Trump clobbers Rubio and Cruz in Nevada, cementing his frontrunner status

Andrew Romano
·West Coast Correspondent

LAS VEGAS — In the months leading up to Tuesday’s caucuses here, both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio ran the kind of campaign you’re supposed to run if you want to win Nevada. They came. They saw. They organized. They even pandered (a little).

But they did not conquer.

As soon as caucus sites closed Tuesday night, the networks called the Silver State for tinsel-haired mogul Donald Trump. Trump went on to crush the competition with 45.9 percent of the vote to Rubio’s 23.1 percent and Cruz’s 21.4 percent — even though he never bothered to build much of a Nevada campaign at all.

“If you listen to the pundits, we weren’t expected to win too much; now we’re winning, winning, winning!” Trump said in his victory speech. He then listed the upcoming contests that he expected to win as well — among them Cruz and Rubio’s home states of Texas and Florida. “It’s going to be an amazing two months. We might not even need two months, folks, to be honest.”

Asked about Trump’s local get-out-the-vote operation, aides pointed to the Trump International Hotel, a 64-story tower wrapped in 24-karat-gold glass that looms over the Las Vegas Strip. Pressed for details about Trump’s voters, they noted that “a lot of people” work there.

“Mr. Trump has a giant building with his name on the top,” campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told Yahoo News. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets the applause at his caucus night rally in Las Vegas. (Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP)

Yet despite his lack of infrastructure, Trump triumphed for the third time in a row. At the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, supporters cheered the news of the billionaire’s big win. One tried to sneak a bucket of Bud Light bottles into the ballroom. Secret Service agents openly worried about people getting drunk and rowdy.

By confirming, yet again, that the star of “The Apprentice” doesn’t have to play by the same rules as his rivals, Nevada, the first three-man contest to date, has created a dynamic that may come to define the rest of the rapid-fire Republican primary season: Trump leads; Rubio picks up steam; Cruz holds on, keeping his opponents from clinching the nomination. (Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson remain in the race, but neither was competitive in Nevada.)

Or Trump could continue to clobber everyone.

Slideshow: The GOP battle for votes in Nevada >>>

Tuesday wasn’t the first time, of course, that Trump has defied the traditional laws of politics. But Nevada was supposed to be different. Almost no one participates in the caucuses, experts said. The polling is notoriously unreliable. The process is particularly chaotic. The ground game could have a bigger effect here than anywhere else.

To be sure, Trump led in every Nevada survey released this cycle. But the polls had also given him a substantial lead in the other early caucus state, Iowa, and he still stumbled there on the big day. Cruz out-organized Trump and finished first; Rubio out-messaged him and nearly finished second. If any contest seemed to offer up an even clearer opportunity to upset the “short-fingered” frontrunner, Nevada was it.

But no: Trump ran the table. Amid reports of a record turnout, Nevada entrance polls showed that the billionaire had defeated Cruz among evangelicals, who were supposed to be the Texan’s core supporters. He dominated in the urban south and the rural north. Late deciders broke for Rubio, but it wasn’t enough. Trump won very conservative voters, somewhat conservative voters and moderates. Six in 10 caucus-goers said they were looking for a non-establishment candidate, compared to half in previous contests. Most of them voted for Trump. His name recognition stood at a staggering 100 percent.

Rubio and Cruz didn’t come up short for lack of trying. The Floridian first started organizing in Nevada a year ago. He hired the team that steered Gov. Brian Sandoval and Sen. Dean Heller to victory. He courted the crucial Mormon vote, choosing as his campaign chairman Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, the most prominent Mormon politician in the state, and rolling out a steady stream of endorsements from other Church of Latter-day Saints bigwigs. (As a kid, Rubio was briefly a member of the Mormon Church.)

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GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, flanked by his sons Donald Jr., left, and Eric, right, greets supporters at his caucus night rally in Las Vegas after TV networks declared him the winner of Nevada’s Republican caucuses. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)

At every campaign stop, Rubio made sure to remind voters that his parents had moved to Las Vegas in 1979 and stayed until Rubio, now 44, was in the eighth grade. He never failed to note that his dad once tended bar at an off-Strip casino called Sam’s Club, while his mother, a maid, cleaned the Imperial Palace. And his staffers and volunteers worked tirelessly in all 17 of Nevada’s counties to identify supporters, educate them about the process, direct them to their caucus sites and persuade them to participate on Tuesday.

