How Bernie Won Nevada

A Labour Party member reports on the Bernie Sanders campaign, how its socialist message cut through in Nevada – and what we can learn from it in the UK.

Nevada is the first state in the primary election cycle that really represents modern mulit-racial America. Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white, while Nevada has a large Latinx community as well as a large Black population. On Saturday, Bernie Sanders took a near clean sweep of state delegates from Nevada in what can only be described as a landslide.

But it isn’t only the minority vote that is helping his campaign across the country. There is also the impressive field operation that spreads the democratic socialist vision that Sanders has been consistently advocating for more than 50 years. This has projected a sense of hope throughout the campaign – and to many of those now voting for it.

Nevada is known as the ‘Battle Born State,’ because it achieved its statehood during the American Civil War – but today it is more famous for its casinos and being a haven for life’s vices. Politically, the state swung from Red to Blue, from Republican to Democrat, in around 2008, following a similar trajectory to other western ‘Sun Belt’ states. It went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 caucuses (narrowly, 53-47 over Sanders) and then again in the general election (by a similar margin).

Many who volunteered on the last campaign say that 2020 feels different. Bernie Sanders and his ideas have become established, and the problems of inequality which he has identified have only grown worse under Trump’s billionaire presidency. Socialist policies are popular – despite right-wing attempts to shout them down that often followed volunteers across the sprawling urban centres of Reno and Las Vegas. People are seeing a future where their jobs are saved, industries are revived, a Green New Deal is a reality, and where every single person in America has quality healthcare without the risk of being bankrupted by illness.

Policies like that have built the broadest and most stable coalition of voters for Sanders in the Democratic field. One volunteer in the Reno office voted for Trump in 2016, mainly for his pledge to bring back ‘American jobs for American workers.’ But, unlike other Democrats, Bernie Sanders has an answer to this. He opposed the free trade deals which undermined so many decently-paying jobs in the US – and now promises to revive industrial centres across the country without resorting to the dog-whistle racism that has been pushed by the Trump administration.

In this campaign, that volunteer proudly declared herself a ‘Republican for Bernie.’ She still sees so-called ‘big government’ as an enemy, but supports the effort to support a jobs programme – and recognises that the US badly needs some government intervention to sort out the opioid epidemic, the environment and the country’s gut-wrenching levels of inequality. This is an increasingly common Bernie Sanders voter: the anti-establishment independent who sees him as an honest broker rather than an ideological leader.

A lot of volunteers and paid canvassers (a concept which seems alien when contrasted with Britain’s strict political campaigning system) experience this on the doors. Those who were apathetic before 2016, new voters, and disaffected Republicans are being attracted to Bernie Sanders’ campaign far more than other Democrats. Many have little or no healthcare coverage, draw pitiful welfare, and have to work two or more jobs to break even and manage to pay their rent. They never expected to see a politician who would fight for them. But now they have one.

For a socialist, it’s plan to see how deeply America needs someone committed to the working-class in the White House. But then again, that’s why the Democratic establishment are throwing everything they can at Bernie Sanders. If he manages to win this campaign it could be the beginning of a realignment that fundamentally undermines the hold of affluent coastal elites over the party. That’s why they’re supporting cheap knock-offs of Sanders’ policies, such as the “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan peddled by the former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The field team on the ground are fuelled by a mix of coffee, bagels and a drive to achieve socialism in their lifetime. The enthusiasm was boosted by rousing speeches from surrogate speakers like Nina Turner and union activist José La Luz, as well as stars of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, Cori Bush and Amy Vilela.

During the campaign buses would arrive shipping in dozens of out-of-state volunteers from California and Arizona, who face their own primary races in the coming weeks. They are optimistic. Volunteers also arrived of their own accord from as far afield as Brooklyn in New York. They would stay in Nevada for weeks on end, finding a bed in supporter housing and spending every waking minute out campaigning. On the day before the caucuses over five hundred of these volunteers trouped across from neighbouring states to help out in the field. With their help, the campaign managed to knock on over half a million doors.

One aspect of the Sanders campaign which outclasses anything comparable in the UK is their use of technology. With no spending limits and light-touch campaigning restrictions, technology has thrived. Little or no paper lists are used; instead, volunteers have a mobile app which instantly updates databases, and allows canvassers to have more targeted and informed conversations.

But it goes far beyond technology and the professional operation. Innovative grassroots campaigns have also flourished – one of the most notable involved a group of women from rural Nevada canvassing more isolated areas on horseback. This, they felt, was the best way of spreading the word about democratic socialism to their neighbouring ranches and farms. Socialism by horseback may not be a tried-and-tested method, but in some of the rural areas it seems to have worked.

The use of money in campaigns is one of the clear distinctions between the Sanders campaign and the rest of the Democratic field. Sanders is famous for rejecting billionaire donations – but he also uses his money differently, focusing most of it on the field operation whereas big money candidates have channeled their efforts into television adverts. Michael Bloomberg’s financial intervention is truly historic. By next month, it’s likely he’ll already have outspent the most expensive presidential campaign in US history.

But Bernie Sanders is well-practiced in defeating cartoon villain billionaires. In Nevada, he faced a more complicated challenge: the Culinary Workers Union. The union represents workers across the majority of casinos and has over 60,000 members. It is the main political force in Nevada. But unions in the US work quite differently to those in Britain, particularly where they oversee their workers’ healthcare plans. This is a significant source of power for union leaders – and one they were determined to defend against Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal.

While they didn’t endorse any candidate, the Culinary Workers Union issued a statement against Sanders (as well as his supporters’ alleged online behaviour). The union leadership put out flyers, pamphlets and spoke at union branch meetings warning members against supporting Bernie Sanders. The New York Times even reported that the union told members not to speak to the press about the election unless a union rep was present. But all indications are that Sanders overcame this hostility to win a sizeable majority of culinary workers in the state.

Clearly, it is not a winning strategy for union leaders to weigh in behind America’s broken healthcare system. On the doors canvassing, Sanders’ team meet people who have been bankrupted by simple medical bills, people who live in fear of ever getting ill. I spoke to volunteers here who had been made homeless by medical expenses, people who have lost their sisters, brothers, and friends due to the opioid crisis. Bernie Sanders’ message that all of this is unnecessary, and that the United States could have a public health system like every other industrialised nation, has resonated.

Bernie Sanders’ slogan – ‘Not Me, Us’ – has united working-class people across America in a way not seen in generations. His explicit use of class politics in his speeches, at rallies, in his work in the Senate and in his campaign literature has hit home with workers across the country, from dissenting casino workers in Las Vegas, to miners in rural Nevada all the way to the people in the rustbelt who lost their jobs due to deindustrialisation and the young workers in the coastal cities weighed down by student debt.

The days when American politicians felt they had to appeal to a ‘middle-class’ rather than workers and their interests may be coming to an end. Bernie Sanders has made it ok to acknowledge that there are more than differing views in American politics – there are competing interests, and they run between classes. In the UK, we should be watching his march to the White House and learning from it. This time, it’s the Americans who are showing the international Left the way forward.