Let’s get right to the point: Donald Trump had a great night, easily winning the Nevada GOP caucuses on Tuesday. The 46 percent of the vote he received is by far the highest share won by Trump, or any other Republican, in any state so far. Marco Rubio placed a distant second, with 24 percent of the vote, and Ted Cruz finished in third with 21 percent.
If South Carolina, which Trump won Saturday, provided some bits of good news for Trump skeptics — Trump faded over the course of the week and finished with less of the vote than he had in New Hampshire — his victory in Nevada was much more emphatic. Trump proved he could win in a relatively low-turnout environment,1 suggesting that his lack of a traditional “ground game” may not be that harmful to him.
The result underscores that preventing Trump from winning the nomination is likely to require both that anti-Trump Republicans coalesce around an alternative and that they adopt a much more aggressive strategy in probing Trump for signs of weakness. On the first point, anti-Trump Republicans have made some progress: Rubio, who narrowly finished second in both South Carolina and Nevada, has received a cavalcade of endorsements in recent days as Republican “party elites” have increasingly rallied around him as the top alternative to Trump.
But there are not yet many signs of a concerted effort to attack Trump. Instead, reports from Politico and other news organizations suggest that potential conservative donors are largely sitting on the sidelines. Remarkably little advertising money has been spent against Trump so far, especially given his position in the race. Rubio has also conspicuously avoided attacking Trump.
Here are a few other stray thoughts about the Nevada result — written early in the morning from New York and not, unfortunately, the New York-New York Hotel and Casino:
- There were a lot of reports about voting irregularities. Although it’s hard to say exactly how widespread these issues were, they are nevertheless another reason to prefer primaries to caucuses — and they may put Nevada’s status as a “first four” state in jeopardy in 2020 and beyond. They don’t, however, invalidate Trump’s win. One of the functions of polling is to provide a check against profound voting irregularities, and the results in Nevada were reasonably in line with both pre-election polls and the entrance poll in the state.
- Tuesday night’s results were very bad news for Cruz. It’s not just that it was his third third-place finish in a row. It’s also how Cruz lost. He carried only 27 percent of the white born-again and evangelical Christian vote, behind Trump’s 41 percent. Cruz also lost this group in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But, unlike in South Carolina, Cruz also trailed among “very conservative” voters in Nevada, 34 percent to Trump’s 38 percent. Finally, Cruz continues to struggle among “somewhat conservative” and moderate voters. He earned just 16 percent and 7 percent among those groups, respectively, according to the entrance poll.
- How about Rubio? Well, he just got blown out by Trump in a state that was once thought to be the most favorable for him of the first four contests. He’ll also have to suffer through a few news cycles of mockery over his second-place “victories.” The good news for Rubio: He beat Cruz for the second state in a row. No, second place is not winning, but Rubio would have better chances against Trump in a smaller field, and the fastest way to shrink the field is to beat Cruz. Rubio did beat his polling average for the third time in four states, although there were no Nevada polls conducted after South Carolina.
- Did Trump win Hispanics in Nevada? You can be sure that Trump will tell us he did! There was a lot of nerd-fighting over who won the Hispanic vote in the Democratic caucuses in Nevada, and we suspect there will be some over the Republican caucuses as well. Indeed, the entrance poll had Trump beating Rubio 45 percent to 28 percent among Hispanics. But keep in mind that the sample size on that result is somewhere between 100 and 200 people. That means the margin of sampling error for the Hispanic subgroup is near +/- 10 percentage points (or even higher). Perhaps more importantly, just 8 percent of Republican voters were Hispanic (or 1 percent of the Nevadan Hispanic population), and they are not politically representative of the larger Hispanic community.
- One not-so-great sign for Trump: As was also the case in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, he didn’t perform as well with late-deciding voters. Instead, Rubio easily won the plurality among people who decided whom to vote for in the past few days, according to the entrance poll. But in Nevada, the share of late-deciders was considerably lower than in the first three states, and Trump dominated among voters who decided early.
Lastly, we should keep in mind that this was just one state. Trump won 46 percent of the vote, blasting through his 33 percent (or thereabouts) ceiling, right? Not totally. It’s been clear for a while that Nevada Republicans loved Trump. As far back as October, polls have had Trump beating his national averages in Nevada. Meanwhile, Morning Consult polls, which have had Trump averaging 36 percent nationally over the course of the Republican primary, had Trump at 48 percent in Nevada. Believe it or not, states are not all the same! Recent polls have shown Trump getting anywhere from 50 percent of the Republican vote in Massachusetts to 18 percent in Utah. It’s certainly possible that Trump uses his momentum from Nevada to propel himself to even greater heights. But sometimes what’s billed as “momentum” is really just demographic and cultural variance among different states.