: Sanders is strongest in states where the universe of Democratic voters is very white and very liberal. Based on previous performance, that means the three best states in the Union for the senator are, in order, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa.
Nevada, therefore, offered Sanders a chance to prove that he can win in a more diverse state -- an argument that would give his candidacy renewed credibility as the race goes forward.
Clinton's win yesterday means that opportunity has come and gone. Conditions may yet change, but she's favored to do well in South Carolina's primary next week, and there's some polling that suggests she's well positioned to win most of the March 1 primaries soon after.
Sanders said last night that, in the wake of a defeat, his campaign has "momentum" and "the wind is at our backs." That pitch would have been far easier to believe had he not come up short in a state he fought to win.