The seemingly unstoppable train that is Donald Trump rolled on in Nevada on Tuesday, as the outspoken billionaire dominated the caucuses to win his third Republican victory in a row. The Republican nomination for president is now clearly his to lose.
Despite reports of disorganization and chaotic balloting, the networks called the state for Trump as soon as the caucuses officially ended at midnight Eastern time. He pulled in 45.9 percent of the vote, outpacing Senator Marco Rubio’s 23.9 percent and Ted Cruz’s 21.4 percent. Ben Carson polled 4.8 percent support, and Governor John Kasich of Ohio lagged far behind at 3.6 percent.
Following similarly dominant wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the Nevada victory gives Trump a head of steam going into the dozen states that hold primaries and caucuses next week on Super Tuesday. Polls show Trump leading many of those races, and the only event standing in his way is a Republican debate on Thursday night in Texas.
Speaking to cheering supporters at his headquarters shortly before 1 a.m. Eastern, Trump quickly looked ahead to Super Tuesday and began to lay his claim to the nomination. “It’s going to be an amazing two months,” he said. “We might not even need the two months, to be honest.”
Only 30 delegates were at stake on Tuesday, and given the quirky nature of the Nevada caucuses, the results were unlikely to change the trajectory of the GOP race. Officially, the Nevada GOP said the caucuses went off smoothly, but Twitter was filled with reports of disorganization, precincts running out of ballots, and the questionable (although not apparently illegal) sight of poll workers wearing Trump hats and T-shirts. Nonetheless, the outcome was a nightmare for establishment Republicans hoping to stop The Donald: Entrance polls showed Trump winning across the board, and improbably, even among Hispanics. He might not pick up a ton of delegates from the Silver State, but winning begets winning, and the results propel Trump into a national election where his celebrity and strategy of dominating free media—as opposed to door-knocking and retail campaigning—should be even more valuable.
Perhaps more importantly, Trump’s victory at least temporarily stalls the momentum for Marco Rubio, who has now gone four states without a victory. Rubio had the deepest roots in Nevada of any GOP candidate, having lived with his family in Las Vegas for several years as a child. He won a slew of endorsements after his strong finish in South Carolina and the withdrawal of Jeb Bush, yet he wasn’t able to come close to Trump on Tuesday night. Both the Kasich and Cruz campaigns seized on the results as a disappointment for the Florida senator, trying to grasp any foothold for their campaigns. Kasich is looking for victories in the Midwest to sustain his bid, while Cruz desperately needs to win Texas and other Southern states to remain viable.
But Tuesday night in Nevada belonged, once again, to Trump.
Standing on stage in Nevada, Donald Trump declared victory nearly an hour after midnight on Wednesday. "We're winning, winning, winning, the country," the real estate mogul declared, "and soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning." For all his jubilation over the results of the evening, the Republican frontrunner was already looking ahead and (very) confidently predicting future success.
Trump rattled off a list of states where he appears have high hopes he'll win. "We've had some great numbers coming out of Texas, and amazing numbers coming out of Tennessee, and Georgia, and Arkansas," Trump said as the room filled with cheers. He didn't miss an opportunity to knock his rival John Kasich, noting that his campaign is "going to do very well in Ohio. We're beating the governor. That's good. It's always nice to be beating the governor."
Trump took his moment in the spotlight to brag not just about his win in Nevada, but the scope of it, cheering his success in amassing a broad base of support. “It looks like we won by a lot evangelicals, I love the evangelicals," Trump said, adding that he also loves "the poorly educated." He also made sure to note that the results showed him "number one with Hispanics," something he is "really happy about." Before departing, Trump reminded the crowd of what he'll do as president, ticking off a litany of promises. "As you know, Gitmo, we're keeping that open and we're going to load that up with bad dudes," Trump said, before reiterating his oft-repeated promise to seal off America's southern border with a massive wall. "We're going to have our borders nice and strong, we're going to build the wall you know that." The crowd went wild.
And as the clock strikes midnight, NBC has also begun to release its exit polls. Preliminary results show Trump sweeping nearly every demographic, but he showed weakness among evangelicals and voters who value experience.
One category where he blew the competition away? The voters who said they wanted a candidate who can “tells it like it is,” a classification made for Trump, and one in which he charmed 82 percent of respondents.
There’s also some salve for Rubio here. NBC’s results show he got considerable support from voters who listed picking a candidate who “can win in November” as their No. 1 priority, beating Trump by 20 points in that category.
We’re all sitting around and waiting for the results to trickle in from Nevada. (Journalists: We’re just like you!) So what’s taking so long? ABC News’ Charli James offers this glimpse into the state-of-the-art tallying process now underway at one Nevada precinct:
We may not find out the results of the Nevada GOP caucuses for a while, but some candidates are already sounding the alarm over the possibility of foul play. In the process, they're laying the groundwork to assign blame elsewhere if they have a poor showing in the state. Earlier in the night, Donald Trump warned supporters not to fall prey to efforts by the Ted Cruz campaign to mislead. "Make sure you get on the Trump line and are not mislead by the Cruz people," Trump tweeted, "They are bad! BE CAREFUL." Trump's following a familiar playbook, having accused Cruz of stealing votes in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month.
