Why you should care
Because what happened in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas when it comes to this year’s Nevada GOP caucuses.
The Nevada Republican caucuses are the slot machines of the early primary season. After more intensive gambling in higher-stakes states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, most of the losers have hit the buffet, leaving high-rolling candidates to try their hand at a smaller, less risky game before they hit the Super Tuesday jackpot.
Donald Trump cruised to an easy victory with a whopping 46 percent of the vote, Marco Rubio edged Ted Cruz for second again, while John Kasich and Ben Carson just tried to stay above Rand Paul — no longer in the race but still on the ballot. Here are some key takeaways:
1. Donald Trump is the prohibitive front-runner. Perhaps it was no surprise that a showy billionaire with longtime gaming ties should triumph in Nevada: Trump led in every poll, and lines for his events looked more like queues for Cirque du Soleil. But, after having won the pot in three out of the first four GOP contests, the math now clearly favors him to win the nomination, and entrance polls showed he won among almost every demographic, including 44 percent of Hispanics. And Trump continues to say and do things no other candidate would dare. “We won with poorly educated,” he proclaimed proudly in his victory speech. “I love the poorly educated.” “He’s like the Super Mario Brothers character that just hit a star,” says Northeastern University professor Daniel Urman. “Nothing can hurt him.”
2. Marco Rubio still hasn’t won anything. Some called Nevada Rubio’s “firewall,” a state he should “run away with” given that he spent part of his childhood in Vegas and was even, briefly, Mormon. And with Jeb Bush suspending his campaign, and John Kasich focusing on later contests, Rubio really had the “establishment lane” to himself for the first time, and a massive ground game operation to help him hit the gas — yet Trump still beat him 2-to-1. If Rubio’s 3-2-1 strategy was plan A, and a Nevada firewall plan B, then he’s now on plan C. And all of the establishment endorsements and spin in the world won’t allow the senator to ride an always-a-bridesmaid strategy to the nomination, especially if he loses his home state of Florida on March 15.
3. Nevada evangelicals turned out en masse, but not for Ted Cruz. Are the dirty tricks and the “nasty guy” label starting to stick to Ted Cruz? Turnout among evangelicals in Nevada was way up from previous years — 39 percent versus 28 percent in 2012 — but most weren’t caucusing for Cruz. Four out of 10 voted for Trump, the most for any candidate, and by far his best showing among evangelicals to date. If Trump repeats this performance in the seven evangelical-laden Southern states on Super Tuesday (March 1), then Cruz will be lucky to walk away with just his home state of Texas — an outcome that would kill his candidacy.