In a state where he was expected to show strength, Romney won big, but still saw his level of support decline from 2008.
A win is a win, and a big win is a big win, but Mitt Romney's crushing victory in Nevada's caucuses Saturday may be less than it appears.
The full results of the caucuses -- finally released by the comically incompetent state Republican Party nearly 48 hours after the voting -- showed Romney taking 50 percent of the less than 33,000 votes, a decline in both vote share and turnout from 2008.
Newt Gingrich took second place with 21 percent of the vote, an impressive feat considering his total disorganization in the state, while Ron Paul came in a disappointing third in a state where he was hoping to show strength. Paul had 19 percent of the vote and last-place Rick Santorum had 10 percent.
In 2008, Romney took 51 percent of 44,000 votes in the Nevada caucuses, which were held the same day as the South Carolina Republican primary and mostly ignored as a result, a footnote to the story of the Southern victory that would put John McCain on his unstoppable path to the nomination.
Romney lost just one of the state's 17 counties in 2008; on Saturday, he lost three (two to Paul, one to Gingrich).
This year, with more attention paid, Nevada was supposed to be the state that would give Romney a resounding victory and begin to seal his own unstoppable status. A 29-point victory is resounding enough, and this time, Romney had a bit more competition in the state. But the lower enthusiasm for his candidacy could be a bad sign for Romney, and for Republicans, in the general election.
The Nevada result was also a blow to the Paul campaign, which had talked a very big game about its prospects in Nevada. The Paul organization was convinced they would actually win the thing, and a second-place finish seemed within reach. Instead, Paul's 6,175 votes represented a gain of less than 100 supporters from the 6,084 votes he got in his 2008 second-place Nevada finish. The congressman's big win in the bizarre evening caucus Saturday night was small consolation.
Some things in Nevada never change, and the astounding ineptitude of the state's Republicans can now be put in that category. Most of the voting wrapped up Saturday by noon local time, but as the national media waited and waited for an official count late into the evening, none was forthcoming. It turned out the state's largest county, Clark, containing Las Vegas and more than half the Republican voters, was counting ballots by hand, with long breaks to argue about irregularities. The results were finally official at 2 a.m. local time Monday.
It was a scene reminiscent of 2008, when Ron Paul devotees assiduously studied party bylaws and took advantage of a weak and feckless party command to get themselves elected en masse as delegates to the state GOP convention.
Paul had been invited to speak at the late-April gathering in Reno, a gesture that party leaders hoped would placate his followers but ended up only attracting and exciting them. Romney had already dropped out, McCain was already the presumptive nominee, but the Paulites were not ready to give up.
At the state convention, the Paul supporters pushed through a rule change to allow them to nominate their own national convention delegates instead of voting only on the slate of party regulars proposed by the establishment. The establishment responded by freaking out and shutting down the convention -- turning out the lights, having security shove people out the doors of the hotel ballroom, and hiding the ballots from the delegate election in the hotel safe for weeks.
The Paulites took their case to the Republican National Committee, where a committee ruled in their favor and gave them representation in the national delegation.
Since then, the Nevada GOP has not become any more professional, effective or able to control its grassroots activists. (In 2010, after all, they nominated Sharron Angle to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.) The party chairwoman during the caucus, Amy Tarkanian, arranged to have her resignation effective as soon as the counting was done. She told Politico that in the face of county parties that wanted to do things their own way, she had thrown up her hands and let them.
This time around, however, the caucus vote is binding on the convention delegates, meaning no candidate can increase his delegate share through state-convention shenanigans. For the state's beleaguered Republicans, that, at least, must be a relief.
Image credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking
Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.