He's not the only Republican candidate casting a critical eye at Cruz this time around. Ahead of the Nevada caucuses, Marco Rubio told Fox News his campaign is "concerned" after having seen efforts to "mislead voters" in past contests. "I just want to make sure no one goes to vote tonight and is told that somehow I've dropped out of the race or some of these other silly things that have happened here over the last few weeks," Rubio said, lobbing a shot at the Cruz campaign, which has faced criticism for inaccurately suggesting that Ben Carson was exiting the race during the Iowa caucuses.
Here’s an odd little detail noticed by Jon Ralston—the ballots in Clark County include an unusual credit line:
The printing was apparently donated by the campaign of State Assemblwoman Michele Fiore, the conservative firebrand who’s running for Congress in Nevada’s third congressional district. Fiore, as it happens, is on Ted Cruz’s state leadership team.
Adding to that, entrance polls also found that Nevada Republicans want an outsider to be elected president at a higher rate than any of the other earlier contests.
It’s been a common theme throughout the race, even as it’s shifted. At the start of the race, such a desire fueled the rise of Donald Trump and, for a moment, Ben Carson. How that plays out in the results will be interesting to watch. My guess: It won’t do much to help Carson.
Twitter is exploding with reports of problems at caucus sites — ballot shortages, IDs not getting checked, spotty list-keeping. CNN tracked down Rubio strategist Jeremy Hughes, who said he’s voiced concerns about caucus conditions to Nevada Republican Party leadership. "Trying to to catch all the fraud that's going on here would like trying to plug all the holes in the Titanic," he told CNN. "You fix one and another one bursts.”
But a Republican National Committee official downplayed the extent of the problems:
GOP official on caucus insanity, reports of double voting. pic.twitter.com/CY6ACvLssM— Jon Ralston (@RalstonReports) February 24, 2016
Sheldon Adelson, here to caucus at Bonanza High. pic.twitter.com/TVkc3FD61o— Reid J. Epstein (@reidepstein) February 24, 2016
There’ve been lots of outraged reports of volunteers at the caucus sites wearing hats, shirts, or other campaign paraphernalia as they check in voters. At a state or federal election, that’d be a clear violation of the rules. But caucuses are party events, and they run by their own sets of rules. No manual I’ve been able to locate tonight—not the state party rules, not a 2012 caucus chair’s handbook—mentions such a prohibition. (If you’re reading, and know of a reliable source stating that campaign paraphernalia can’t be worn or displayed by volunteers, please let us know.)
But it’s possible this isn’t evidence of nefarious conduct at all—just one more indication of how high passions are running in Nevada tonight.
It’s hard, really, to imagine how a bunch of minimally trained volunteers might get slightly confused.
At a caucus site in my hometown of Reno, Nevada, Governor Brian Sandoval reportedly casts his vote for Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Despite this, Sandoval also told the reporter it wasn't an endorsement, perhaps because the popular governor's support might not resonate with a deep-red base alienated by his moderation and tax increases.
The Nevada GOP hasn't helped matters by being, as has been noted, generally disastrous. The state party was taken over by devotees of Ron Paul in 2012 and has never recovered. In 2012, the RNC set up a separate apparatus for the coordinated national campaign to work with so it could avoid the state party.
Nevada's state GOP took heat four years ago for what The Las Vegas Sun characterized as a caucus "marked by disorganization, bickering and bumbling at nearly every turn," and it took more than a day for the final results to be reported. This time around, the state party will be looking to redeem itself, though as Yoni mentioned, there are already reports of voting chaos at one Las Vegas location.
Back in 2012, caucus disorganization didn't really cast into doubt which candidate would take the state: Mitt Romney was expected to win, and win he did. But as the Sun reported at the time, it delayed the candidates finding out how many delegates they'd snagged, as delegates are allocated in proportion to votes won. If the craziness this year is more widespread than it appears to be so far, expect shouting from the candidates, even if Donald Trump, like Romney before him, has a win mostly tied up. Trump wouldn't like not knowing how much he won by at the end of the night, and the candidates vying for second would have even more to yell about.
There are scattered reports on social media of chaos at individual caucus sites. That’s not unusual for a process run mostly by volunteers, and might have been expected with record turnout and lots of first-time voters. But some of the reports indicate more than the usual level of confusion. Mashable’s Emily Cahn is at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas, and reports voters have told her that ballots were distributed without checking IDs, and that one claimed to have voted twice for Trump. It’s hard to verify these sorts of claims. But with the caucus underway, there seems to be a bigger problem, too:
Now an announcement that they ran out of ballots. They "weren't expecting a crowd this size." #Nevadacaucus— Emily Cahn (@CahnEmily) February 24, 2016
Whatever's going on tonight at Palo Verde H.S., these sorts of reports are likely to fuel doubts and recriminations in the days ahead on the part of losing campaigns.
