For a few moments, in a conference room deep inside the Wynn casino, the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination came down to a debate between three women of colour.

Felicia Fletcher, a 44-year-old cashier at the nearby Circus Circus, was one of two undecided voters. Precinct captains for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders descended on her, reducing lifetimes of politics to a few sentences.

"Hillary's been there for the working people," said Autumn Johnson, 38, a black woman with a blue Clinton T-shirt. "I know that personally."

Melanie Malfabon, 26, leaned in closer to argue for Sanders. "The banks have lobbyists, and that's why so many people can't get ahead. His average donation is US$37 [$55.50]. He's not owned by big money."


Finally, Fletcher dropped the poker face. "I trust Bernie more," she admitted. "But I like Hillary's views more."

It was a scene replayed in hundreds of precincts yesterday, as Clinton's loss of altitude in Nevada was halted by a rugged ground game and the resilient affection of black voters.

In the same location, hours before the fight for Felicia Fletcher's vote, it wasn't always easy to see that.

Sanders volunteers passed out laminated testimonials from casino workers who had come on board - porters, servers, cooks, stage techs. It was a hard sell but a cheerful one.

"He's an old man with a young spirit, young ideas," explained Elza Dubrin, 62, a Brazilian immigrant and server at the Wynn who caucused for Sanders. "My son-in-law, he's a doctor. My daughter, she's a registered nurse. They both support him 100 per cent. So I've got to trust them."

Not far from Dubrin sat Cedric Wester, 58, a black porter who had caucused for Barack Obama in 2008 but could not be convinced that Sanders was presidential timber. "I love Hillary's experience. She's more suited for the job than Bernie."

Thirty-four chose Clinton. Twenty-four chose Sanders. Two were undecided. Each campaign put its most passionate advocate at a microphone. The Sanders team chose Harold Tavares, a 62-year-old veteran who had come from California to canvass for Bernie. "We need comprehensive immigration reform that puts families first, and brings people out of the shadows!" Tavares said. "Come with Bernie!"

The lobbying began, and the Sanders team made no converts. "We all agree on all of these issues," Malfabon said. "But Bernie Sanders has the power to do it because he's not owned by big donors."

The room was counted up again. Clinton now had 36 supporters. Sanders had 23. Fletcher remained undecided, until the last second, when she declared for Clinton.

Nevada was the first state to test support among minority voters, who have long been expected to be in Clinton's camp. As it turned out, preliminary entrance polls showed Latinos favouring Sanders, despite having voted for Clinton 2-to-1 in 2008. Clinton's campaign cast some doubt on the strength of Sanders' support among Hispanics, pointing to majority-Latino precincts that she won.

African American voters appear to have overwhelmingly supported Clinton - a development that could bode extremely well for her given the run of Southern states with large black electorates voting in the coming weeks.

"Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other," Clinton told supporters. She congratulated Sanders on a close election, but got in a few digs too. "It can't just be about what we're going to give to you; it has to be about what we are going to build together."

"The wind is at our backs," Sanders said. He predicted several victories in forthcoming state primary contests and, ultimately, "one of the great political upsets in the history of the United States". Yesterday's results seemed to render that promise harder to achieve.

Former President Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wave after Hillary Clinton's victory speech for the Nevada caucuses. Photo / AP
Former President Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wave after Hillary Clinton's victory speech for the Nevada caucuses. Photo / AP