The Nevada caucuses on the Republican side were a five-card game, and The Donald once again drew the ace.
The other “face cards” were Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, with Rubio once again edging his fellow senator by a narrow margin.
But it scarcely mattered. Their shares combined fell shy of Donald Trump’s 46 percent. And no one else had so much as a nickel’s worth.
This is the part of the casino movie where you see a guy at a big table, winning hand after hand, stacking up chips in piles and towers. This is where the dealer whispers to his floor boss, who comes back with the big boss, who stands watching and smoking in the shadows.
His face seems to ask: Who is this guy? And what are we going to do about him?
With his most dominating victory yet in the 2016 nomination contest, Trump established himself as the overwhelming favorite for Super Tuesday, the single biggest voting day of the whole primary season and now less than a week away.
Southern states dominate the March 1 lineup, and Trump has polled well in the South since beginning his campaign last summer. After rolling up big margins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, Trump will probably have a lead in all the Super Tuesday states except Cruz’s home state of Texas. And even the Lone Star may be in play.
Trump is, therefore, the most favored son of the Republican Party in a year when history favors the party’s chances of winning the White House. In January, Trump talked of “running the table,” a phrase borrowed from the billiards parlor. Setting aside the Iowa caucus on Feb. 1, he has done just that.
And there is no clear sign of where that run will end.
Nevada had looked good for Trump for several weeks, but there had been lingering doubts about his performance in a caucus. Iowa had a record turnout for its Republican caucuses this year, but it still only amounted to about a fifth of the state’s registered Republicans. In that circumstance, Trump slipped below his polling numbers and finished second behind Cruz.
Nevada is less populous than Iowa, and its early-caucus tradition is far less well-established. The state has been difficult to poll because the caucus draws such a small slice of the electorate and because those who do attend often decide quite late.
This week’s GOP caucus drew about 75,000 Nevadans, which was almost as many as came in 2008 and 2012 combined. But it was still only about 15 percent of the Silver State’s registered Republicans. So it was that concentrated core that was supposed to give Cruz or someone else a shot.
Yet, in this state, Trump carried all before him.
Perhaps most intriguing was his mastery of the various categories of voters. He won among men and women by almost identical margins, among whites and nonwhites, in all age categories over 30, in all income categories and at all levels of education. His strongest group was older white men with less than a high school education. “We won with the highly educated; we won with the poorly educated. I love the poorly educated,” Trump said at this victory rally.
In Iowa, Cruz had won among those identifying as “very conservative” or as “born again” evangelical Christians. Cruz still won these groups in New Hampshire.
But that began to change in South Carolina, where these voters divided their loyalty. And it changed again in Nevada, where they went for Trump.
The four voting events in February were expected to winnow the field, and so they have. Starting with an array of 17 candidates in the fall, the GOP was down to a dozen when Iowa held its caucuses on the first of the month. Now it is, in effect, down to three. The last two also-rans, John Kasich and Dr. Ben Carson, must now awake to daily calls for them to drop out. (Both may continue to resist these calls, of course, about which more in a moment.)
What Happens Now?
The Republican candidates will debate in Houston on Thursday night, and the Cruz candidacy may be on the line. Cruz cannot afford to lose Texas. He can no longer wait for someone else or something else to take Trump down a peg. It’s not enough to battle Rubio for second place. In his home state, Cruz needs to be No.1. So watch for him to train his guns on Trump more than ever before.
Rubio, meanwhile, may offer the last best hope of the anti-Trump Republicans. This is the role all Trump’s rivals have coveted for months (and which Cruz is still trying to contest). But it may be a mixed blessing. Endorsements are flooding in so fast that they threaten to swamp the Rubio campaign. This is not just a challenge to the people cranking out Rubio’s news releases; it is a challenge to his image and campaign narrative.
Many have forgotten that Rubio came to the Senate in 2010 as a beneficiary of the Tea Party wave. He is now “the establishment alternative.” That characterization is gaining currency by the day. And that has not been the place to be in 2016.
The debate has the potential to scramble the three-man scenario. We saw Rubio take a hit in New Hampshire on Feb. 6, and we saw him bounce back a week later in the most pugilistic debate yet. This Thursday his mettle will be tested again, and this time the absence of Jeb Bush will change the dynamics and put more pressure on Rubio.
But after the debate will follow a long weekend of ads and TV appearances, stretching the candidates’ ads across the nation. A dozen states are holding Republican events next Tuesday. Most of them are Southern: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Also voting are Alaska and Wyoming, each as reliably red as the Deep South.
The Super Tuesday outliers are Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont, three of the bluest of the blue. But this is not November, and the Republicans who turn out in March in these states tend to be the most conservative voters in these states. In any event, in this particular March, the polls in these three states show something very much like the polls nationally.
That means, at this point at least, it’s Trump.
On March 5, four more small-to-midsize states weigh in: Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maine. Right now it is hard to see how Trump’s mojo fails in these four.
The Ones Lagging Behind
If still in the hunt, John Kasich gets a glimmer of opportunity in Michigan (59 delegates) on March 8. But whoever wins Super Tuesday is likely to dominate that same day in Mississippi, Idaho and possibly Hawaii too.
Carson, who broke out briefly in October but has since faded on the debate stage and in the polls and vote counts, has said he wants to soldier on. He may stay as long as the debates continue, as an opportunity to restore some of his luster and position himself for prospective public roles in the future.
On March 15, we get the first winner-take-all events, in Florida and Ohio. Needless to say, these pose do-or-die challenges to Rubio and Kasich. If either loses his home state to Trump, that loser would appear to be finished as a contestant for the nomination.
At this point, we should pause to say, either one would make a highly desirable running mate. Either could carry a crucial state into the Republican column as the vice presidential nominee (although this is never guaranteed). And both would make valuable counterweights to the Trump persona.
Down the road there are more primaries that are winner-take-all, but they have smaller delegate payouts. There are also several important states with hybrid systems, proportional among the candidates who reach a certain threshold but also highly rewarding to the top finisher.
If a last lone alternative to Trump should emerge from the hurly-burly of March and April, that candidate might benefit from a generalized sense of buyer’s remorse by May and June. This might express itself in the late primaries in New Jersey and the Far West (anchored by California’s 172 delegates). If Trump were somehow still below the 1,237 delegates needed for a first-ballot win, the convention in Cleveland in July could determine the nominee.