Two candidates who had been fading in the latest polls came back to win — and crow about it. Several others who fell short of their hopes still claimed to have exceeded expectations.
And on the Republican side, even the fifth and sixth-place finishers claimed to find encouragement to continue their quests.
But after many months of campaigning led up to the first three voting events, the next 10 days will bring more than a dozen states where candidates have not been able to spend extensive time campaigning.
Those next 10 days may well decide which of these confident Saturday night pronouncements were specious, and which lead on to success at the party conventions in July.
Who Really Won?
Donald Trump was the only candidate over 30 percent in South Carolina, the state where the GOP primary has picked eight of the party’s last nine nominees. Although Trump’s huge lead in the polls shrank a bit in the late going, he still won by double digits over the last two senators in the race, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who were locked in a virtual tie.
Trump gave an expansive and triumphant speech, even passing the mic around to family members. And why not? Trump has now erased memories of the speed bump he hit in Iowa on Feb. 1. And in his victory speech he returned to his theme of winning, and to the immigration issue that has been his lodestar since entering the race.
“We will build a wall and who’s gonna pay for it?” Trump shouted.
“Mexico!” screamed the crowd.
Trump said he had met with a delegation from Mexico who said their country was not at all interested in paying for any wall.
“Guess what?” Trump shot back. “That wall just got 10 feet higher.”
The crowd loved it.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton finished about 5.5 points ahead of Bernie Sanders. It was an underwhelming margin when compared with her big edge in the polls here last year. On the other hand, it was a most welcome relief after the drubbing Clinton took in New Hampshire on Feb. 9.
Winning on Saturday was also a relief because Nevada experts had refused to pick a winner here as the caucuses began on Saturday. The uncertainty on caucus day made her eventual win and modest margin look a lot better.
You could say Clinton benefited from her lowered expectations here, and she herself hit that note at the start in her remarks.
“Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other,” she said. And she proceeded to detail her appeals and plans for the voters who had largely rejected her in the voting in three states so far – white working class males, and young voters of all races and both genders. “We’re going to build ladders of opportunity in their place so every American can go as far as your hard work can take you, Clinton said.
“This is your campaign, and it is a campaign to break down every barrier that holds you back.
Who Acted Like Winners Anyway?
But if Trump and Clinton spoke to the winning occasion, others did as well.
After losing by a hair’s breadth in Iowa this month, Sanders took the stage to talk about how far he had been behind in that state last summer. After a smashing win in New Hampshire, Sanders took the stage to assay the same theme. And he did so a third time in Las Vegas Saturday night.
“We have come a very long way in nine months. It is clear to me, and I think most observers, that the wind is on — at our backs,” Sanders said. “We have the momentum. And I believe — I believe that when Democrats assemble in Philadelphia in July, at that convention, we are going to see the results of one of the great political upsets in the history of the United States.”
Cynics may ask how long Sanders can make a mantra of comparing his vote totals to his awful poll numbers from last year. But his message about rising inequality still has much of its magic, and it has greater force when one notes Sanders reported raising $21 million in the most recent filing period. Clinton managed only $15 million in the same period.
On Saturday, Sanders reprised his eye-popping performance among millennials, who again gave him more than 80 percent of their votes. But the younger voters were outpolled in Nevada by those over 45. The middle-aged and older voters preferred Clinton, especially those over 65.
Clinton also tallied nearly 60 percent among those who identified as Democrats. Sanders won the voters who said they were independents or Republicans. That distinction could begin to pinch in states that only let the Democrats vote in the Democratic primary.
Rubio, Cruz In Dead Heat
Much like Sanders, Rubio has been turning a mixed bag of results into a victory speech on a weekly basis. Saturday night was no exception, as he finished second (or tied for second with Cruz). Falling 10 points behind the winner put no damper on Rubio’s post-action summation.
“After tonight this has become a three-person race, and we will win the nomination!” said Rubio, taking the stage with his wife and children and his brace of backers, Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley.
Cruz was the last of the major candidates to speak. He came to the stage with a posse of conservative members of Congress and religious leaders, as well as his wife and two daughters.
“Friends, once again, we have made history,” Cruz said. “You, the good people of South Carolina and our incredible volunteers all over the country, continue to defy the pundits and to produce extraordinary results.”
Candidates Out Of Money
Three candidates wound up with little to show for the immense investment in South Carolina. One, John Kasich, echoed Rubio saying the contest was now a three-person race. But in Kasich’s formulation, there was still room for four — including himself.
Kasich will probably campaign through March 15, when his home state of Ohio votes. He can also claim now to be the last survivor of a half-dozen current or former governors who were part of the original field.
Also on the ropes but vowing to carry on was Dr. Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon who emerged from early debates as a fascinating first-time candidate and political neophyte. His poll numbers dwindled after the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris refocused the campaign issue mix.
That left the man who had begun the process last summer with the biggest war chest and the fullest resume of government service, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Scion of the nation’s leading Republican dynasty, Bush seemed to need only to acquiesce and watch him stroll to the nomination. He easily outraised all other candidates in 2015.
But Bush descended in the polls after a series of lackluster showings in the televised candidate debates. By the time the voting came in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Bush was off the A-list.
“I respect their decisions, and tonight I am suspending my campaign,” said Jeb, the man some once thought the premier political talent in his famous family.
The last time the Republican Party won the White House without someone named Bush on their ticket was 1972. This year, it appears they will get to try again.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Next week, Sanders can expect to take a beating in South Carolina, where Clinton remains in the driver’s seat. She benefits there from the predominance of the African-American vote, which she won 3-1 in Nevada. That should set up a Super Tuesday in which Clinton rides a steady dominance among black voters to win in the South. Sanders will be better positioned in Minnesota, Massachusetts and his own home state of Vermont.
After commanding performances in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Trump can expect to dominate the rather small-scale GOP caucus in Nevada next week and sweep his earnings into the 12-state extravaganza on March 1 that’s called Super Tuesday. It’s difficult to see how either Cruz or Rubio can overtake him so long as they’re locked in a mutual chokehold.
Rubio can of course claim now to be the establishment candidate of choice. His last rival for this lane, John Kasich, will not likely be viable in the Southern states on Super Tuesday, but he should compete in the four or five primaries outside the region. But even if Kasich were to drop, would Rubio inherit Bush’s entire vote? Perhaps, and the Florida connection helps. But Rubio has made no friends in the Bush clan during this contest and his rather condescending salute to his former mentor on Saturday night may not be enough to heal that wound.
Cruz, for his part, is still the top choice for those who tell exit pollsters they are “very conservative.” But as he mines this rich vein, he finds himself sharing it with Trump, who ran strong among both the “very conservative” and the self-described “born again Evangelical” voters in South Carolina.
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