LAS VEGAS — Joe Biden has been saying for weeks that the real presidential primary doesn’t begin until the caucuses in Nevada and the primary in South Carolina.
On Saturday, the former vice president came in well behind Sen. Bernie Sanders in Nevada. This came after weeks of emphasizing that voters of color in more diverse states would be the key to his success following his disappointing finishes in the first two voting states.
"I think we're in a position to move on now like we haven't been until this moment," he said to a gathering of supporters on Saturday afternoon as Sanders’ lead, and Biden’s likely second- or third-place finish, became clear. With only a small percentage of precincts reporting, Biden was in second place at the time.
“I think it’s very important to do really, really well,” said Texas Rep. Filemon Vela, a Biden surrogate, when asked the day before about whether it was important to win Nevada outright.
Immediately after the caucuses, Vela told BuzzFeed News he doesn’t think Biden finishing so far behind Sanders will harm his prospects in Texas, which votes on Super Tuesday; he added that he thinks Biden will win South Carolina next week.
“I think today’s finish is going to help us,” Vela said. He said he thinks Biden will win Texas thanks to his “long history of service” but didn’t raise the role of voters of color in that state or in Nevada.
In entrance polls from CNN, Sanders appeared to win 51% of Latino caucusgoers Saturday, compared to 17% for Biden. Biden led with black voters, with 39% support to Sanders’ 27%.
Since Iowa and then New Hampshire, the campaign has been saying that the race really starts from Nevada — but while voters of color may have helped boost his standing in Nevada to a distant second or third place, they weren’t behind him in significant enough numbers to deliver what would have been his first win.
“It’s the beginning of a representation of what the country looks like,” Biden said at a rally the night before the caucus in Nevada. “No, I really mean it. It's the first in the west and it really makes a difference.”
“It’s the single most important group in America,” he said of Latinos.
While Sanders’ victory in the caucuses here had been expected for the last week, Biden had long had his own claim on the state. Polling averages showed Biden with a large advantage here until early February.
Biden had a wide lead among voters of color nationwide until recently, when Sanders and Michael Bloomberg started to draw away some of that support in polls. In Nevada, he had been consistently neck and neck with Sanders among Latino voters — and one advantage that could have put Biden over the edge would have been an endorsement from the state’s powerful Culinary Workers Union. That endorsement seemed like a likely prospect as recently as December — but last week the union announced it wouldn’t be endorsing anyone, despite union head Geoconda Argüello-Kline calling Biden the union’s "friend."
On Saturday, a majority of the union's culinary workers at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino backed Sanders despite their union’s opposition to his health care proposal.
Biden’s campaign, like most others, invested in Spanish-language caucus training and attended meetings with Latino community leaders and Latino advocacy groups like Mi Familia Vota.
But Sanders’ campaign held unique Latino outreach events like a soccer tournament and Spanish-language-only campaign events with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and labor organizer José La Luz.
Sanders’ campaign in Nevada seemed to be able to reach older Latino voters with those unique events and thanks to the efforts of young supporters bringing their parents and grandparents into the fold. That may have resulted in the campaign breaching, in this state at least, a generational split that nationally has seen older black and Latino voters gravitate toward Biden but younger voters lean toward Sanders.
“My daughter, who was in the university, told me about him. So I searched Bernie on the internet and, yes, he’s my guy,” said Jenny Williams, 48, a Latino woman at a Spanish-language caucus training for the Sanders campaign on Thursday. “She was like, ‘Mom, you need to see this guy. He talks about real issues that affect people.’”
At a Henderson, Nevada, canvass launch for the Biden campaign on Friday afternoon, which the campaign said was part of its Latino outreach and was headed up by Vela and Rep. Tony Cárdenas, just one of the out-of-state volunteers was Latino.
Cristian Villa, 36, came to Las Vegas from Los Angeles to canvass for Biden. He said he’s supported Biden since 2008 because of “his history, his involvement; he’s always cared about the country and he’s always done the right things.”
He said he was disappointed by Biden’s showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, "but I know that anything good is not easy — that’s why I’m still in this fight."
Villa was not so sure about Biden’s recent emphasis on voters of color being the backbone of his campaign.
“Statistically that’s true, but I also worry that we can’t rely too much on that because not the whole country is like that," he said. "Part of his initial appeal was that he can garner some of the white votes as well."