Bernie Sanders has surged in Nevada recently and his support in college towns may help him do well in the state on Saturday. | AP Photo

State politicians, operatives and campaign officials say these are the things to watch in Saturday’s contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

SPARKS, Nev. — Nevada was never supposed to get this close.

Long considered an integral part of Hillary Clinton’s march through February, this low-turnout, first-in-the-West caucus state saw momentum shift and polls tighten after Bernie Sanders’ campaign swept in with a late investment in its local operation. The result is that Nevada, once thought to be a shoo-in for Clinton, now looks like a toss-up.

Story Continued Below

Sanders spent Friday doing his best to shore up support in the more sparsely-populated and more conservative northern parts of the state, where higher turnout helps his campaign thanks to his reliance on first-time caucus-goers.

Clinton and her staff, meanwhile, have sought to excite union workers in Las Vegas by visiting pockets of them throughout the week, and to energize Latino voters by painting Sanders as an enemy of immigration reform. In a state where she used union support and a 2-to-1 margin among Latinos to win last time, it’s a bet that a strong performance in the populous south can carry her to victory.

“There’s no doubt he has momentum, she has organization,” said David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, who is now supporting Clinton.

Making the final hours all the more dramatic, said Bob Miller — the state’s last Democratic governor — is the fact that the ground still seems to be shifting.

“I think it’s going to be fairly close. Hillary Clinton has had people on the ground for a year, so they’re very organized. They have made a lot of connections, and they spent some time in the rural [counties] doing that,” Miller said. “However, Bernie Sanders has outspent her considerably in the last couple of weeks and is going full force, fresh off his victory in New Hampshire, with a level of enthusiasm [that makes me say] I do think that it’s not a given, as it once was. It’s a really close race here.”

Here’s what each campaign will need to do in order to win, according to interviews with roughly a dozen elected officials, operatives, and senior officials on both sides of the Clinton-Sanders rivalry:

1. Clinton’s Clark County crucible

Just as in 2008, a win for Clinton starts with a solid hold on Clark County, home to Las Vegas and, crucially, a large Latino and African-American population that Clinton will need on her side to carry Nevada.

That minority population has been the focus of much of Clinton’s ground organization for months – and her organization is widely seen as a more professional operation than Sanders’. With her ties to the local African-American community and its leaders, Clinton’s local apparatus is formidable, explained Nevada Senate Minority Leader Aaron Ford.

The Clinton campaign has spent the final days before the caucus playing up the importance of immigration reform in the candidate’s speeches, communications from surrogates, and an emotional 60-second ad released Thursday that shows Clinton comforting a 10-year-old girl who’s worried her parents will be deported.

That ad and the closing-argument focus on immigration “plays exactly to what the big concern here is,” explained Congresswoman Dina Titus, a Clinton backer. After all, she noted, Nevada is the state with the highest share of undocumented immigrants in its overall population, at 7.6 percent. And it’s also the state where the highest share of students between kindergarten and high school have at least one undocumented parent: 17.7 percent.

If Clinton can replicate her 2008 strength with Latinos, especially in East Las Vegas, she’ll be in a strong position to rack up delegates in Clark County.

“She’s got the track record, she’s got the folks on the ground, she’s got the operations in place. She’s doing things specifically for the Latino community, from having staffers who are bilingual to having caucus trainings twice a week — and having those in Spanish,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, who has been campaigning in Nevada for Clinton.

In case Clinton’s Clark County focus wasn’t clear enough, her campaign sent all of her surrogates to hold events there on the final day of campaigning. As for Sanders, they were scattered across the state.

2. The northern Nevada play

If Sanders is going to win the state, he’ll likely need a big showing in Reno’s Washoe County and the rural parts of northern Nevada like Elko County — both of which he visited on Friday. The sparsely-populated area is conservative compared to Clark County, but there’s a largely white Democratic swath that’s notably progressive, and right up Sanders’ alley.

