In the uncertain world of American primary politics, Saturday's Democratic caucuses in Nevada made one thing abundantly clear: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the frontrunner to face President Trump in November. Now, to anyone who's actually been paying attention to the Democratic primary race, Sanders's frontrunner status is hardly news: A near-tie in the catastrophic Iowa caucus, a decisive win in the New Hampshire primary, and massive fundraising hauls fueled by a staggering number of donors have put Sanders at the head of the Democratic pack for much of the campaign.
Nevertheless, it took Saturday's Nevada blowout — which played to many of Sanders's strengths — to crystallize for the pundits on cable news, and even his fellow candidates, what has seemed obvious to many others for so long: Bernie is the man to beat.
Some in the political world responded, er, passionately to the news. In the studios of the ostensibly "liberal" MSNBC, Sanders's Nevada victory prompted one of the network's most embarrassing broadcasts to date. Pundit Chris Matthews spent Saturday wondering whether Sanders's frontrunner status meant Democrats might be better off under an additional four years of Trump rather than nominating someone who has demonstratively energized the party's base.
Worse, Matthews later mused that Sanders's victory was akin to the Nazi invasion of France during World War II — a particularly odious comparison, given that Sanders has been outspoken about having had family members killed during the Holocaust.
James Carville, the Louisiana elections expert and former strategist for President Bill Clinton, also got in on the action, claiming that Sanders's triumph meant Russian President Vladimir Putin was the real winner in Nevada. (Putin was not, in fact, running in this round of caucuses.)
Longtime Republican operative-turned-talking head Nicole Wallace, meanwhile, went so far as to suggest Sanders was using "dark arts" to cement his position at the front of the Democratic pack.
Over at CNN, Sanders's victory was treated with slightly less hysterics. Bakari Sellers, the former South Carolina Democratic congressman, by noted that if Sanders racks up 35% of the vote, that means 65% of people didn't vote for him — a truism that has the benefit of being both mathematically sound, and entirely devoid of any real meaning in the context of a primary race. In fact, Sanders's plurality of support is the exact thing that could carry him to victory, if we've learned anything from 2016.
CNN also bizarrely framed Sanders's runaway Nevada win as a net positive for onetime frontrunner Joe Biden, the former vice president, whom commentator Van Jones noted "can be happy he's not at the bottom anymore." As results trickled in from Nevada's caucuses, Biden seemed to be fighting for second place with Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. As the night progressed, however, Biden's lead over Buttigieg widened — but he still trailed Sanders by some 20 points.
Sellers additionally repeatedly claimed that Biden's second-place showing in Nevada showed him on the "upswing," prompting fellow CNN panelist Anderson Cooper to ask Sellers point-blank if he had "heard anybody say, 'I really feel like Biden's on the upswing'?" Sellers claimed that yes, people are talking about Biden momentum after Nevada, while also wondering whether if Sanders doesn't come in first in the upcoming South Carolina primary, it would be a "story."
Speaking of Biden, the former vice president himself seemed eager to declare himself on the upswing after Saturday's rout at Sanders's hands, telling supporters that "Well, y'all did it for me" and promising that "we're going onto South Carolina and winning and then we're going to take this back."
"We’re alive and we’re coming back and we’re going to win," Biden insisted, despite having lost to Sanders by what seemed to be a rather large margin. And awkwardly, MSNBC chose Biden's non-victory victory speech as the perfect time to announce Sanders's projected win, offering the following masterclass in comedic timing:
Of all the people adjusting to the realization that Sanders may very well be on his way to securing his party's nomination before the Democratic National Convention in July, it was presumptive third-place finisher Buttigieg who seemed to have taken the news the hardest. Speaking to supporters post-caucus, Buttigieg took direct aim at Sanders, claiming that Sanders's campaign wasn't nearly as inclusive as his.
"Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans," Buttigieg said, later tweeting that despite capturing an anemic estimated 2% of African American voters to Sanders's nearly 30%, his campaign, not Bernie's, was actually the "broad [...] American coalition." Hm.
Buttigieg, though, may be the only candidate for now willing to say what's clear: Sanders is the man to beat. After Nevada, all eyes now turn to South Carolina, and its upcoming primary race on Feb. 29. Current polling shows Biden with a slim lead over Sanders there, with Sanders's numbers rising as Biden's begin to slump. And while a Biden win there would certainly re-energize his decidedly wounded campaign, Sanders's win tonight could very well propel him to yet another victory ahead of next month's Super Tuesday elections, when former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg gets in the mix.
Either way, it's clear from Saturday's caucus that the political world is finally starting to grapple with the fact that Sanders is now the single largest force to be reckoned with in Democratic politics.