LAS VEGAS — Put "Bernie Bros" on the back-burner.
It's the army of sobrinos and sobrinas — the Spanish words for nephews and nieces — who should strike fear in the hearts of Bernie Sanders' rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination and party elites after he ran up the score among Latino voters in the Nevada caucuses Saturday. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other Latino backers of Sanders refer to him fondly as their "tío," or uncle.
Sanders was the choice of 54 percent of Hispanic caucus-goers Saturday on his way to steamrolling to the most convincing victory of the primary season, according to an NBC entrance poll. His closest competitor, former Vice President Joe Biden, racked up 14 percent, with no other candidate cracking double digits.
Those results signaled that the energy Sanders has poured into building a more diverse coalition than his failed 2016 campaign is paying off at just the right time. He can now stake the first claim — less than two weeks before the "Super Tuesday" contests in 14 states — to having won a state where white, Hispanic and black voters are all represented in substantial numbers.
"If you can’t put two out of those three together, you should start figuring out your exit plan," Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., said of most of Sanders' rivals — excluding Biden and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg — in a telephone interview.
Gallego added that he is "not surprised" that Sanders performed so well because the candidate and his campaign learned from missteps in 2016 and organized early and effectively in the Latino community.
The outcome among Hispanic voters here could easily portend success for Sanders in delegate-rich California and other heavily Hispanic states and congressional districts coming up on the primary calendar. At the same time, Sanders has closed Biden's lead with African-American voters to 31 percent to 29 percent nationally, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Friday.
"In Nevada we had just put together a multi-generational, multi-racial coalition which is going to not only win in Nevada, it's going to sweep this country," Sanders said at a rally in El Paso, Texas, Saturday night.
For Democratic party elites who oppose Sanders because they detest his brand of progressive politics — he calls himself a democratic socialist — time may be running out to stop a gathering Sanders storm. He has now won the popular vote in the first three contests, clearly appeals to a cross-section of the party's electorate and is far better organized than the critics who have failed to coalesce behind an alternative candidate.
A Biden campaign official, anticipating a second-place finish here, used similar logic to make the case that the former vice president is best positioned to win the nomination and defeat President Donald Trump.
"Our coalition is clear and it’s a coalition that looks like the Democratic Party," the official said on the condition of anonymity. "If Democrats want to choose a nominee who can build the broad coalition we have to build to beat Donald Trump, it’s clear that Biden is their candidate."
Biden edged Sanders 34 percent to 28 percent among African American caucus-goers here Saturday, according to the NBC entrance poll, with billionaire Tom Steyer coming in third at 17 percent and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in fourth at 12 percent.
Sanders was the choice of 30 percent of white caucus-goers, followed by former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 19 percent. Biden registered fifth most-popular with white caucus-goers, trailing the 14 percent apiece for Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Now, Sanders and the rest will head to South Carolina — via a handful of other states — for the Feb. 29 primary there. That's the last contest before the March 3 mega-primary, and it's the first state where black voters are expected to constitute a majority of the electorate. Biden was once seen as an overwhelming favorite in South Carolina, but Sanders' strength has put the state in play, according to recent polling.
Most Democratic party insiders once dismissed the idea that the combination of a committed bloc of Sanders voters and parity among other candidates would prevent any contender from winning the nomination outright by accumulating a majority of delegates before this summer's convention. Now, many of Sanders' critics see that scenario as their best hope of derailing Sanders.
In Nevada, the cross-section of support for him, especially among the Latino voters to whom he has paid so much attention since his 2016 defeat, suggests that he's pretty much on the track he envisioned for his campaign.