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Bernie Sanders Makes Progress, But Hillary Clinton Remains The Favorite

The Democratic contest moved to a not-totally-white state, and Hillary Clinton had her best showing yet. She won the Nevada caucuses by over 5 percentage points, an important margin in a state whose electorate was only 59 percent white. While there are still some questions about how Latinos voted, Clinton can claim tremendous support from black voters heading into South Carolina and Super Tuesday.

According to the entrance poll in Nevada, Clinton won black voters 76 percent to 22 percent. To put that in context, Clinton’s margin is only slightly smaller than Barack Obama’s 83 percent to 14 percent win with black voters in the 2008 Nevada caucuses. While the result wasn’t unexpected given that pre-election polls showed Clinton dominant with black voters, Sanders spent a lot of money on television in the state. That Sanders couldn’t close the gap with black voters with a big advertising push is a very ominous sign for his campaign.

Many of the upcoming primaries will feature a much higher percentage of black voters than Nevada did. While only 13 percent of Nevada caucus-goers in 2016 were black, their share in South Carolina will be much higher (55 percent of South Carolina Democratic primary voters were black in 2008). That’s why Clinton is up by 25 percentage points in the South Carolina polls. Even beyond South Carolina, on Super Tuesday 63 percent of the delegates up for grabs will be in contests with a higher share of African-Americans than Nevada. Better yet for Clinton, 35 percent of delegates will be up for grabs in contests with at least double the share of African-Americans as Nevada. In 2008, 19 percent of voters in all Democratic primaries were black — Clinton’s margin among black voters is a big advantage.

That’s not to say Nevada was all bad news for Sanders. Sanders has cut into Clinton’s advantage with Latino voters. In the 2008 Nevada caucuses, Clinton won Latinos 64 percent to 26 percent. This year, the entrance poll had Sanders winning Latinos 53 percent to 45 percent. I’m a bit skeptical of those numbers, however, given that Clinton won in heavily Latino precincts in Las Vegas. The sample of Latino voters in the entrance poll was very small, a couple hundred respondents at most, so it’s possible those numbers are just off. (That said, David Shor of Civis Analytics argued that it is possible that Sanders won Latinos even as he did poorly in Latino neighborhoods because many younger Latinos — who are more likely to support Sanders — live in whiter neighborhoods.)

But whether he won them or not, Sanders was clearly competitive with Latinos, which really shouldn’t be too surprising: A recent SurveyMonkey poll found Sanders closing the gap among Latinos to just 3 percentage points, and a NBC News/Telemundo survey put Clinton’s lead with Latino voters at 17 percentage points. Clinton isn’t running away among Latinos. That could be good news for Sanders in states like Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Texas that vote in March. Still, Sanders is fighting an uphill battle given that many more March primaries have a large African-American electorate.

But in some ways Sanders has already won something: The Democratic electorate turning out in 2016 is more liberal than the one that turned out in the party’s last competitive primary eight years ago. Democratic voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada this year were far more likely to describe themselves as liberal than they were in 2008. In Nevada, 70 percent of Democrats said they were liberal compared to just 45 percent in 2008. Sixty-eight percent of Democratic voters identified as liberal in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But even with a more liberal electorate, Clinton was able to carry the day. Nevada is likely to be the first in a string of victories for her campaign.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.