Both campaigns have organized in northern Nevada and continue to push paid mail as the hours count down to the caucuses, but it’s Sanders who’ll be counting on a strong performance there due to his relative weakness in the more populous Las Vegas area. Any kind of high turnout there, said his state director Joan Kato, would be good news for him.

If the Vermont senator can capture a healthy chunk of Reno — the largest city in northern Nevada and one with an increasing Hispanic population — it will put considerable pressure on Clinton.

“Nevada is considered a swing state, and has been considered a swing state for several election cycles now. And you might call Washoe County the swing county in the swing state,” explained Pam duPré, the executive director of the Washoe County Democrats and Clinton’s northern Nevada political director in 2008. “Clark County is pretty blue. The rural counties are predominantly red. And Washoe has gone both ways. [So a strong performance there bodes well] for candidates to win state-wide.”

3. The superpower sitting on the sidelines

The Culinary Workers Union is one of the most powerful forces in Nevada Democratic politics, representing a huge chunk of casino workers in the population center of Las Vegas. But the group is sitting out the 2016 election cycle, declining to endorse either Clinton or Sanders — thereby ensuring that both of them spend considerable time and energy courting members.

Without an endorsement in their pockets, Clinton and Sanders both showed up at a Culinary protest outside a hospital in Las Vegas on Thursday, and Clinton in particular has been working overtime to personally meet with the union’s politically active workers.

She and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have met with casino workers up and down the Las Vegas strip, in back rooms and cafeterias when they are on break. Hillary Clinton even met with a small handful of housekeepers in the basement of the Caesar’s Palace casino after midnight on Wednesday, asking for their support and telling them where to caucus.

Upon returning from northern Nevada on Friday night, Sanders also went to the Caesar’s cafeteria to meet with Culinary workers. As it turned out, Bill Clinton had been there just hours before.

If Clinton can get enough of the union workers to caucus for her, the campaign’s thinking goes, it will go a long way toward building a cushion in her Las Vegas strip stronghold. And if Sanders can significantly break into that bloc — likely by relying on younger union workers, like the ones wearing Bernie 2016 t-shirts at Thursday’s protest — it could spell trouble for Clinton.

4. The foreclosure hangover

One big reason Sanders has caught on in Nevada is that his message of fighting economic inequality is resonated in one of the places most devastated by the foreclosure crisis — and where the unemployment rate, at 7.1 percent, is well above the national average.

Campaign officials often note the difficulty of traditional organizing in and around Las Vegas, so there’s a question mark hovering over the results in the hardest-hit residential areas away from the Strip. Local political experts will be closely monitoring the numbers in the Las Vegas suburbs, in particular, to see if Sanders’ economic message has taken root among lower-income and middle-class workers.

Sanders’ supporters see these voters as a natural fit for the Vermont senator’s message. Some of Clinton’s top in-state allies, however, view these neighborhoods as places that will reveal the resonance of Clinton’s “progressive who likes to get things done” message.

“People here are very pragmatic, we’re not ideological. And those people have fought very hard to come back from the recession, and they want to come back,” said Titus. “Dreams aren’t going to pay the mortgage.”

5. The college constituency

Sanders tends to do well in college towns where there are large concentrations of university-oriented progressive voters – but there aren’t many of those places in Nevada. The campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, is the closest thing, with its large university population situated in a concentrated area.

It occupies a different role than the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“UNR, up there, that’s more of a university campus than UNLV,” explained Titus, herself a former UNLV professor. “You might expect that would go for Bernie.”

“UNLV is an important part of Las Vegas, but it’s sort of swallowed up by the rest of the city,” said Miller, the former governor.

So if young voters turn out en masse at UNR, Sanders’ plan of mobilizing first-time caucus-goers will likely be working as planned. It’s no guarantee of victory in northern Nevada, however — Clinton has also visited Reno. If she over-performs there — particularly among the growing Latino and union populations in the city — it could be a sign that her early organization across the state paid off.