Donald Trump is poised to win his third consecutive Republican presidential nominating contest Tuesday when Nevada holds its caucuses, polls show, but low participation and an electoral system that rewards political insiders could diminish the magnitude of the outsider candidate’s victory.
On Tuesday morning, Florida Senator Marco Rubio rallied voters at a Las Vegas casino where his attacks on rival Ted Cruz’s trustworthiness seemed to be hitting home, at least with some voters. Cruz on Monday announced he’d asked communications director Rick Tyler to resign after Tyler promoted an inaccurate story that said Rubio had disparaged the Bible.
Candace Fleeman, a 59-year-old retired floral designer from Pahrump, said it was an “understatement” to say Cruz’s tactics were “kind of” unfair to Rubio. She and her husband Bernie, a retired California police officer, attended Rubio’s rally and said they plan to caucus for him largely because they didn’t trust Cruz.
At a rally in Las Vegas on Monday night, Trump admonished the crowd of 7,500 to do more than cheer. “The most important thing people can do is—I’m not going to use the word caucus—just vote,” Trump implored his fans. “Vote!”
The billionaire real-estate developer prevailed in primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina after losing the Iowa caucus to Cruz, the Texas senator who had built a superior organization in the midwestern state with a strong evangelical presence. In Nevada, where Cruz has had less time to prepare and where just 20 percent of adults identify as evangelical Protestants, compared with 28 percent in Iowa, Cruz faces longer odds, said Eric Herzik, a registered Republican who teaches political science at the University of Nevada at Reno.
Rubio is counting on mainstream Republicans, including supporters of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who exited the race Feb. 20, but they may not be enough to propel him to victory in the Silver State. Trump was backed by 39 percent of likely Republican voters in a Gravis poll conducted in mid-February, followed by Cruz with 23 percent and Rubio with 19 percent.
“Cruz has really been working the grassroots conservative Republicans, which might hurt Rubio, but I’d be shocked if he’s able to win here,” Herzik said. “The evangelical vote here is nowhere near what he found in Iowa. We’re a state built on gambling. The bars never close. Our biggest city is nicknamed Sin City.”
Cruz has introduced a new, libertarian-themed argument in Nevada, saying the federal government should relinquish ownership of land. Speaking in front of a banner that read, “Return our land,” Cruz has been telling audiences that the government owns 85 percent of the land in Nevada and that if he’s elected, “That is going to end.”
Trump has emphasized his opposition to illegal immigration in a state with an Hispanic population of about 28 percent. His only television ad in Nevada features the story of a 17-year-old California football player who was killed by an undocumented immigrant who had been released from prison.
Rubio, meanwhile, picked up endorsements Monday from two of the state’s lawmakers, U.S. Senator Dean Heller and U.S. Representative Mark Amodei, both of whom had backed Bush. Rubio’s focus for much of the day was on his current rivals.
“There’s a significant resistance to Donald Trump in the Republican Party,” Rubio told reporters aboard his campaign jet after a day of crisscrossing Nevada, before firing a shot at Cruz. “There are a lot of people who come up to me and say they’re still trying to decide between me and Ted. We need to continue to win more of those battles.”
The remaining Republican candidates aren’t making a serious play for Nevada. Ohio Governor John Kasich campaigned in Virginia on Monday in advance of the state’s March 1 primary. Dr. Ben Carson held an event in Nevada on Monday but hasn’t advertised in the state or built a turnout operation.
Like Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, Nevada’s are restricted to party members and—in Nevada’s case—people who registered to vote no later than Feb. 13. About 33,000 people, or 8 percent of registered Republicans, took part in Nevada’s 2012 caucus, for which delays in counting ballots meant results weren’t announced until 34 hours after the final votes were cast. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won the Nevada caucus with more than twice as many votes as his nearest rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Romney, like about a quarter of the Nevada Republicans who caucused, is Mormon.
County Republican officials, who are in charge of ballot counting, are expecting a larger turnout this year and a closer outcome. In Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and about 73 percent of the Nevada population, volunteers at the 36 caucus sites will count ballots, write the totals on sealed envelopes and text photos of the results to the state party headquarters, said Ed Williams, the county Republican chairman. The system should avoid the delays experienced in 2012, he said.
“We’re expecting 50,000 here in Clark County alone,” Williams said. “We’re prepared to go beyond that.”
The county party has been receiving two to four phone calls per minute Monday asking how to caucus, Williams said, with interest driven by the competitiveness of the race, the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, and a general hunger to defeat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Almost 84,000 votes were cast in Nevada’s Democratic caucuses on Saturday, in which Clinton defeated Senator Bernie Sanders.
The outcome of the Republican caucuses will rest largely on candidates’ get-out-the-vote operations, said Michael Bowers, who teaches political science at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
“Turnout should be reasonably high, by our own low historical standards, in that, unlike the Democratic caucuses, one can simply show up, mark a ballot, and leave,” he said. “That is, they will not be required to spend hours in the process.”
Even so, polls likely overstate Trump’s support compared to caucus participants, said Brett Jackson, a Cruz supporter and active Republican in North Las Vegas.
“Iowa showed us that the Trump campaign doesn’t have a very good ground game,” Jackson said in an interview after a Cruz rally in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson. “He’s counting on a lot of new voters, and the caucus system doesn’t have a lot of new voters.”
Trump acknowledged Monday the whispers that he could face a narrower victory than expected in another caucus vote. “A lot of strange things happen here, and the caucus system is dangerous, to use a very nice word,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview. “But we’ll see what happens. We should do pretty well tomorrow.”
Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, and Nevada state director Charles Munoz did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment.
SOURCE: James Nash
—With assistance from Terrence Dopp and Ben Brody.