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After Nevada Caucuses, Bernie Sanders Emerges As Democratic Front-Runner


Bernie Sanders has had a strong couple of weeks on the campaign trail. He won the Nevada caucuses decisively over the weekend. He came out on top in New Hampshire the week before. And he carried the popular vote in Iowa. That makes Bernie Sanders the man to beat in this Democratic presidential primary race, says NPR senior political editor and correspondent, the always right Domenico Montanaro.

Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: That's what caveats are for.


KELLY: So, I mean, there have only been three contests. We got a long road ahead. But what did we learn from Nevada this weekend that informs what we know about his position at the front of the pack?

MONTANARO: Well, you're right. There's definitely a long way to go. I mean, only 2 1/2% of the delegates have been allocated so far. But right now, Sanders is the man to beat because he expanded his base in Nevada. One of the big questions going into that race was whether Sanders had this ceiling. You know, he had just gotten about a quarter of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. But in Nevada, Sanders showed some strength beyond the young voters that he does very well with, beyond the progressive base that he does well with. But he won men, women, people with college degrees, people without college degrees. He finished second with black voters. He even finished second with moderates, behind Joe Biden. And he overwhelmingly won Latinos, which may be the most important point.

KELLY: Most important point - why the most important point?

MONTANARO: Well, because if you look at the upcoming contests on Super Tuesday, the two big prizes - the jewel in the crown of Super Tuesday - are California and Texas. And those two states have significant chunks of their Democratic populations who are Latino. If Sanders again runs up the margin with them on Super Tuesday, he may gain a delegate lead that, frankly, would be almost insurmountable because of how splintered the field is.

Sanders, you know, also did very well with black voters in Nevada, finishing, like I said, a very close second with Biden. Let's see if he does that again Saturday in South Carolina. If he does, it would be significant because half the states that vote on Super Tuesday have significant black populations, and the path for anyone else then is very, very difficult to see.

KELLY: But back to South Carolina and Joe Biden - I mean, Biden has talked about South Carolina as the firewall. This is my state. I got this. Just let me get to South Carolina. How important does a good showing there remain for him?

MONTANARO: It's the whole ballgame. I mean, he's been saying he will do well once the electorate becomes more diverse. He showed he retains black support in Nevada, but Sanders cut into that pretty significantly. South Carolina in 2016 was 61% black in the Democratic primary. Biden's team is banking on that propelling him to a win. They have to win. A win is a win, his team says. But Tom Steyer spending $21 million there...

KELLY: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...On ads targeting the black vote more specifically.

KELLY: Meanwhile, tomorrow will bring another debate. The last debate, Elizabeth Warren impressed a lot of people. She impressed progressives. But it is not clear that that really translated into votes for her in Nevada. What's on the line for her and some of the other candidates tomorrow night?

MONTANARO: Right. I mean, these candidates all have to show a path that they haven't really shown so far. In Nevada, we saw Warren did well with people who said they decided in the last few days, which meant that she probably did well at the debate. But three-quarters of the vote was banked early because of all that early vote. So we expect her to be pretty forceful again tomorrow night in that debate, especially with billionaire Mike Bloomberg on the stage again. He needs to have a better night, by the way, and a better answer when it comes to those nondisclosure agreements and how women were treated at his company.

And Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar - they really have to figure out what their purpose is for staying in the race and what their viable paths are going forward, especially if they don't do well in South Carolina.

KELLY: NPR's Domenico Montanaro.

Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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