Donald Trump’s dominating victory in the Nevada caucuses pushes him further out ahead of his nearest competitors for the Republican presidential nomination, giving his unorthodox candidacy a major boost heading into Super Tuesday contests next week.
The real estate mogul and political newcomer now has won in the Northeast, the South and the West by riding a wave of anger at the Washington establishment among voters who’ve felt left out of the political process.
Trump’s support in Nevada and elsewhere has come from a broad swath of demographic groups that also sets him up well to capture the nomination in the contests ahead -- the rich and poor, college educated and less educated, and in Nevada, Latino voters as well. In his victory speech, he said he’s in position to put the race away.
“It’s going to be an amazing two months," Trump said, referring to the nomination calendar. "We might not even need the two months, folks, to be honest."
The Nevada results dealt a blow to Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who trailed far behind Trump in second and third, respectively, in Tuesday’s Nevada contest. Rubio was counting on picking up the supporters of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the race Saturday, to position himself as Trump’s top challenger. But there was little evidence of Republicans coalescing behind Rubio, as Trump beat him nearly two-to-one.
Cruz, the only candidate to best Trump so far, entered the race as the standard-bearer of conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians, but those groups have not rallied to his campaign since his win in Iowa. In addition, Cruz has spent recent days battling charges from both Trump and Rubio that he’s running a dirty campaign. His third place finish in Nevada after a third place finish in South Carolina is sure to raise questions about the viability of his campaign.
Cruz congratulated Trump on his victory and said Super Tuesday, which includes his home state of Texas, will be the “most important night” in the nomination race.
“History teaches us that nobody has ever won the nomination without winning one of the first three primaries, and there are only two people who have won one of the first three primaries," Cruz said, referring to his Iowa win. “The only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump, and the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump is this campaign.”
The win makes Trump the victor in three of the four states that have voted on the Republican side. The big prize for the candidates will be delivered on March 1, known as Super Tuesday, the first multi-state day in the race and one that demands more money and campaign infrastructure. It’s like a mini-national campaign, where coffee-shop campaigning gives way to the kind of state and national media coverage where Trump has thrived.
"This is what every presidential campaign dreams about: big wins in early states and all the momentum on your side as you swing into Super Tuesday," said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 Republican presidential campaign. "There’s still an opportunity for Rubio to bring together elements of the electorate that are anti-Trump or open to an alternative, but every day from here on out is another day where that opening gets smaller."
With all of Nevada precincts reporting, Trump had 45.9 percent of the vote. Rubio narrowly held on to second place with 23.9 percent followed by Cruz with 21.4 percent. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Governor John Kasich, who were less aggressive in the state, were at 4.8 percent and 3.6 percent.
When CNN projected Trump the winner, a crowd of more than 1,000 supporters awaiting the candidate at Treasure Island Casino erupted into applause and chanted, "Trump! Trump! Trump!"
Voters in Nevada were angrier and older than in the prior primaries or caucuses, according to entrance polling reported by NBC News. They were also more likely to want an outsider in the White House and nearly six in 10 said they are angry at the federal government, significantly higher than in Iowa (42 percent), New Hampshire (39 percent) and South Carolina (40 percent).
The polling also found that six in 10 caucus-goers want the next president to be from outside the political establishment, compared to just 33 percent who prefer someone with political experience. Voters were more evenly divided on that question in the three earlier states.
While just 9 percent of the electorate was Hispanic, entrance polling posted by CNN showed that Trump won 44 percent of that group, followed by 29 percent for Rubio and 18 percent for Cruz.
“We won the evangelicals. We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated -- I love the poorly educated,” he said. “This is an amazing night.”
While turnout was heavy, Nevada Republican Party officials downplayed reports of disarray at caucus locations. There were reports that some volunteers were wearing candidate-themed clothing, but the party said that wasn’t prohibited.
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told reporters Tuesday night at the Community College of Southern Nevada, where Trump appeared at a caucus site, that the location was "out of ballots" and he’d heard efforts were being made to print more. He attributed the shortage to the "massive crowds," saying that "this is one of the busiest polling places in the state."
As the Republican field has narrowed, Trump is more frequently targeting his two closest rivals. That trend continued during the final days of campaigning before Nevada’s caucuses.
Trump’s aggressiveness toward Cruz follows the Texas senator’s third-place showing in South Carolina’s primary on Saturday, which has raised questions about his ability to sustain the nomination race.
Evangelical Christians, a group that coalesced around him in Iowa, accounted for almost three-quarters of the vote in South Carolina. Even with that favorable environment for Cruz, Trump beat him by more than 10 percentage points.
On Monday, Cruz confronted a major distraction when he fired his campaign communications director, who had spread a video on social media that misrepresented something Rubio had said about the Bible.
Republicans will gather on Thursday in Houston for their 10th debate -- the first since Bush suspended his campaign after a poor showing in Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
Especially since Bush’s exit, Rubio has tried to portray himself as the most viable mainstream conservative to beat Trump and win a general election. He could use wins to appeal to donors because he’s more in danger of running out of money than Cruz.
Rubio, focused on future primaries, left Nevada after a Tuesday morning rally at a casino in Las Vegas and later addressed supporters in Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, Michigan. In both cities, the Florida senator pitched himself as a new type of Republican who would grow the party’s base and defeat either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in November.
"The Democrats know this," he told the crowd of more than 2,000 people gathered in a Michigan warehouse. "That’s why they’re attacking me more than anyone on that stage."
In Nevada, Trump benefited from a high profile both nationally and in Las Vegas, where he owns property and has employees.
In a state where 21 percent of the population is of Mexican ancestry, Trump sought to tap into resentment among white Republicans by repeatedly promising to build a wall along the Mexican border.
The Nevada win is more symbolic than substantial. The state awards delegates proportionally, based on the caucus vote, with a total of 30 in play. It takes 1,237 delegates to win the nomination.
The war of words between Trump and Cruz intensified in Nevada in the days before the caucuses.
Cruz alleged that Trump backs continued federal ownership of 85 percent of Nevada’s land, prompting Trump to call him a liar, a "nasty guy" and a "little baby."
Hubert Llewellyn, 53, who attended both Cruz and Trump events Tuesday, said he was turned off by the crossfire and would caucus for Rubio.
“Ronald Reagan’s commandment was not to turn against fellow Republicans, to run a fair and concise campaign,” he said.
With reporting by Sahil Kapur, James Nash and Terrance Dopp
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