Opinion writer

(Cassi Alexandra/The Washington Post)

Hillary Clinton bested Bernie Sanders by five points in the Nevada caucuses, and here’s a key number from the entrance polls (click to enlarge):

In Nevada, more voters wanted to “generally continue Barack Obama’s policies” than wanted to “change to more liberal policies” by a 50-41 margin. Clinton won among that former group, by 75-22, while Sanders won among the latter group by 77-21.

A pattern is emerging: In Iowa, New Hampshire, and now Nevada, the data suggest that Clinton won overwhelmingly among those voters who want to continue Obama’s policies, while Sanders won overwhelmingly among those who want a decisive break from them in a more liberal direction. There’s no way to be sure whether correlation proves causation, of course, but as best as I can determine, most Democratic operatives are now operating from the assumption that this pattern signifies something important.

As I and others have argued, Sanders’s candidacy is premised on a serious critique of the Obama years. In his telling, Barack Obama failed to deliver reforms commensurate with the epic scale of our challenges, because he failed to mobilize the grassroots to break oligarchic control of Congress and because establishment Democratic politicians continue to acquiesce in that oligarchic paralysis of our political system in any case, by accepting Wall Street and corporate contributions (and in Clinton’s case, Wall Street speaking fees).

Clinton agrees there is still a great deal of work to be done — wages are still stagnant; universal health care is unrealized; there still isn’t sufficient oversight and accountability for Wall Street; and so on.  But she rejects Sanders’s running explanation for why the Obama years fell short, and suggests that more incremental improvements on Obama’s reforms are both more realistic (though she’ll face many of the same institutional obstacles Sanders would) and in some ways more desirable than the changes Sanders seeks (she rejects a single payer push as ill advised, and favors a smaller minimum wage hike and a less ambitious push for free public college).

As Vox’s Jeff Stein and Steve Benen both document, another key tell to emerge from the Nevada caucuses is that turnout among Democrats was down from 2008, just as it was in Iowa and New Hampshire. This casts some doubt on whether Sanders can mobilize voters to achieve the revolution he wants.

To be fair to Sanders, even if his promises are unrealistic, given the structural realities of our politics, he is basically trying to shift the boundaries of what we decide at the outset should constitute “realism.” Missing this risks missing a core aspect of his appeal. In addition to his supporters’ legitimate agreement with his specific policies, surely his supporters are also fired up by his Big Idea, which is this: It should not be seen as radical, crazy, or beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse to run for president on the idea that a country as rich and great as this one should guarantee to everyone a minimally decent standard of living and a reasonable measure of opportunity — in the form of guaranteed quality health care, a guaranteed college education, and a guaranteed retirement with dignity.

We can scrutinize the specifics of Sanders’s proposals — and bring skepticism to bear on his account of how he’d achieve the change he seeks — while also acknowledging the force of this core element of Sanders’s “revolution”: His insistence that these broad goals should not be so casually dismissed as self-evidently beyond the spectrum of reasonable political possibilities.

But we are now entering a string of contests in which nonwhite voters will be decisive, and polling has shown that nonwhites think Clinton, not Sanders, is the candidate best equipped to bring “needed change” to Washington. This is to say that — for now, anyway — they may disagree with Sanders’s depiction of what “needed change” constitutes, in addition to doubting his ability to deliver. What Sanders has proven beyond any doubt is that a whole lot of Democratic voters agree with both his specific proposals and the broader story he is telling about the urgent need to re-imagine American democracy. But the more prosaic reality may prove to be that not enough of them do.