In the fall of 2014, two years before the next presidential election, Tick Segerblom was already hunting for a liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton.
Segerblom — a former Nevada Democratic party chairman active in presidential politics since working for Jimmy Carter in 1975 — liked the sound of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but wasn’t convinced she would run. So he began eyeing Bernie Sanders, who had been traveling the country giving speeches and gauging the possibility of a long-shot White House run.
When Sanders made a trip to speak at a labor convention here that November, Segerblom helped arrange an additional town hall with some local members of the influential Culinary Union.
The little-known senator from Vermont connected.
His message during the midterm election — that the Koch brothers needed to be stopped from buying the United States Senate and that the economy was rigged for those at the top — took root in the state that was hit hardest by the 2008 economic downturn and the subsequent foreclosure crisis.
That modest beginning turned out to be the first building block of a movement that slowly crept up on Clinton. She’s been organizing on the ground here for longer, built a more powerful ground game and captured institutional support from most of the state’s elected officials and unions (though, notably, not the powerful 57,000-member Culinary Union, which is not endorsing either candidate).
But what Clinton lacks — and what’s causing her so much trouble here — is the ability to tap directly into the bloodstream of Nevada progressives. As a result, after beginning with a commanding double-digit lead, Clinton has watched Sanders gradually close in on her. A CNN/ORC poll released earlier this week showed the state that was once touted as Clinton’s Western firewall in a dead heat days ahead of Saturday’s caucus.
Sanders didn’t start building out his campaign here until late last year. But Nevada Democrats credit his rise to those seeds he began planting close to two years ago, when he was a no-name senator from snowy Vermont speaking forcefully about a rigged economy.
The buzz generated by Sanders’ initial sermon on economic inequality led to a second invite last year — months before Sanders announced his presidential bid — when the Culinary Union hosted the senator for another economic town hall event. The first gathering was mainly attended by older, white progressive men, but the second event attracted a more diverse crowd.
“That time, there were younger people in Bernie T-shirts,” recalled the union’s political director, Yvanna Cancela. “It was a different crowd that all of a sudden showed up, with the same level of support.”
“There was already a grass-roots movement in place that allowed them to hit the ground running,” she said of the Sanders campaign.
Cancela pointed to online channels Sanders has used to bring in new support even before he was able to match Clinton on the ground.
“I was talking to a 24-year-old member who said he’s never voted, but he started reading about Bernie on Reddit and started paying attention,” Cancela said. “These underground channels were very active and very open for people to tune into what the senator was saying.”
While Clinton has been making a direct appeal to Latino voters here by saying she would go further than President Barack Obama on immigration reform, Sanders’ resolute message reverberated across the demographic board here, party leaders said.
“Nevada was one of the states hit hardest by the Bush recession and the foreclosure crisis,” said Rebecca Lambe, a senior adviser to the Nevada Democratic party and to Sen. Harry Reid, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race. “The unemployment rate was the worst in the nation. The Sanders campaign recognized that their candidate’s economic message would resonate here and they pounced.”
Sanders’ state director, Joan Kato, added that the message about the economy has attracted Latino, African-American and Asian supporters, in addition to Sanders’ base of white voters.
“For us to be at a tie right now doesn’t happen without the support of minorities,” she said. “The No. 1 issue in Nevada is the economy. The Wall Street bailout is very real and relevant in a state that was disproportionately affected by the housing crisis.”
Now, with two days to go until the caucus and momentum on its side, the Sanders campaign is expressing confidence that it can pull off an upset: “Sanders’ Odds in Nevada Looking Up,” the campaign blasted out in a news release Thursday night.
The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, appears to have already turned its attention to states further down the calendar where it is more likely to post a decisive victory — on Friday, the campaign is unveiling a big South Carolina endorsement, Rep. Jim Clyburn. On Thursday night, the campaign blasted out a fundraising plea for its Super Tuesday fund, as though the race in Nevada were already in the rear view mirror.
Momentum is one reason Sanders was able to close the gap and turn Nevada into a dogfight: He outraised Clinton in the last quarter of 2015, and brought in a record $6.5 million the day after his stunning win in New Hampshire, allowing him to spend big in a state where he needed to prove he could win among a diverse pool of voters.
But even before that, Sanders’ unexpected fundraising juggernaut fueled his surge here. Since late December, Sanders has spent twice as much money as Clinton on television ads and, with over 100 staffers and 12 field offices, he now has more resources on the ground.
That fundraising prowess — and the ability to build such a large organization so fast — has taken many in the Clinton orbit by surprise.
“I didn’t believe that he would be able to raise so much money, based on a couple of sound bites when there’s nothing there to back it up,” admitted Clinton donor and former Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis, who spent Thursday volunteering at a Las Vegas field office.
The money is what allowed the Sanders campaign to build fast and capitalize on the grass-roots support.
“When I first started, we had one office,” said Kato, who joined the campaign in November. “In a month, we had six, then in another month we had 12. Even in rural areas like Elko, we had 45 people show up to an office opening. That’s an indicator. Calling it a firewall, maybe the Clinton campaign underestimated the people of Nevada.”
Segerblom, a state senator, said he didn’t think Sanders could actually win, despite his growing national popularity, until his boost from New Hampshire — in part because the Clinton campaign seemed to be doing everything right.
“She hired the Obama coordinator from 2012, they had people here since last spring,” he said. “If you had to play the game perfect, that’s what they’ve done. But there’s this uncontrollable thing out there, and Nevada is really no different than anywhere else.”
Sanders’ Nevada surge has taken place despite a formidable Clinton ground game, built brick by painstaking brick. State director Emmy Ruiz, who served as Obama’s 2012 state director, began piecing together her team here as far back as March. Political director Michelle White came from Nevada political circles, with a background in the state Legislature and knowledge of the local networks necessary to ensure a win. The Clinton operatives spent the summer visiting rural areas across the state on a 1,250-mile listening tour. Even as Sanders poured money into television commercials, outspending Clinton 2-to-1, the Clinton campaign stuck to its philosophy that what matters most in the end is organizing, and how long your office doors have been open to voters on the ground. With more than 1,000 committed precinct captains across the state, the campaign trusted its plan and vowed not to be reactive.
But building a ground game the hard way meant the field organization was caught off guard by some of the bomb-throwing, aggressive tactics of Sanders operatives, campaign sources said. Sanders staffers last month masqueraded as members of the Culinary Union to gain access to employee areas in casinos on the strip to try and persuade voters to join the campaign — a move that shocked the play-by-the-rules Clinton staffers. Last winter, Kato even showed up at the Clinton campaign’s Carson City office with a camera to try to prove the Clinton campaign was in bed with the Carson City Democrats, from which it was renting office space (that arrangement was eventually terminated at the state party’s request). Clinton operatives said they’ve been surprised by how aggressively the Sanders campaign has sought to get endorsements from newspapers like El Mundo, the largest Latino newspaper in the state, calling every day and even showing up at the office.
All of it has left some Clinton operatives feeling emotional, knowing they have done everything right to win the contest but wondering what it will mean if, in the end, they lose anyway. Many concede that, unlike the Barack Obama phenomenon in 2008, they still don’t understand the Sanders appeal. But Clinton allies have steeled themselves for any outcome and remain convinced that, sooner or later, Bernie fever is going to subside and voters will recognize that there’s less there than meets the eye.
“We always knew, and nobody believed us, that she was going to have to fight for it,” Kounalakis said. “Now, I think voters are going to be presented with more information about what’s behind his rhetoric, and what they’re going to see is there’s not very much.”