“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.
There was something else Littman and other volunteers stressed in their calls, though. “We were very big, in the scripting of our phone calls, [on making sure] that people knew that there was still an opportunity for Sen. Sanders to pick up delegates in the state — and to possibly win the state county-by-county. And that, I think, was a huge motivator for people,” Littman says. It made a difference “when they realized, ‘Wait a minute — we can change the result of what happened here in February?'”
The motivation stems partly from a sense among Bernie supporters that their candidate should have won Nevada — that he in fact would have won Nevada if there weren’t, as Littman puts it, so many “hijinks.” By that, Littman seems to refer to widespread complaints by Sanders supporters and surrogates of disorganization, and even alleged fraud, in the caucuses.
The volunteers’ efforts to turn out delegates and, crucially, alternates to take the place of delegates who failed show up, helped tighten the race. Only 3,825 of 9,000 delegates elected at the caucuses on February 20th showed up to the county convention. When alternates were factored in (915 elected, 604 unelected), the delegates broke 2,964 for Sanders, and 2,386 for Clinton.
That doesn’t mean the caucus-night results were reversed: Clinton won 13 of 23 district-level delegates on February 20th, and she will keep those. The shift translates to a two-delegate difference in the remaining 12 pledged delegates, making the projected total Clinton 18, Sanders 17 — but, again, the number won’t be final until the delegates elected at the county convention go to the Nevada state convention on May 15th.
The Sanders campaign is hopeful it will pick up even more delegates there — Littman and his colleagues already have the BernieDialer fired up to ensure their people turn out again — but Nevada State Democratic chair Roberta Lange thinks it’s going to be tough for the campaign to move the needle any further in the state.
“Nothing’s impossible. [But] it would be very difficult,” Lange says. “The people that are coming to the state convention are people that have gone from the caucus to the county and now to the state — they’re your most dedicated supporters, and the likelihood of someone not showing up…. I mean, it’s possible, but I don’t think likely.”
Calling something “unlikely” doesn’t discourage Sanders supporters, though — theirs, after all, is a candidate who started the race with a 60-point deficit — which is why you should expect to see more efforts like the one that unfolded in Clark County at local and state conventions set to take place around the country in coming months. The efforts won’t always be as effective — a similar effort in Iowa’s Polk county failed to net more delegates for Sanders in March — but they will be underway.
And they won’t just be underway on the Democratic side. In Arizona, where Trump won all 58 delegates, Ted Cruz’s campaign has been working to install his own supporters in those delegate slots, with the assumption that, if there are multiple rounds of balloting, they will throw their support behind him, rather than Trump. Similar scenarios are playing out in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, South Carolina and Indiana as well.
As the old saying goes: Rules are made to be craftily exploited for political gain.