In capitalist mecca Las Vegas, social democrat Sanders cements Democratic front-runner status

What a setting for a socialist revolution: Las Vegas. Bernie Sanders swept Sin City on Saturday, dominating the Nevada caucuses in a victory that makes the senator the unequivocal 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner.

The one group that overwhelmingly rejected the 78-year-old candidate? Voters over age 65

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders gets ready to speak at a campaign event at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas on Friday. On Saturday, he placed first in the Nevada caucuses. (Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

What a setting for a socialist revolution: Las Vegas.

Bernie Sanders swept Sin City on Saturday, dominating the Nevada caucuses in a victory that makes the 78-year-old  U.S. senator the unequivocal 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner.

He even hit the jackpot at the Bellagio hotel.

The casino complex famed for its shooting fountains was one of the most important caucus locations, as one of several on the Vegas Strip where the tens of thousands of people who cook, clean, serve and deal cards for tourists were eligible to vote on their lunch break.

Underscoring logistical problems that have hampered primaries in other U.S. states, some people struggled to find the voting site and were locked out because they arrived late. It's a sprawling complex. 

To reach the grand ballroom that hosted the meeting, one needs to pass the fountains in the shadow of the replica Eiffel Tower. Once inside, there's a Hermès store in the entrance that locks its doors for every customer — Hermès sells $8,000 US purses. Beyond that, there's the $100-a-hand blackjack tables. Then there's a long hallway with velvet walls and chandeliers, which oversees a courtyard with cypress trees shaped a bit like the ones at the Palace of Versailles.

By the time lunch was over, Sanders had conquered this cathedral of capitalism. 

New supporters

When voting finished, Jadira Juarez returned to her shift in housekeeping. She said she supports Sanders for a few reasons — notably, his promise to make college free. 

She's worried about the skyrocketing cost of education: "I have four boys — I want that for my kids," she said.

While she supported Sanders four years ago, and he lost, she sees the wind turning in his favour this primary season.

"I have all my family, my friends, everybody, all voting for Bernie. I hope he wins this time." 

It's looking likelier after Saturday.

A mobile billboard advertising democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren moves along Las Vegas Boulevard earlier this month. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

That's because Nevada was the canary in the coal mine for Sanders's campaign in 2016.

It was the first place he suffered a clear loss, and it presaged a string of defeats in states with large Latino populations, which happen to include the two biggest prizes this March 3, Super Tuesday: Texas and California. 

This time, he's made it into the U.S. southwest — and the canary's still alive. By the time results were out Saturday night, Sanders had already moved on to campaign in Texas.

Winning minority voters

Saturday's result blew away the one caveat looming over any prognostication about his chances of being the nominee: Could he win minority voters?

Not only did Sanders trounce the competition among Latinos, he showed strong support among nearly every conceivable subsection of the electorate, according to entrance polls

He won white voters and Latino voters, and nearly won a plurality of black voters. He won a majority of college grads and non-college grads; the young, the middle-aged, and the nearly seniors; very-liberal voters and moderates; frequent caucus participants and first-time ones.

The one group that overwhelmingly rejected him? 

Voters over age 65.

And this is where lots of Democrats get nervous. Virtually every supporter of a rival candidate interviewed over the last few days said it's not Sanders's policies they dislike so much, and all said they'd eventually back him if he's the nominee.

In this 2018 photo, the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino reflects the last sunlight of the day along the Las Vegas Strip. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

But several said they'll push the fight against him as far as they can — even into the summer convention. 

The reason they most-often cited? Fear he'll be demolished by U.S. President Donald Trump in a general election.

"So many people are worried about this socialist name tag on him," said John De La Huerta, a gardener at the Bellagio who supported former vice-president Joe Biden. 

"I believe they're going to kill him in the election on something like that."


At a Biden rally, Cindy Tyeskey-Gage said she'd vote for Sanders if she had to. 

But she fears he might cost the Democrats dearly — including in suburban districts key to keeping the House of Representatives. "It's time to start worrying. It's time to start worrying yesterday," she said.

It so happens the only group that resoundingly rejected Sanders on Saturday, seniors, is the most consistently active group of voters in a general election.

Medicare for all? U.S. seniors already have it

In the key state of Florida, the Trump campaign is also testing messages designed to repel Cuban and Venezuelan expats on account of Sanders's self-described democratic socialism. In Pennsylvania, Trump will certainly attack his plan to end fossil-fuel fracking.

People wait in line to vote early at the Culinary Workers Union on Feb. 17 in Las Vegas. Some of Sanders's supporters had been criticized for lashing out at the union for not supporting their candidate. The union didn't endorse any candidate. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

The Sanders team pushes back hard against any questions over his electability. 

They say he not only polls just about as well as Biden against Trump, he also blows Biden out of the water when it comes to turning people out, drawing far bigger crowds and a far more donations.

Biden did just well enough to survive into his must-win contest next week in South Carolina. But Sanders keeps cutting into his lead with a vital group sustaining Biden's hopes in South Carolina: African Americans.

'Taxing the rich'

Like most Democrats, Kimberly Carr said she'd vote for anyone against Trump. 

But she wants Sanders. The VIP host at the Bellagio supported Elizabeth Warren, then switched to Sanders on the second ballot in Saturday's caucuses.

She said the party needs someone with fire in the belly and bold policy ideas to take on Trump. She has two kids in college and loves Sanders's zero-tuition policy.

As she listed the Sanders policies she likes, one in particular made her burst out laughing.

Carr's job is to usher the highest-paying casino customers to their rooms upon arrival and guarantee they're pampered with the finest luxuries the Bellagio has to offer.

That policy she likes? "Taxing the rich," she said, laughing. 

With that, she left the caucus area and stepped into the velveted hallway. In the adjacent outdoor courtyard, it was raining — making it an unusual day for a glittering strip in the Mojave Desert.

Watch: Sanders front-runner in Democrat race after Nevada sweep

Bernie Sanders swept Las Vegas on Saturday, dominating the Nevada caucuses in a victory that makes the senator the unequivocal 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner. 7:42

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.


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