Rubio himself was in top form from the moment he arrived Sunday for his final pre-caucus push. His chief mainstream rival, Jeb Bush, had just dropped out after a dismal showing in South Carolina. Former Bush donors were beginning to write big checks. Endorsements were flooding in: Sens. Dean Heller, Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake; former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole; even longtime Democrat Donnie Wahlberg of the boy band New Kids on the Block.

Calculating that the sharper partisan rhetoric of New Hampshire and South Carolina wouldn’t play as well in Nevada — a diverse, laissez-faire state with a Latino governor who voted twice for Barack Obama — Rubio pivoted in his first appearance to a broader general-election message about uniting the GOP and “grow[ing] this movement,” and he continued to hammer away at it for 48 hours at a series of stops in Elko, Reno and Minden.

“We are going to take our principles, our message, to people who haven’t voted for us in a long time,” Rubio told a crowd of 1,500 at the Texas Station casino in North Las Vegas. “People who have come to believe that conservatives and Republicans don’t care about people like them. People who are struggling. People who are living paycheck to paycheck. We care deeply. I care deeply — because I grew up paycheck to paycheck.”

Rubio paused. “Someone asked me the other day: ‘Define paycheck to paycheck,’” he said. “Well, that’s when you write a check on Wednesday, but know you’re not getting paid ’til Friday, so you date it Saturday.”

The audience roared. “We’re going to explain why those of us who have grown up that way are conservatives,” Rubio added. “Because we understand that the only way to help people is to embrace free enterprise.”

Cruz had a tougher time. After Iowa, where his staffers misled voters into thinking that Ben Carson was about to exit the race, and South Carolina, where he also lost evangelicals to Trump and wound up finishing third, Nevada was supposed to help Cruz put the emerging narrative about deceitful tactics behind him. Rubio’s team had been claiming that Cruz was “willing to do or say anything to get elected”; Trump was calling him “sick” and a “liar” at nearly every campaign stop.

Then another micro-scandal erupted as soon as Cruz landed in the Silver State. During a press conference right before his rally Monday at a Las Vegas YMCA, Cruz announced that he had fired his longtime campaign spokesman Rick Tyler for posting on his personal Facebook page a false news story that purported to show Rubio making a disparaging remark about the Bible.

“I’ve spent this morning investigating what happened, and this morning I asked for Rick Tyler’s resignation,” Cruz said. “We are not a campaign that is going to question the faith of another candidate. Even if [the story] was true, our campaign should not have sent it.”

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Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida addresses a campaign rally on Tuesday in Minneapolis. (Photo: Jim Mone/AP)

And yet Cruz and his team performed ably in the final sprint here. As in Iowa, Cruz’s field operation was sophisticated and robust; he imported ground staff from the Hawkeye State and hosted multiple caucus-organizing sessions every day in Las Vegas that attracted as many as 50 volunteers, many of whom were first-time voters. A Cruz aide told Yahoo News that phone banks across the state had made “hundreds of thousands of phone calls” in recent weeks as part of the campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort.

Supporter Glenn Beck, a Mormon, recorded a robocall and rallied with Cruz in the waning hours of the contest, and Attorney General Adam Laxalt, the grandson of Paul Laxalt, a former Nevada governor and senator, helped Cruz connect with rural voters, who tend to be heavily conservative and more committed to caucusing.

With by far the busiest schedule of any candidate, Cruz held nine rallies this week, including four on Tuesday alone. In Elko, Reno, Fernley, Minden, Carson City, Sparks and elsewhere, he shifted from the evangelical emphasis of his South Carolina campaign and played to Nevada’s libertarian leanings instead, criticizing the Obama administration for eavesdropping on American citizens and promising to transfer the “85 percent” of Nevada land owned by the federal government “back to the state and back to the people.”

“In Texas, the federal government owns 2 percent of the land — and we think that’s 2 percent too much,” Cruz told a cheering crowd in Las Vegas. “Mr. Trump has publicly said he thinks the federal government should continue to control, to own that land. I trust the people of Nevada more than the bureaucrats in Washington.”

Meanwhile, Trump held only two rallies this week. They were his first events in Nevada since January. At the South Point Casino on Monday night, the Donald didn’t bother to educate his supporters about the state’s confusing caucus process, choosing to mock it instead.

“What the hell is caucus?” Trump said to laughter. “Nobody even knows what it is. Just vote.”

