Texas Sen. Ted Cruz campaigns Feb. 21 in Pahrump, Nev. (Photo: John Locher/AP)
LAS VEGAS — Donald Trump has led the GOP field in every single poll taken in Nevada since he entered the race last June, often by as many as 20 percentage points. And after his resounding victory in South Carolina, the tinsel-haired mogul is the heavy favorite to win yet again when Nevada Republicans come out to caucus on Tuesday.
But as recent back-to-back visits to the neighboring Las Vegas headquarters of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz made clear, neither campaign seems particularly concerned about Trump — or any of the other Republican candidates — in the final days of the Silver State contest. They’re far more focused on each other.
That’s because both camps believe that with Trump coasting on his celebrity as usual, they can reshape the results and beat expectations on caucus night by quietly and methodically mastering the unglamorous work of getting out the vote. Their thinking is that in a state where the polling is particularly unreliable, the process is particularly chaotic, and the turnout is particularly low, the ground game could have a bigger effect than anywhere else.
“Oh, you have to see this,” a gray-haired Rubio volunteer with a thick Southern accent told Yahoo News, gesturing toward her laptop. On the screen was a picture of Cruz’s louche, smirking face superimposed on the body of a naked man lounging in a rubber-duck-filled bathtub — a cheeky response, posted online by a Rubio fan, to the Cruz campaign’s poorly Photoshopped image of Rubio shaking hands with President Obama.
“He has all his ducks in order!” the volunteer chirped. “Isn’t that hilarious?”
An hour later at Cruz HQ, which is tucked into a somewhat seedy strip mall a few doors down from a shop selling vaporizers and bongs, staffers could barely contain themselves when a reporter mentioned that he had just visited Rubio’s command post in the fancier office complex one block west on Tropicana Avenue.
“How many people were there?” snapped Matthew Bell, a field representative for Cruz. “As many as we have here?” Told that the number of Rubio volunteers, about a dozen, matched the number of Cruz volunteers, Bell looked deflated.
The mutual obsession makes perfect sense. Early on, Jeb Bush, who suspended his campaign Saturday after a distant fourth-place finish in South Carolina, built what was widely considered the best operation here; the consultant who was running his campaign, Ryan Erwin, led Mitt Romney to caucus victories in both 2008 and 2012. As Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, Rubio’s Nevada campaign chairman, told Yahoo News, “Technically, Bush did everything right.” And yet the latest polls, taken before Bush dropped out, showed him in last place locally, behind even Ben Carson and John Kasich.
Carson and Kasich remain in the race, but neither is poised to make much of an impact. Like Bush, Carson was on the ground early, but he has been losing steam for months, and his last-place showing in the Palmetto State won’t help. And Kasich isn’t even visiting Nevada between now and caucus day.
That leaves Cruz and Rubio. With Trump appearing to hold a sizable lead — and with the two young senators from Florida and Texas having just finished neck-and-neck in South Carolina — the battle for second place will likely be the marquee event Tuesday night.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, with his wife, Jeanette, waves to supporters after a campaign rally in Las Vegas in December. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Cruz and Rubio have been preparing for this moment for months. Caucuses are fairly new to Nevada — and confusing to voters; Republican turnout in 2012 was tiny: just 32,894 voters. (By comparison, 182,000 Republicans caucused earlier this month in Iowa.) Buoyed by his fellow Mormons, Mitt Romney managed to capture 50 percent of the vote four years ago — a huge win, but still only 16,486 votes. The campaigns cautiously expect a similar turnout this time; no one knows whether the number will go down without a Mormon in the race, or up because of increased interest among other Republicans. The bottom line, however, is that someone could come in second on Tuesday with fewer than 10,000 votes; the Rubio campaign, for one, says it has been preparing for a couple-hundred-vote race since the beginning.
“In Nevada, organization is key,” Jeremy Hughes, Rubio’s state director, told Yahoo News. “I wouldn’t say it’s sexy, but it’s the grind work you’ve got to do to win elections here.”
