The party machine tilts the tables for Clinton

February 22, 2016

Alan Maass reports on a Democratic primary that foreshadows the race to come.

HILLARY CLINTON withstood the surging national support for Bernie Sanders to win the Nevada caucuses for her first definite victory in the Democratic Party presidential primaries.

The dynamics of the Nevada contest could be a preview of the rest of the Democratic primary battle.

Sanders, the dark-horse challenger against the party establishment's clear choice, came from way behind to make the caucuses far closer than most anyone thought possible a couple months ago. But Clinton was able to rely on support from the Democratic Party apparatus--in this case, the big unions centered around tourism and the casinos in Las Vegas that support Clinton, even though Sanders is clearly more pro-labor.

The other election story of last weekend was Donald Trump's victory in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary vote, with Marco Rubio doing better than expected to squeeze into second place, ahead of Ted Cruz.

In contrast to the right-wing maniacs Trump and Cruz, Rubio is presenting himself as the reasonable alternative--or at least someone who could be packaged that way for the general election. In reality, he is a staunch conservative, with a Senate voting record that differs little from the Tea Partying Cruz.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at a Democratic Party candidates' debate
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at a Democratic Party candidates' debate

Rubio is gaining an edge as the candidate with support from the Republican establishment against both Cruz and Trump. Jeb Bush, who once had the lion's share of party leaders behind him, dropped out of the race after failing to break out of single digits in South Carolina. John Kasich could soon follow if he doesn't have another good showing soon.

That would make the Republican nomination battle a three-way race--with Ben Carson stumbling along for as long as his crackpot campaign holds out--but with Trump still well ahead in opinion polls.

The prospect of a Trump presidency, or even a Rubio one, will be frightening to millions of working-class people--and that will exert a growing influence among the Democratic Party's base voters.

In South Carolina, where the Democrats will hold their primary next weekend, Rep. Jim Clyburn, the most powerful Black political leader in the state, not only endorsed Hillary Clinton last week, but attacked Sanders, claiming his proposal to make college education tuition-free amounts to a "free lunch."

His message was consistent with the one being pushed by the party elite since the start of the year, when Sanders' campaign started showing signs that he might not be another progressive also-ran: Democrats need to steer clear of radical rhetoric and pie-in-the-sky promises, and unite behind Clinton as the strongest candidate in November.

But the real reason Democratic apparatchiks are attacking Sanders, as wrote in an editorial, "is not because he's turning off voters--but because he's attracting them in larger and larger numbers."

Enthusiasm for Sanders built throughout last year as he drew large crowds to his campaign events. In the first primary contest in Iowa, he rode overwhelming support among younger caucus-goers to an upset tie with Clinton. In New Hampshire the following week, he trounced her by a landslide margin.

The Sanders surge is being reflected in national opinion polls, where he has pulled to within single digits of Clinton, according to the weighted average of surveys calculated by Other polls matching Clinton and Sanders against possible Republican candidates show that Sanders would be more likely to win a general election, at least for now.

BUT HILLARY Clinton's campaign still has big advantages over Sanders, and some came into play in Nevada.

For one, the powerful Culinary Workers Union, which represents some 60,000 workers in restaurants, hotels and casinos in Las Vegas and other Nevada cities, mobilized its members behind Clinton.

According to the New York Times, Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader and one of the most powerful figures in the Democratic Party, encouraged the head of the union to get its members to take part in the primary, even though the union didn't endorse either candidate. "Probably 100 organizers [from the Culinary Union] will be at the caucus sites and in hotels to make sure people know what they're doing," Reid told the Times.

That helped Clinton to big wins in caucuses held in six major casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, according to reports--accounting for a significant part of Clinton's margin of victory in Clark County, which is home to about three-quarters of the state's registered Democrats.

The casino bosses lent a helping hand to the Clinton campaign, too. The Hill reported that MGM Casino gave workers three hours of paid time off to participate in the caucus.

The turnout was a sign of the continuing clout of the party machine in general--and Reid in particular, who "asserted again today...that he really can change the dynamic of an election in this state," said local political reporter Jon Ralston on MSNBC.

Among the other big unions whose get-out-the-vote operations are closely coordinated with the party apparatus, the Service Employees International Union dealt Clinton an ace from the bottom of the deck with a leaflet that touted her support for a $15 an hour minimum wage--when, in fact, Clinton has not endorsed a federal $15 minimum. Sanders, of course, has.

Meanwhile, some high-profile Clinton supporters seem to have tried to smear Sanders in the eyes of Latinos, a big voting bloc in Nevada.

United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta and actor America Ferrera are being criticized for misleading Twitter comments that Sanders supporters at one caucus site chanted "English only" when the caucus moderator said Spanish translation could not be provided because there was not a neutral translator available. Sanders backers, including actor Susan Sarandon, responded with links to video of the event, and said there was no chanting.

IT'S A sign of how much enthusiasm Sanders has awakened with his message against corporate greed and the political status quo that he came as close as he did in Nevada, having started out so far behind and with so much working against him.

Once again, Sanders dominated among younger caucus-goers, winning the support of five of every six. And one entrance poll gave him the edge among Latinos participating in the caucuses, despite the string of endorsements for Clinton from leading Latino Democrats--though some analysts cast doubt on the poll, given Clinton's wins in Latino neighborhoods around Las Vegas.

Whatever the case, the big reason that the odds are still huge against Sanders was clear in Nevada: Hillary Clinton's lock on support within the Democratic Party establishment and apparatus.

The next contest is in South Carolina, where Sanders started out even further behind, and the Clinton campaign is depending on Black support to win. It's as much a travesty that Hillary Clinton can rely on African American votes in South Carolina as it is that she could bank on the unions in Nevada.

Sanders is presenting a frankly left-wing message on most--though not all--issues that matter to the Democrats' voting base among working people, and particularly Black and Latino working people. He has already won over large numbers fed up with business as usual, including within the Democratic Party.

That's exactly why the party leadership--including its liberal wing, from Congressional Black Caucus leaders like Jim Clyburn to Latino civil rights and labor activists like Dolores Huerta--will resist the Sanders surge by any means necessary.

Some of the attacks will be underhanded slander and red-baiting, but others will be couched in the reasonable language of "lesser evilism"--that Democrats have to unite behind the "realistic" candidate in order to beat the greater evil in November. But all are about maintaining the status quo in a pro-business party that claims to stand for working people, but doesn't.

And that raises questions about Bernie Sanders and his decision to run for president within the Democratic Party. What will he do to challenge a party machine so clearly bent on making sure Clinton wins? And if he does come up short in that effort, how can he ask the millions of people energized by his campaign to support the very candidate they are revolting against?

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