Bernie Sanders won the Nebraska Caucus on Saturday, defeating Hillary Clinton here 57% to 43% with 9% of locations reporting. It was a much-needed win that should buoy Sanders’ supporters as the nominating race stretches on as a fight for delegates.
While it was a commanding victory for Sanders in the Cornhusker state, it wasn’t quite enough to rack up lopsided delegate wins. Sanders won by about 8% in the 2nd Congressional District (Omaha), which meant he and Clinton got a 3-3 split there. Sanders did, however, get a 3-2 split in the 3rd District in Western Nebraska. Overall, Sanders came out of Nebraska with 14 delegates to Clinton’s 10, with one remaining delegate yet to be allocated.
Nebraska could end up being a mixed bag for both candidates. Sanders notches another statewide win, furthering his argument that the nominating battle isn’t done yet and that Democrats are still excited about his message. Clinton keeps Sanders from taking too many more delegates than her in the state, maintaining her argument that she has an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates, especially if Sanders can’t win his states by larger margins than this. It’s certainly a better result for Clinton than her 2008 showing here, when Barack Obama crushed her by 68% to 32%, taking 16 delegates to her 8.
At caucus sites around the state, enthusiastic Sanders supporters packed caucus locations and scored win after win over Clinton’s groups. But Clinton often kept her totals close enough in most districts and caucus locations to keep the count close. She did win big in a few areas, including the heavily African American districts in North Omaha. Anecdotal accounts and results from several sites, however, had Sanders winning the majority of Latino voters.
The difference in organizing strategy from the Clinton and Sanders campaigns played out in a very stark way on Saturday. The Clinton team focused heavily on the absentee ballot option in the Nebraska Caucus. At many caucus sites, the Sanders presence in the room was twice or three times the size of Clinton’s. Yet Clinton often pulled close, or even surpassed Sanders, once the absentee ballots were counted.
In Legislative District 3 in Sarpy County, Sanders outnumbered Clinton 306 to 142 in the room. But Clinton got 131 votes by absentee, while Sanders had only 16. That let her pull within 322 to 273 overall.
The same was seen at Legislative District 13 on the north side of Omaha. Sanders took the room 281 to 237, but Clinton won the absentees 275 to 39, giving her a large win for the district of 512 to 310.
Early on in the campaign, Sanders activists in the state reportedly viewed the absentees with suspicion, criticizing it as some sort of rigged Democratic rules meant to benefit Clinton (even though the Nebraska Caucus has always had absentees – it wasn’t newly created this year). That kept them from pushing absentees heavily, which could have still benefited many Sanders supporters who were less likely to turn out. A Sanders caucus-goer in Omaha said she didn’t even know it was an option.
The Clinton folks, on the other hand, realized it was a useful tool to get their supporters counted and used it to its full potential. 6,241 absentee ballots in all were returned. The state party declined to release breakdowns in support from absentees, but in the nine caucus sites Starting Line attended and got absentee breakdowns in, Clinton won the absentees 85% to 15%.
That absentee strategy may have provided Clinton anywhere between a 5% and 20% boost when you compare Nebraska’s results to other caucus Midwest caucus states (excluding Iowa, which had its own special dynamic). Sanders won the Kansas Caucus today 68% to 32%, the Minnesota Caucus 62% to 38%, and the Colorado Caucus 59% to 40%. Much of the closer margin in Nebraska could likely be chalked up to those absentees.
Still, the Sanders folks preferred to focus more on what happens in the room, and there were signs they were much better organized there. There were many volunteers greeting arriving caucus-goers, they had plenty of signs, placards and stickers for their supporters, and they provided food and drinks. A Clinton precinct captain in Sarpy County complained they quickly ran out of all of their supplies. It helped that many of the Sanders caucus-goers appeared to bring their own Sanders shirts and signs from home.
For the most part the Nebraska Caucus appeared well-run around the Omaha and Lincoln area. Long lines plagued most of the sites, but they moved quickly and parking didn’t seem to be too much of an issue. In Sarpy County it took a full hour after the official start time before the caucus actually got underway, but only a handful of people left. There were some issues with some volunteers getting rather overzealous with the rules at one North Omaha site, where they tried to restrict the press to one small corner of the room. Frustrated, the half dozen reporters decided to leave and not cover their caucus.
Part of the appeal of caucuses is the in-person discussions it can create over the candidates among neighbors and friends. At most caucus sites in Nebraska, the Clinton and Sanders sides basically just yelled chants loudly at each other from opposite sides of the room. At one location in North Omaha, representatives from each side tried to go around to convince people to switch sides; no one did.
However, in Lancaster County, home to Lincoln, they divided up their caucus sites by precinct. That created groups of 20 to 40 people in each, leading to more-polite discussion when participants had to speak a few feet from each other.
Overall caucus-goers seemed to enjoy their experience. Several voters were overheard talking about how happy they were to be in a room full of Democrats in deep-red Nebraska. The Nebraska Democratic Party hailed it as a big success.
Sanders also won the Kansas Caucus on Saturday, but Clinton dominated the vote in Louisiana’s primary. At the end of the day, she gained more delegates than Sanders overall in the three contests. Maine caucuses on Sunday, which is expected to go heavily for Sanders.
by Pat Rynard