Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a rally on Feb. 19, 2016, in Las Vegas. (Photo: John Locher/AP)
A week before Nevada’s Democratic caucus, Hillary Clinton abruptly cancelled a rally in Palm Beach, sending her husband in her place. Instead, the former secretary of state appeared at three small campaign events in Reno, and then, on Sunday, showed up for service at Victory Missionary Baptist Church in Las Vegas, with her friend and civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis of Georgia in tow.
“Crashing” would be a strong word to describe Clinton’s presence at the African American church, but Bernie Sanders had planned a campaign stop there before the secretary of state had. Now, the senator was upstaged at his own event.
Lewis introduced her as his “beloved sister” and a “warrior.” Then, Clinton obliquely criticized Sanders, as he listened from a nearby pew. “I am not a single issue candidate and this is not a single issue country,” Clinton said.
The former secretary of state has been in an all-out sprint in this final week before Saturday’s caucus, attempting to defend a state that she has long called her firewall. Sanders built surprising momentum in Nevada, a diverse state that, should he win it, would go a long way to silence critics who say the democratic socialist can only win with white voters and lacks the broad appeal to be the nominee. Clinton, whose campaign manager Robby Mook earned his stripes in 2008 working Nevada for her, has had a strong operation here since April, and until recently had a commanding double digit lead in the state’s notoriously unreliable polls.
But Sanders came from behind: outspending Clinton two to one on television ads and quickly building up a campaign operation to rival hers in size. His win in New Hampshire and near-win in Iowa catapulted him from unrealistic longshot to serious contender. The latest Nevada poll showed the rivals in a statistical tie. In his final rally before the caucus, Sanders told the thousands of supporters who showed up that he had a “feeling” they would “make history” on Saturday.
Clinton did not sound as confident as the senator in her final rally, which drew a few hundred supporters in Las Vegas Friday night. “We’ve got to be in this together,” she said, urging them to bring as many people as possible to caucus for her Saturday morning. “I want you tell them this, If they will stand with me tomorrow, I will stand and fight for them.”
A Clinton staffer who did not want to be named talking about strategy said that the campaign realized many Clinton supporters did not fully understand Nevada’s caucus process, which is only eight years old. Having Clinton herself appear at events and explain the importance of the caucus was the best way to motivate voters to actually show up. “Having the candidate is always better,” the staffer said.
Clinton’s decision to stay in Nevada an extra day also led to meaningful one-on-one interactions with voters. On Sunday after the church visit, she met with young immigrants and their families, leading to a touching moment that the campaign in which Clinton comforted a 10-year-old girl whose parents might get deported. The Clinton campaign later turned the moment into an ad.
Clinton campaigned in Nevada four of the past six days at a grueling pace, while Sanders stumped in the state for just three of those days, spending the rest of his time in Detroit and South Carolina. Clinton’s high-profile surrogates were also out in full force before Sanders’ were. Cabinet members Ken Salazar and Tom Perez, several members of Congress, actresses Chloe Grace Moretz, Eva Longoria and Jamie Lee Curtis, and labor activists Dolores Huerta all appeared at multiple, daily events for the former secretary of state in the past week. Sanders’ surrogates, including Dick Van Dyke and Susan Sarandon, appeared in the final days before the caucus.
Clinton also held at least four back-of-the-house meetings with casino workers in the past week, hoping for a repeat of 2008 when she handily won the casino caucus sites.
Some see Clinton’s frenzied pace as a sign of desperation as she contemplates losing a state that was once a given. “I think her campaign has been more manic and frenetic,” said Jon Ralston, a long-time political reporter in Nevada who writes a column for the Reno Gazette-Journal.
But if the desperation works, and Clinton carries the day, Sanders’ team may wonder if they should not have kept the candidate in the state for an extra day or two. After all, if Sanders could win in Nevada, he could make the pitch that he can appeal to a diverse electorate, and Clinton would be in a significantly weaker position going into South Carolina and Super Tuesday.
But the Sanders momentum may push him to victory on Saturday anyway.
“His campaign [in Nevada] is just not what hers is here and never has been,” Ralston said. “But it might not need to be.”