LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton held off a powerful late challenge from rival Sen. Bernie Sanders in Nevada’s Democratic caucus vote Saturday, securing what is projected to be a narrow victory that could help her renew a claim to the mantle of presumptive Democratic nominee.
With more two-thirds of precincts reporting, Clinton held a four-point lead over Sanders — a margin more decisive than her razor-thin Iowa win but much closer than the Clinton campaign had anticipated as recently as a month ago, when it touted polls showing the former secretary of state with a 25-point lead. The Associated Press projected that she would win Saturday’s contest.
As supporters gathered at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas to await her remarks, Clinton claimed victory in a tweet: “To everyone who turned out in every corner of Nevada with determination and heart: This is your win. Thank you.”
Sanders prevailed in many rural areas and won Washoe County, where Reno, Nevada’s second-largest city, is located. But Clinton racked up a 10-point margin in Clark County, which is by far the state’s largest, home to Las Vegas and nearly three-quarters of its residents.
Nevada is the first state to gauge Clinton’s support among Hispanics, a growing demographic Democrats will need to win in November. The state, which is home to a well-organized workforce of hotel and culinary workers, is also a key test of labor power.
While entrance polling showed Sanders gaining stronger-than-expected support among Latino caucusgoers, Clinton maintained an overwhelming advantage among African American voters. She will seek to expand on that minority support in Southern and Midwestern states that will vote in the coming weeks, starting with the South Carolina Democratic primary next Saturday.
The Nevada Democratic caucus is one of two races Saturday that will measure the strength of anti-establishment fervor in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Voting continued into the evening in South Carolina’s Republican primary, where Donald Trump is favored to win but Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida have showed signs of closing the gap this week.
Entrance polls reported Saturday by CNN found that Nevada’s Democratic caucusgoers were far more liberal than eight years ago, which seemed to bode well for Sanders. They also reinforced the view that Clinton does better among nonwhite voters than among whites. However, the makeup of the electorate Saturday was no more diverse than in 2008, when 65 percent of caucusgoers were white and 15 percent apiece were African American and Hispanic.
The survey of caucusgoers reported by CNN found new evidence of a massive generational gap between Clinton and Sanders supporters. Where Sanders is supported by roughly three-quarters of participants under 45, Clinton leads with about six in 10 support among those who are older. The entrance polling found a significant influx of first-time participants, who tended to favor Sanders.
Clinton still enjoys strong support from the Democratic establishment, and her goal in Nevada was to blunt the momentum Sanders acquired from a victory in New Hampshire and then move on next week to South Carolina, where she enjoys broad support from African Americans.
The senator from Vermont has appealed to younger Hispanics to support his candidacy in an effort to counter claims that he cannot attract minority votes.
Sanders made a morning visit to the MGM Grand Casino Saturday, seeking to make sure the unionized workers there planned to participate in the caucuses later in the day.
Scores of workers were waiting to greet Sanders and take selfies in advance of the Nevada caucuses. Among those already sold on Sanders was Laura Barrera-Perez, who said her job was cleaning the casino.
“He proposes good stuff,” she said of Sanders. “I saw his face, and he’s very honest.”
Ambrocio Leyva, a buffet-line server, said he was still struggling with choice but was inclined to go with Sanders over Hillary Clinton. Leyva, 46, who came to the United States from Mexico 25 years ago, said many of his co-workers had initially been for Clinton but some were rethinking their choice.
Leyva said he had waited to make a final choice until the end because “you can always hear something new” from the candidates. “I’m making that decision now,” he said.
This weekend marks one of the few times when the Democratic and Republican calendars diverge. Republicans will hold caucuses in Nevada on Tuesday, and Democrats will have their primary in South Carolina next Saturday.
Nevada’s caucuses mark the first real chance for non-white voters to weigh in on the Democratic race. The next will come in South Carolina, and in the Southern-heavy line-up of states that vote on March 1. Sanders’s campaign has already targeted Colorado, a caucus state with a large Latino population, as one of its best Super Tuesday hopes.
On Saturday morning, Clinton stopped by the cafeteria at the Harrah’s casino on the Las Vegas Strip to greet caucusgoers, minutes after Sanders had worked the same room.
The heavily Latino crowd cheered “Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!” when Clinton entered. “First Lady in the house!” a man yelled.
Across town, at a Henderson middle school, long lines greeted caucusgoers registering to participate in the day’s events. The Nevada Democratic Party said that over 31,000 people had pre-registered online, but at this location, a vast majority of participants hadn’t.
Nevada’s most prominent Democratic politician, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid arrived there to caucus with his wife, Landra Gould. Reid has pledged to remain neutral in the presidential race until after Nevada voters have spoken.
“It’s important that we have this furor we have in Nevada,” said Reid, who was instrumental in making his state one of the early presidential contests. “It didn’t exist 10 years ago; it exists now. I’m glad we focus on places other than New Hampshire and Iowa to find a presidential candidate for us.”
Sanders’s highest-profile Latino endorsers took one last chance to attack Hillary Clinton’s immigration record, telling reporters on a conference call that her “hypocrisy” was breaking down her “whole mythology of a firewall of color.”
“There was a comfort zone that the Clinton campaign and their operatives were working in, that there would be no real response from the Latino community,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the first member of Congress to endorse Sanders.
Grijalva has campaigned extensively through Nevada, linking Clinton to a 1996 Republican-passed immigration bill signed by her husband, President Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has battered Sanders over his vote against a 2007 immigration bill — a vote, Sanders backers have noted, that put him on the same side as Barack Obama.
For Clinton, Nevada was supposed to be where months of painstaking grass-roots organizing, plus goodwill in minority communities, would put a stop to Sanders’s momentum after the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, far less diverse states.
Instead, in an effort to help stanch the bleeding of minority votes, especially from Latinos, Clinton’s surrogates have turned sharply to Sanders’s record on immigration issues, which they said has been checkered by votes in favor of anti-immigration bills and a vote against comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.
Clinton’s campaign has been playing down the importance of the Nevada vote in calls and other discussions with donors and key political supporters. The caucus format plays to Sanders’s grass-roots strengths, and the likely electorate is far less diverse than the state population as a whole, Clinton aides have told donors since her 22-point defeat in New Hampshire.
Her focus, instead, is on South Carolina, where Democrats will hold their primary next Saturday.
Clinton received a boost on Friday when the influential Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) offered his support. “I believe that the future of the Democratic Party and the United States of America will be best served with the experience and know-how of Hillary Clinton as our 45th president,” Clyburn said.
DeBonis reported from Washington. Anne Gearan in Washington and Abby Phillip in Las Vegas; contributed to this report.