This isn’t the first time the Silver State has taken center stage in a bitterly contested presidential race. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was facing an uphill climb toward reelection, battling the insurgent candidacy of John C. Fremont, which threatened to fragment the Republican electorate and deliver the White House to the Democrats.
The solution his backers hit upon? Mint some new states, and use their electoral votes to put the establishment Republican back in the Oval Office. Nevada was admitted to the Union on October 31, 1864—eight days before the election. But by then, Fremont had given up, concluding that it wasn’t worth endangering the republic.
If the GOP establishment is hoping a state created to beat back an insurgency will do the same this time, though—or that the insurgent will decide his patriotism requires his dropping out—it’s unlikely to find that history repeats itself.
These facts are secondary, of course, to the most important item in the state GOP’s caucus explainer: the right way to pronounce Nevada. “Say it with us: Ne-va-DUH! Not Ne-vaw-duh. Practice saying it out loud a few times and you’ll be just fine.”
Nevada is America’s most mobile state, with residents constantly arriving, departing, and moving around. With turnout tonight projected to double the 2012 showing, it’s safe to say that the majority of participants haven’t caucused in a while—or perhaps, have never caucused at all.
The Las Vegas Sun’s Ian Whitaker is at a caucus site in Clark County, where most of the state’s voters live. He tweeted this image of a guide to the caucuses being distributed by party workers, which offers a useful overview of the night’s proceedings:
The caucuses aren’t the only political story of the day, but the presidential race has started to pull other debates into its orbit.
In the Senate, Republicans vowed not to consider any Supreme Court nominees with the campaign underway—not to vote on their nominations, give them hearings, or even to meet with them. The two senators still in the race had joined with their rivals to oppose allowing President Obama to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Refusing even to grant hearings to a Supreme Court nominee is a novel development, but congressional Republicans have sought to block elements of Obama’s agenda they find most objectionable for both of his terms. Since he took office, Obama has tried to shutter the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Earlier Tuesday, he gave Congress his latest plan—stressing its closure as a move that is moral, useful to America’s standing in the world, and fiscally prudent. That last point has provided the basis for bipartisan cooperation on shuttering other prisons, but failed to produce the same result this time.
Donald Trump, among others, quickly dismissed the plan. "We are keeping it open,” he said while campaigning in Nevada on Tuesday, “And by the way, we're going to load it up with some bad dudes.” He insisted that his business savvy could lower the exorbitant cost of operating the facility. “I could do it for a tiny, tiny fraction ... maybe peanuts,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
If Obama was hoping that after seven years of frustration, Congress might prove amenable to making some deals, he was surely disappointed. The ever-expanding primary season seems to be swallowing the final items on his agenda.
A century ago, William Randolph Hearst used a fortune dug out of a Nevada hillside to remake the American political landscape. His newspapers took new communications technologies—linotype, telegraphy, telephony, halftone photoengraving—and used them to reach neglected working-class audiences, shattering taboos and conventions, and engaging them in the political process. Elites condemned him as vulgar and crude; he reveled in their scorn. He parlayed his celebrity and his reputation as a bold truth-teller into a political career. His positions challenged the two-party alignment of his day. In 1904, he even mounted a bid for the presidential nomination—only to be frozen out by party elites at the convention.
On Tuesday night, Donald Trump heads to Nevada, hoping to strike a motherlode of delegates. If he succeeds, he’ll owe much to Hearst—whose political and media revolution helped topple the system of nominating conventions, ushering in the contemporary process of primaries and caucuses that put nominating decisions directly in the hands of voters. Polls suggest that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, meanwhile, are battling for silver in Nevada—although polling in these caucuses is notoriously unreliable.
Interest in the race is running high. Jon Ralston reported on Tuesday that 37,000 had pre-registered for the caucuses, more than turned out in 2012, and that state party officials believed that as many as 75,000 might attend. The first caucus sites open at 5 p.m. local time, and the process is supposed to be done by 9 p.m., or midnight on the east coast of the United States.
As my colleague Russell Berman wrote earlier, several of the candidates bring strengths to the table in Nevada. Trump literally looms over the Las Vegas strip, his name emblazoned in giant gold letters atop the eponymous 64-story hotel. Rubio has seen Republican elected officials in Nevada, and elsewhere, flock to his side; he’s also played up his ties to the state, where his family lived for six years when he was a child. Cruz has focused on grassroots organization, particularly important in caucus states. John Kasich and Ben Carson, though, seem more likely to find dross than silver.
Going into Nevada, Trump has secured a third of the votes, but two-thirds of the available delegates. The Silver State’s allocation rules are more straightforward, splitting delegates proportionately. That gives the other contenders a chance to add delegates to their own tallies, as the race accelerates toward the SEC primaries next week.
You can follow every twist and turn of the race with our 2016 Distilled election dashboard, and find out more about the candidates by using our Cheat Sheet. And follow along with us tonight, as we liveblog the Nevada caucuses.