You can call Nevada a moral victory for Barack Obama, who trailed Hillary Clinton in the state by more than 20 points just a few weeks ago.
But moral victories are worthless at this point.
Obama needed a win in Nevada and he didn’t get it. Now, even if she loses South Carolina to Obama next Saturday, Clinton will still be able to claim a split of the four pre-February 5 contests in the Democratic race.
Winning two of the four early states will more than satisfy the party establishment, a group that is magnetically attracted to safe choices. Most of the establishment has backed Clinton from the start of the campaign and Obama needed to deliver a series of early and decisive blows to jar them loose.
The party’s rank-and-file masses, too, like to play follow-the-leader. Hillary’s formidable edge in national polls and in big states (like California) can be directly attributed to the popular sense that she is “supposed” to win. Had she suffered a string of early defeats, those numbers would have melted away. Instead, she will now enter February 5—when nearly two dozen states will vote—as the same clear-cut favorite she was when she entered the race more than a year ago.
In fact, her win in Nevada today could be chalked up to the same phenomenon. Through all of 2007, she led the state by lopsided margins, the result of casual support from voters who knew her name and expected her to win. But Obama’s Iowa win on January 3 established him as a viable contender, just as Hillary’s third place finish threw her inevitability into question. Suddenly, the Nevada establishment—in the form of the Culinary Workers Union—felt emboldened enough to buck Hillary and endorse Obama. And rank-and-file voters suddenly had a change of heart, too: Hillary’s giant lead vanished almost overnight.
Had she then lost New Hampshire, that Nevada trend would only have continued. More establishment support would have made its way to Obama, and even some of Hillary’s establishment backers would have hedged their bets behind the scenes. And Obama, as the newly “inevitable” candidate, would have emerged as the clear leader in polls.
Instead, her New Hampshire win froze the mass movement to Obama, and her Nevada backers, instead of hedging their bets, dug their heels in. And now she has won two straight states and fully restored her imposing position, even if the road may be a little bumpier than originally expected. Now, it’s hard to see how she loses her lead in states like California and New Jersey, no matter what happens in South Carolina next Saturday.