Bernie Sanders’ passion trumped Hillary Clinton’s pragmatic political pitch, as “Feel the Bern” swept the Nebraska Democratic caucuses on Saturday.
Sanders not only won Nebraska, but he also won in neighboring Kansas, giving the Democratic socialist another Midwestern bragging point.
Clinton — who remains the national front-runner with a strong delegate lead — took Louisiana.
Sanders won Nebraska by scoring big wins in the state’s population centers, including Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster Counties, where his call for a political revolution to eradicate the nation’s income equality gap resonated. Sanders received 57 percent of the votes cast compared with Clinton’s 43 percent.
“The win in Nebraska, coupled with a double-digit victory in Kansas tonight, will put us on a path toward victory,” Sanders said Saturday night in a prepared statement. “We’ve got the momentum, the energy and the excitement that will take us all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.”
Clinton’s victories came predominantly in rural Nebraska, where her message of being the most electable Democrat in the race and the one who could work with Republicans in Congress to get something done hit home.
She had a far tougher sell in the state’s biggest cities — especially those with a large population of college students.
In fact, Clinton didn’t even meet the 15 percent viability rule in one Lancaster County caucus where there was a heavy concentration of university students.
Clinton did not comment Saturday on her Nebraska loss, instead focusing her attention on Michigan, a state that holds its primary on Tuesday and where Clinton holds a sizable lead.
This is the third time Nebraska Democrats have held caucuses, and, by all accounts things ran a lot more smoothly than in 2008, when caucuses were swamped during the historic presidential primary race in which Barack Obama trounced Hillary Clinton.
This time there were more volunteers at caucus sites — and more caucus sites.
“I’m just so happy and so proud of how it worked. It has surpassed even my own optimistic thoughts at 2 in the morning,” said Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
It was a day where the enthusiasm gap between Sanders and Clinton was on full display in many parts of Nebraska.
Clinton supporters argued at several caucuses that their candidate offered more workable policy goals and was in a better position to defeat a Republican in the fall election. But Sanders’ folks were having none of it.
Several countered that they wanted wholesale change in Washington, D.C., and others said they simply preferred Sanders to Clinton.
“My head is with Hillary; my heart is with Bernie,” said Rich Hirschman, a 72-year-old from Fremont who followed his heart and caucused for Sanders.
In Louisiana, Clinton once again ran the tables on Sanders with the help of African-American voters in the South, who have voted in huge numbers for the former secretary of state.
Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, admitted to being a little surprised by Sanders’ Nebraska win but said caucus states appear to favor Sanders thanks to his passionate fan base.
He also said states such as Nebraska that do not have a large African-American population also seem to favor Sanders.
So far, Sanders has won the Midwestern and Western states of Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota.
“They don’t have huge African-American populations, and Hillary — at least so far — has been winning by huge margins in that particular demographic, and that demographic is a pretty small part of a state like Nebraska,” Smith said.
However, Smith cautioned that Sanders’ wins in Nebraska and Kansas don’t mean that Clinton isn’t still the national front-runner.
He noted that she holds a commanding lead in delegates after her strong showing on Super Tuesday, and that Sanders still has some ground to make up.
A tally Sunday showed that Sanders had captured 15 of Nebraska's 25 delegates and Clinton 10.
Clinton has more than double the number of Sanders’ national delegates earned so far when superdelegates are included in the total. (Superdelegates are party leaders who are free to throw their support behind either candidate.)
“The bottom line with Hillary — and it is a little bit of a surprise that Bernie won Nebraska — is that I don’t think this is any big flag that Hillary is still not on the road to the nomination,” Smith said.
“There is a relatively small number of delegates in Nebraska, and Hillary has a commanding lead. Regardless of enthusiasm and passion, getting the nomination is still a matter of math,” Smith said.
Clinton and Sanders both invested heavily in Nebraska. Both candidates made appearances in the state and both campaigns established offices in Omaha and Lincoln, with Clinton setting up a third, in Hastings.
Both campaigns also invested in the airwaves, with Sanders outspending Clinton on television advertising more than 2-to-1. Sanders spent more than $235,000, compared with $105,000 by Clinton. The campaigns also invested in direct marketing, with Sanders targeting independents and Clinton focusing on longtime Democrats.
Clinton’s camp, however, invested more time and resources into cranking out the absentee vote.
This was the first time in the short history of the Nebraska caucuses that caucusgoers who were unable to attend were given the chance to file an absentee ballot.
About 6,200 were turned in, and there were several reports where Clinton clearly had the edge. For example, in Gage County, absentee ballots gave Clinton the win, despite more Sanders supporters showing up to caucus.
In the end, though, the absentees couldn’t overcome Sanders’ committed fan base across the state, with the independent senator from Vermont scoring wins across the state in places such as Lexington, Kearney and Scottsbluff.
World-Herald staff writer David Hendee contributed to this report.
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