For Hillary Clinton, a turning point

Story highlights

  • Nevada Democrats signaled a preference for realism over revolution
  • It blunted Bernie Sanders' momentum, writes Errol Louis
  • To pull off a 'political revolution,' Sanders needs to show his policies are possible, Louis says

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Bernie Sanders and his followers have every right to feel energized by his second-place finish in Nevada: Only a few weeks ago, Sanders was more than 20 points behind Clinton, and yet he managed to build momentum, swiftly close the gap and nearly overtake her. But things didn't break his way, for reasons that could prove to be fatal to his presidential hopes: Economically hard-pressed voters in Nevada chose Clinton's experience and electability over the soaring hopes and class-warfare rhetoric of Sanders.

"Americans are right to be angry. But we're also hungry for real solutions," Clinton said in her victory speech -- a not-so-subtle jab at Sanders for putting forward sweeping proposals including free college tuition for all, free healthcare for all and a national hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Sanders' promised programs didn't carry the day with Nevada voters, and that's a problem for him. Nevada's minimum wage is $8.25 (or $7.25 if the employer provides health insurance), meaning that a jump to $15 would boost wages, in theory, by an eye-popping 82%. But voters in Nevada -- including a ton of lower-wage workers like taxi drivers, blackjack dealers, chambermaids and food servers -- chose Clinton, who favors a smaller increase to $12 per hour.
    Here's another way of looking at it. According to The New York Times, "the top issue for Democrats caucusing in Nevada is the economy and jobs, which was mentioned by one-third of respondents." If Sanders can't close the deal with those kinds of voters in a state as economically troubled as Nevada, it suggests he may have a hard time selling his program in other parts of the country.
    Sanders' slashing attacks on Wall Street were also expected to resonate in Nevada, which led the nation in the rate of foreclosures for five years in a row at the height of the recent housing crisis. But here again it was Clinton, who has accepted millions in speaking fees from Wall Street investment firms, who succeeded with Nevada voters.
    "The truth is, we aren't a single-issue country," she said during her victory speech. "We need more than a plan for the big banks. The middle class needs a raise."
    Clinton's implication here -- a talking point repeated by many of her supporters -- is that Sanders is a one-trick pony with little to offer beyond rhetorical attacks on banks and programs he won't be able to force through a Republican-controlled Congress.
    "Together, we are going to create an economy that works for all of us and not just the top 1 percent," Sanders said in his concession speech -- a line he uses in virtually every speech and media interview. "We have come a very long way in nine months," he told his supporters. "We have the momentum."
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    That's not as true today as it was before the Nevada caucuses. In recent weeks, Clinton has been in the awkward position of arguing that Sanders' positions are unrealistic, too pie-in-the-sky to ever get enacted. Americans are an optimistic lot who tend to prefer "hope" over "nope." But Nevada may prove to be the place where Clinton's call for realism took root and won the voters.
    In a telling omission, Sanders said nothing in his nationally-televised concession speech about next week's South Carolina primary, where Clinton holds a commanding lead in the polls. Sanders instead focused on the March 1 Super Tuesday contest for a dozen far-flung states, including Texas, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Vermont, Wyoming and Georgia.
    "I believe on Super Tuesday we have an excellent chance to win many of those states," Sanders said, predicting that the long road to the national convention this summer will culminate in "one of the great political upsets in American history."
    But that won't happen unless Sanders can retool his message and convince voters that his big-ticket proposals are not only desirable but possible.