Bernie Sanders will win the Nevada caucus, NBC News projects, cementing his front-runner status

Key Points
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders will win the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus, NBC News projected Saturday.
  • Sanders cements his early front-runner status, while Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden cast themselves as the best alternatives to the senator.
  • Biden will come in second, while Buttigieg will finish third, according to NBC.
  • Nevada looked set to avoid the technological and reporting errors that plagued the Iowa caucus, this year's first nominating contest.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, with his wife Jane, raises his hand as he speaks during a campaign event in San Antonio, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.
Eric Gay | AP

Sen. Bernie Sanders will win the Nevada Democratic caucus, NBC News projected Saturday, strengthening his early pole position in the race for the presidential nomination.

Nevada Democrats chose their presidential favorites in a test of whether 2020 White House hopefuls could extend early success — or earn enough support to even stay in the race.

Sanders will win at least 22 of the state's 36 pledged national delegates, according to NBC. Former Vice President Joe Biden will get at least seven, and Former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg will win at least three.

The Vermont senator had a wide lead in the share of county delegates won with 100% of results reported. No other candidate came near Sanders at about 47%.

Biden will finish second, followed by Buttigieg in third, according to NBC. Biden came in at about 20%, while Buttigieg trailed at roughly 14%. Biden, considered the front-runner early in the primary, has staked his hopes on next week's South Carolina primary, where strong support among black voters has fueled leads in most polls.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., trailed in fourth place with about 10% of county delegates.

Nevada, the third Democratic primary nominating state, allocates national delegates proportionally based on congressional district level and statewide results. Including their projected delegates from Nevada, Sanders leads Buttigieg 43 to 26 in the 2020 delegate race. Biden follows with 13.

The Buttigieg campaign on Sunday asked the Nevada Democratic Party to delay releasing final tallies as it alleged irregularities. The party responded that it would not change its reporting process.

Sanders, who has pledged to implement single-payer health care, cancel student debt, fight income inequality and take on what he calls corporate greed, saw the Nevada results as more evidence that his populist movement has gained traction around the country. Highlighting his agenda during a sweep through Texas on Saturday ahead of the state's March 3 primary, he predicted he would enjoy similar success nationwide.

"Let me thank the people of Nevada for their support," he told supporters in San Antonio. "In Nevada, we have just put together a multigenerational, multiracial coalition which is not only going to win in Nevada, it's going to sweep this country."

A volunteer tallies the votes during the Nevada caucuses to nominate a Democratic presidential candidate at the caucus polling station inside the Coronado High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 22, 2020.
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

Entrance polls suggested Sanders dominated his rivals not only among his core supporters in younger voters, but also among Latino Nevada caucus participants. While blowing out the field among self-described liberals, he also ran neck and neck with Biden among those who consider themselves moderate or conservative.

Nevada has drawn significant attention, and not only because voters of color got their first real chance to make their preference known this cycle. Nevada faced questions about whether it could report results smoothly, following the disastrous Iowa caucus earlier this month riddled with apparent technological and reporting errors.

After the presidential field winnowed in recent weeks, only seven Democrats still seeking the nomination were on the ballot in Nevada:

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden
  • Former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
  • Billionaire activist Tom Steyer
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on his way to top-three showings in multiple national polls, is not on the ballot.

Sanders, who left the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary about even with Buttigieg in the national delegate race, led recent polls of Nevada. His campaign hoped strength with young Latino voters would propel him to victory in the caucuses and in the Super Tuesday prizes of California and Texas.

Buttigieg and Klobuchar, coming off top-three finishes in New Hampshire, hoped to show they can have success in a state where voters of color make up a significant share of the electorate.

Buttigieg spent much of his remarks to supporters Saturday night targeting Sanders. He cast himself as the best option not only to defeat Trump but also to boost Democratic congressional candidates in November.

"Sen. Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans," the former mayor said. He highlighted the fact that he is the only Democratic hopeful to defeat Sanders (in the share of state delegate equivalents in Iowa).

Beverly Jackson, a precinct captain for U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, tries to convince another voter who said they were leaning towards Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren or Senator Amy Klobuchar to come over to the Biden camp inside the caucus at Liberty High School in Henderson, Nevada, U.S. February 22, 2020.
Patrick Fallon | Reuters

Meanwhile, Biden and Warren aimed to inject life into once promising presidential campaigns. The former vice president argued his Nevada finish will put him back on the path to the nomination.

"We're alive, and we're going to come back, and we're going to win," he told supporters on Saturday.

The state Democratic Party has said roughly 75,000 people voted early in the caucuses. They picked a favorite and at least two more candidates in case their first choice did not meet the 15% viability threshold needed in most precincts.

The state holds more than 2,000 precinct caucuses. Voters whose first choice did not meet the level of support needed could change preference after the initial round of caucusing.

Nevada added early voting to the caucuses for the first time this year, which complicated data reporting. Results came in later than in prior years as vote counters for the National Election Pool, a consortium of news organizations, reported confusion about vote counting rules or how to incorporate the early vote in at least six of the 63 locations where they were collecting data.

In a statement to NBC News on Saturday afternoon, Nevada Democratic Party spokeswoman Molly Forgey said the caucuses were running "smoothly."

About two-thirds, 65%, of caucus voters were white, according to entrance polling data. Another 18% identified as Hispanic or Latino, while 11% identified as black.

Sanders appeared to have a massive edge among Hispanic or Latino voters with roughly half of support, according to entrance polls. Biden had a smaller lead among black voters.

Sanders was the only viable candidate in at least one one heavily Hispanic precinct at the East Las Vegas Community Center. At another, Sanders and Biden were the only candidates to hit the viability threshold.

Out of four issues — health care, climate change, income inequality and foreign policy — 43% of voters chose health care as the most important topic they considered when deciding whom to support, according to entrance polls. Another 26% picked climate change.

Meanwhile, 18% chose income inequality, and 9% picked foreign policy.

More than six-in-ten voters, 62%, said they support replacing private insurance with a single government plan. About a third, 35%, said they oppose such a system.

Sanders backs a single-payer "Medicare for All" system, which led the powerful UNITE HERE Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas to criticize him. The organization did not endorse one of his opponents, however.

Two thirds of voters consider themselves liberal, while 34% identify as moderate or conservative, according to entrance surveys. Sanders has a significant lead among liberals, and is neck-and-neck with Biden among moderate or conservative voters.

— CNBC's Tucker Higgins contributed reporting from Las Vegas, Nev.

This story is developing. Please check back for updates.

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