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Nevada Win Puts Clinton Back in Driver's Seat

By Reid Wilson

LAS VEGAS - As results rolled in to Nevada Democratic Party headquarters at the Cashman Center in north Las Vegas Saturday afternoon, Hillary Clinton's backers were increasingly excited. When CBS made the early call that she had won the state's Democratic caucuses, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe's response was loud enough for everyone in the cavernous hall to hear.

He was right to be excited: With two straight wins under her belt - not counting Michigan - Clinton yesterday reclaimed the mantle of Democratic front-runner. Heading into South Carolina and the February 5 states, exit polls show Clinton is right where she wants to be.

Throughout the campaign, Clinton has over-performed among key demographics of the Democratic electorate. In every contest, her gender gap has been pronounced: Women favored her more than men by seven points in Iowa, by seventeen in New Hampshire and by eight points in Nevada. Those gaps are magnified by women's dominance of the voting population; they made up 57% of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire and 59% in Nevada.

Something, too, seems to have clicked between Clinton and female voters. After losing women in Iowa to Barack Obama, she has won big in Nevada and New Hampshire, by thirteen percentage points each.

Among older voters, too, Clinton has shown a marked ability to beat her rivals. The only group she won in Iowa by a wide margin were those over 65 years old. She scored a large 19-point victory with older voters, besting John Edwards while Obama lagged another four points behind. In New Hampshire, Clinton duplicated her success among older voters, winning by 16 points, but also expanded her appeal among voters between the ages of 50 and 64 and among those in their 40's, winning by nine points and eleven points respectively. Those three groups made up two thirds of the electorate.

Yesterday in Nevada, Clinton barely won among those between 45 and 59, edging out Obama by just four points. It was those over 60 who provided her with a 29-point advantage. Older voters made up more than a third of the electorate, giving Clinton her margin of victory.

Obama, who has led consistently among younger voters, has seen their numbers at the polls decline. In Iowa, those under 29 made up 22% of the vote. In New Hampshire, that number was down to 18%. Here in Nevada, just 13% of the electorate was under 29.

Finally, Clinton is leading among those for whom the economy is a greater issue than the war in Iraq. And thanks to recent events, from the housing and mortgage crisis to the tumbling stock market, those voters are growing in number. In Iowa, she lost economy voters to Obama by ten points, when they made up 35% of the electorate. In New Hampshire, she won by nine, and economy voters inched up to 38% of the total vote. In Nevada, fully half of all voters said the economy was the most important issue to them when given a choice that included the war and health care. Clinton won by nine points among those voters as well.

Heading in to February 5, several states show promise for Clinton as potentially most concerned with the economy. Nevada has been especially hard-hit by the mortgage crisis, and the foreclosure rate on homes is more than three times the national average. Rates of foreclosure have soared in California, Georgia, Arizona, Tennessee and Colorado, all key states set to vote in two weeks.

Meanwhile, Obama continues to lead among voters who care about Iraq most. But that portion of the electorate seems to be fading. He held a nine-point lead in Iowa among the 35% who chose it as their number one issue, a nine-point lead in New Hampshire among the 31% who said the same, and a two-point advantage among Iraq voters in Nevada. Still, those voters in the Silver State accounted for just 22% of the total electorate. If economic concerns continue to climb in importance while Iraq fades, Clinton will have an advantage.

The key to Clinton's Nevada win, though, was organization, especially that of Clark County Commission chair Rory Reid, Clinton's state campaign chair. That bodes extremely well for the campaign moving forward. In two weeks, when twenty-two states head to the polls, most campaigns on both sides of the aisle will have just a handful of staffers in each state.

The Obama and Clinton camps will rely in large part on surrogate organizations mobilized by their prominent backers. In many February 5 states, Clinton has the endorsements of those with a political organization, giving her an early leg up that Obama might find difficult to overcome. In California, Clinton enjoys support from the mayors of heavily Democratic San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as surrounding members of Congress and Senator Dianne Feinstein. In New Jersey, Governor Jon Corzine is Clinton's campaign chair, and in Georgia, she enjoys support from the state Attorney General and the state's most recognizable member of Congress, John Lewis.

Obama is not without influential backing of his own. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano announced her support last week, and in Massachusetts he has backing from Governor Deval Patrick and Senator John Kerry. Prominent backers in Missouri, including Reps. Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan, along with Senator Claire McCaskill, will make his job easier there, as well.

Both candidates have massive home states that will likely break heavily in their favor. New York will send 280 delegates to the convention, about 200 of which will be allocated on February 5; that's almost 10% of those to be decided that day. 133 of Illinois' 185 delegates will be assigned on that Tuesday, more than 6% of the total haul for the day.

But due to her organizational strengths and recent surges in demographics among which she has done exceptionally well, Hillary Clinton must now be seen as the favorite to win the most delegates on February 5. And as much as pundits hope for, and strategists begin to plan for, a protracted delegate fight, it is possible that the media will anoint whoever wins that day as the nominee in waiting.

Unlike last week, tonight it will be Clinton's team sleeping easy while the Obama campaign frets. But Clinton has been the frontrunner before. After her win yesterday in Nevada, is "front-runner" a label the Clinton campaign even wants?

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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