The caucuses in Nevada today are the last Democratic contests before January 26th when South Carolina voters will go to the polls. And that’s the last primary before more than 20 states select delegates on February 5th. That makes the outcome in Nevada far more significant than the 25 delegates to the Democratic National Convention up for grabs there today. Far more important is the momentum it bestows on the winner.
Senator Hillary Clinton won the momentum prize. With 90 percent of the precincts reporting she leads Senator Barack Obama 51 percent to 49 percent. Former Senator John Edwards, with only four percent, is, to put it kindly, a “distant” third.
Nevada was an important — and well timed — victory for Senator Clinton. Deemed the Democratic front-runner since she entered the race, she’s found herself in a much tougher race than expected. By now, the New York Senator had expected to have tied up the nomination — the inevitability of her nomination evident to all.
Instead she finds herself in a battle royal with Senator Obama who won in Iowa, lost New Hampshire to Senator Clinton by just two percentage points, and finished strongly in Nevada. As recently as mid-November Senator Obama trailed Senator Clinton by 28 percentage points in a CNN poll of Nevada’s likely voters.
Senator Clinton’s win returns her to front-runner status, but she still has her work cut out for her. Polls in South Carolina show her trailing Senator Obama by as much as 13 percentage points (although most show her within nine percent of the Illinois Senator). If Senator Obama wins the South Carolina primary on January 26th (the Republican contest was today) he’ll have a strong boost going into the all important February 5th contests. Of course, if Senator Clinton comes out ahead there, her momentum is likely to be unstoppable.
As tough as things are for Senators Clinton and Obama, they’re even tougher for Senator Edwards. Although he finished second in Iowa (barely) he finished third in New Hampshire and eked out just four percent of the vote in Nevada. This has to be painful to the 2004 Vice Presidential candidate. And while he has the funding to continue the campaign for another few weeks, one has to wonder why he would.
Senator Edwards positioned himself as a “fighter” for change, but his strident rhetoric clearly is failing to connect with voters. Even in South Carolina, where he should be strong, he trails Senator Clinton by more than 20 percent in recent polls, never registering more than 15 percent of the vote in the surveys.
So, here’s where the Democrats are at:
Senator Clinton is out-in-front (again) and earned an important boost from Nevada.
Senator Senator Obama must win in South Carolina to stay close for the big day, February 5th.
Senator Edwards will likely soldier on through South Carolina and may have the wherewithall to stick around through Super Tuesday and pick up a few more delegates. However, he is increasingly becoming irrelevant.
All this makes the February 5th gaggle of elections even more important. Because in a two-person race, February 5th could easily determine who emerges as the nominee.