Rubio was up and running first, as early as a year ago, and his operation has been described as “the most organized and impressive … of the Republican field.” When Yahoo News shadowed the senator on a trip to Nevada in October, the key elements of his strategy — which is being shaped by Mike Slanker, the top political adviser for both Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada and the state’s junior senator, Dean Heller — were already in place. The Cruz campaign, meanwhile, has been playing catch-up.
At every speech, Rubio made sure to remind voters that he’d spent part of his childhood in Las Vegas. His parents moved from Miami in 1979 and stayed until Rubio, now 44, was in the eighth grade. His dad tended bar at an off-Strip casino called Sam’s Club; his mother worked at the Imperial Palace.
“Believe it or not, we still have more family in southern Nevada than in south Florida,” Rubio told one crowd. “So if I only win by 68 votes here, you’ll know why.”
When Rubio returns to Nevada Sunday night, he will continue to harp on his local connections. His cousin Mo Denis is a state senator, and his other cousins have accompanied him to various events.
“These other guys all come flying in, but only Marco knows what it’s like,” Slanker told Yahoo News. “He lived here.”
The second piece of the puzzle is turnout, and the Rubio campaign is counting on two demographic groups in particular to put him over the top on Tuesday.
“You have to remember who’s going to show up to caucus,” Slanker said. “There are going to be, like, seven people there. So you want to look to your most civic-minded people. Who is that in this state? It’s Mormons and seniors. It’s a powerful combination. If you can’t get those folks, you’re not going to win.”
Mormons made up a quarter of caucus-goers in 2012, even though they represent only 4 percent of the state’s total population; senior citizens vastly outnumbered younger voters. Rubio’s itinerary in October was revealing in this regard. By far his biggest event, with more than 1,000 attendees, was at Sun City Summerlin, the largest “active adult” community in the state. Everywhere the senator went, he was introduced by Lt. Gov. Hutchison — the state’s most prominent Mormon politician. (As a kid in Las Vegas, Rubio himself was briefly a member of the Mormon Church.) Later, Rubio made a point of visiting Boulder City, a Mormon enclave 20 miles outside Las Vegas, where he was accompanied and introduced by former Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, a man Slanker described as “the godfather of the Mormon Church in this state.” And when the senator returns to Nevada this week, he will be touring the Mormon-rich northern part of the state — Elko, Reno, Minden — with both Hutchison and Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is also Mormon.
“Other folks” — non-Mormons and non-seniors — “can’t figure it out,” Slanker explained. “The caucus will come and go, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh! I could have voted? Can I still vote?’”
Rubio poses with a supporter after a campaign stop in October in Las Vegas (Photo: John Locher/AP)
Not that the Rubio campaign is dismissing the rest of the electorate. It has people working in each of Nevada’s 17 counties; at five campaign offices scattered throughout the state, dozens of volunteers have been calling registered Republicans and trying to identify potential supporters. The important thing, as Hughes put it, is “finding your voters and making sure they know where to go.” Before Rubio speaks, Hughes’ team puts a supporter commitment card and a printout explaining the caucus process on every seat; the literature steers voters to caucus.marcorubio.com, which then allows them to look up their caucus sites while providing the campaign with crucial data.
“It’s a dedicated website that tells people where to go caucus,” Hughes said. “And because we know that John Smith has found his voting location, we don’t have to waste a call on him. Meanwhile, Suzie over here hasn’t looked up her location yet — so we know we have to get in touch with her.”
“By the time this is over, we will have met every caucus-goer and taught them how to caucus,” Slanker added.
As the South Carolina campaign wound down, Rubio’s Las Vegas HQ was buzzing. Junk food — the sustenance of pretty much every political operation — was everywhere: Krispy Kreme boxes, jars of Skippy, bottles of Pepsi, Jack Link’s beef and cheese packages. Maps of precincts and framed photos of “top volunteers” lined the walls; a massive navy blue “Nevada Is Marco Rubio Country” sign hung nearby. Hutchison stood in the middle of the room recording a quick Web video — “Just wanted to remind everyone to get out and vote on Feb. 23!” — while volunteers on either side of him hunched over their laptops, running down a 412-page list of uncommitted voters and making calls. A spreadsheet pinned to the wall hinted at just how organized Rubio is: each local caucus site, from Arbor View High School to Western High School, with columns for captain, surrogate, rally coordinator and estimated turnout — 885 here, 717 there. It was a campaign in full swing.
