“We’re going to surprise them in Nevada,” Bernie Sanders told supporters in the days leading up the state’s February 20th caucuses. He had reason to be optimistic: Polls showed the Vermont senator locked in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton in the state that was supposed to be her “firewall” against an insurgent challenge.
But here’s the thing about surprises: They only happen when you’re not expecting them.
Nevada was a relatively disappointing night for the Sanders campaign; he lost by more than five points, taking home 15 delegates to Clinton’s 20. What most people watching the returns at home didn’t realize, though, is that those numbers aren’t final until the state convention almost three months later — and a lot can happen in that amount of time.
Indeed, a month and a half after caucus night, on April 2nd, the Sanders camp seized the equivalent of two delegates from the Clinton column, without warning, at the Clark County convention.
The convention in Nevada’s most populous county was the first successful example of the Sanders campaign’s strategy to flip pledged delegates at county and state conventions as the race wears on. Rolling Stone‘s Mark Binelli spoke about this tack with Sanders senior advisor Tad Devine for a piece published in early March:
“Devine went on to sketch out a Sanders path to victory, pointing out how the geographic diversity of the senator’s Super Tuesday wins proved they could rack up a string of wins as the primary season moved out of the South and into friendlier territory. At one point, he even suggested that pledged delegates — that is, the delegates won at the voting booth — might switch to Sanders if Clinton stumbled badly, an oddly undemocratic pitch from a campaign focused on the rights of the little guy.”
That doesn’t exactly describe the situation in Nevada — and, the campaign hopes, other states — though. The Sanders camp isn’t getting delegates won at the voting booth to change their minds; those are set in stone. What it is doing is making sure enough Sanders supporters show up at the state convention to win a share of the additional delegates that will be awarded through the caucus that takes place there.
This highly unusual strategy hinges on an intimate familiarity with the intricate rules governing how each state distributes delegates. In Nevada, the Democrats’ 35 pledged delegates are broken up into three categories: 23 are elected at the district level on caucus night, and the other 12 (seven “at large” delegates and five “party leaders and elected official” delegates, or PLEOs) are elected at the state convention.
Sanders has now shown he can pull this off — at least in this one crucial county. Here’s how it played out: On the night of the February 20th caucuses, at each precinct, delegates were elected to go to their county conventions. The list of delegate names was collected by the Nevada State Democratic Party and turned over to the campaigns soon after.
Sanders volunteer Adam Littman tells Rolling Stone he estimates he spoke to at least a thousand caucus-elected delegates in the weeks leading up to the Clark County convention, using automatic dialing software affectionately referred to as the BernieDialer. He was calling to remind the delegates that they needed to show up in person on April 2nd, and stay, probably for the whole day, to make sure their precinct’s support for Bernie was recorded.