“This team has won statewide before,” Hutchison. “We’re doing the same thing with Rubio. We know how to win.”
A woman embraces Cruz during a campaign stop last December in Las Vegas (Photo: John Locher/AP)
Around the corner at Cruz’s slightly more Spartan headquarters, the scene was similar. Similar maps, similar signs — if far fewer snacks. On a whiteboard, somebody had scrawled “Call record 3,263”: the most calls this particular office had made so far in a single day. Meanwhile, volunteers dialed donors and read from a script designed to convert them into “neighborhood leaders.”
“Today, Ted’s volunteers are in full force building our ground game in Nevada,” they said into their cellphones. “And the most important part of our ground game is establishing local contacts in individual precincts so that every voter has the opportunity to hear Ted’s message.”
Two weeks earlier, just one person had been manning the phones in what was then a bare-bones office; back in October, Rubio’s organization had dwarfed Cruz’s. But with the caucuses approaching, Cruz has ramped up operations in Nevada, bringing in ground staff from Iowa and holding multiple caucus- organizing sessions every day in Las Vegas — sessions that have attracted as many as 50 volunteers, many of whom are first-time voters, according to the campaign. Meanwhile, a Cruz aide told Yahoo News that phone banks across the state have made “hundreds of thousands of phone calls” in recent weeks as part of the campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort.
“We’re hitting our targets,” said Matthew Bell, the Cruz field representative. This isn’t surprising; Cruz had by far the most sophisticated caucus operation in Iowa, and his Nevada team is drawing on that expertise to ensure that their voters turn out on Tuesday.
Aides declined to provide specific numbers, but they said that Cruz has a mix of volunteer and paid staff in all 17 of Nevada’s counties. And while Cruz is also targeting Mormons, his biggest advantage over Rubio may be his laserlike focus on the more rural parts of the Silver State, where voters tend to be heavily conservative and more committed to caucusing.
In January, Cruz scored the endorsement of state Attorney General Adam Laxalt. The grandson of a former governor, Laxalt won in 2014 by running against the establishment; he was also the first statewide official in a century to get elected without carrying Las Vegas or Reno. In recent weeks, Laxalt has been back on the trail, stumping for Cruz in the far-flung towns that carried him to victory two years ago—Winnemucca, Yerington, Elko, Ely.
“We’re like that Johnny Cash song,” Ryan Hamilton, a Nevada political strategist who joined Cruz’s campaign last fall. “We’re going everywhere, to every town we can, to find support.”
Supporters listen to Cruz speak at a campaign rally Feb. 21 in Pahrump, Nev. (Photo: John Locher/AP)
On Sunday, Laxalt joined Cruz in Pahrump — a libertarian outpost in the middle of one of the largest and least populous counties in the United States — for the candidate’s first caucus-week campaign stop. Men wore pistols on their hips; signs for the Chicken Ranch Brothel lined the road. In his speech, Cruz pivoted from the evangelical emphasis of his South Carolina campaign and channeled his inner Rand Paul instead, criticizing the Obama administration for eavesdropping on American citizens and promising to give the “85 percent” of Nevada land owned by the federal government “back to the state, back to the people.”
“I’m thrilled to be surrounded by lovers of liberty,” Cruz said from the bed of a black pickup truck. “If every one of you gets 10 people to show up Tuesday night, the men and women standing in this parking lot can change the outcome of the Nevada caucuses.”
As usual, Cruz is also reaching out to evangelicals; his father, Rafael, preached at a church in Las Vegas last year. But for the most part, the campaign is hoping that anti-establishment conservatives — voters who are still angry about a billion-dollar tax hike approved two years ago by the GOP-led state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Sandoval — will turn out Tuesday in record numbers and propel Cruz past Rubio, and perhaps even Trump.
“We think our message plays well with these disenfranchised Republicans,” Hamilton said. “They’ve voted for candidates who talked the talk during campaign season — but haven’t walked the walk in their governing.”