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GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, chats with voter Abram Woodward while visiting a caucus location on Tuesday in Reno, Nev. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Trump didn’t mention any issues of local importance in his rambling, red-meat address. But he did find time to call waterboarding “great” and to claim that “we don’t go far enough” in interrogating terrorist suspects. He urged his supporters to jeer at the media — “bad people,” in his estimation. And when security escorted a protester from the arena, Trump expressed nostalgia for the “old days” when the man would have been carried out “on a stretcher.”

“I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you that,” Trump said to raucous cheers.

What happened Tuesday in Nevada may become the new normal in the weeks ahead and maybe even beyond: a wounded yet well-funded Cruz fending off questions about his integrity but still clinging to some conservative supporters; a stronger Rubio gathering mainstream momentum but still splitting the anti-Trump vote with Cruz; and an irreverent Trump capitalizing on his celebrity to win a clear plurality of the GOP vote but still falling short of the majority he would need to claim the nomination outright.

Given the rest of the crowded primary calendar, which will force the candidates to compete in frequent back-to-back contests — often in multiple far-flung states on a single day — it’s unclear whether the current pattern will change anytime soon, especially if Kasich and Carson refuse to quit.

Only two possibilities seem to make sense going forward. The first is a Trump nomination. The second is a three-way stalemate that won’t be broken until July, when the GOP descends on Cleveland for its convention, and it may be this that Cruz and Rubio are now hoping for.

Referring to a brokered convention, Nathan Emens, Nevada coordinator for the pro-Cruz super-PAC Keep the Promise, told Yahoo News “you’d be foolish not to want one [at this point].”

“Anybody who’s not preparing for it is foolish,” Emens added. “This is the most I’ve ever heard a campaign or organization talk about the possibility of it.”

It would be a delegate battle even more epic than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s clash in 2008 — only this time, the outcome would be uncertain. The math is fairly straightforward. To win the nomination, a Republican needs to win a majority of delegates; the magic number in 2016 is 1,237. Before Nevada, Trump had 68, including 50 from South Carolina, where he won them all. Cruz had 11. Rubio had nine. Nevada will eventually award another 30. At that point, no one will be more than 8 percent of the way toward the finish line.

Each candidate has a strategy to get there. Cruz has been eyeing March 1 — a 12-state bonanza otherwise known as Super Tuesday — as an early opportunity to secure delegates all across the South, where he has been stumping and organizing for months; before Nevada, he was favored to win his home state of Texas, the night’s biggest prize, and his campaign has touted Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia as well.

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A poster for Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz lies on the floor of his Nevada caucus night rally site as his supporters wait for him to appear in Las Vegas on Tuesday. (Photo: David Becker/Reuters)

“One week from today will be the most important night of this campaign,” Cruz said in his concession speech, implying that it will be a make-or-break moment for his candidacy. “Tonight I will sleep in my bed for the first time in a month. And then it will be back to the campaign trail in Texas and all across Super Tuesday.”

But even if Cruz were to win every one of the 595 delegates at stake that day — and he won’t come close — he would only be halfway home. And if a surging Trump were to upset Cruz in the Lone Star State, his campaign could not recover.

Rubio has a plan as well: He is focusing on Minnesota, Tennessee and Virginia on March 1; Michigan on March 8; and the whole of March 15, when the big, winner-take-all contests begin: Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio. (All of the delegates up for grabs before March 15 will be awarded proportionally.)

But so far, Rubio isn’t leading in the polls anywhere; in fact, Trump is still the favorite in Florida, the senator’s home state. Kasich has a lot of support in Ohio. And the rules governing the national convention require a candidate to have won a majority of delegates in eight states or territories to be eligible for the nomination — so at some point, Rubio has to start finishing in first place.

And then there’s Trump. His people point to his strength in the early polling and insist that he will clean up on Super Tuesday and in the winner-take-all states, which will propel him to the nomination. But the way the state contests are structured means that a single candidate will have to win more than 45 percent of the popular vote in order to get to 1,237 delegates by the beginning of June. Despite his victories, Trump has only cleared that hurdle in one state: Nevada. If Cruz and Rubio keep siphoning off 20 to 30 percent — and if they begin to pick off states here and there, especially after March 15 — Trump may not be able to clinch the nomination.

But that’s a big if. More than anything else, Nevada showed how challenging it will be for Rubio and Cruz to catch up with Trump — let alone surpass him.

On Sunday, Ron Vance drove to a parking lot in Pahrump, Nev., a libertarian outpost in the middle of one of the largest and emptiest counties in the United States, to see Cruz speak from the bed of a black pickup truck. Vance was wearing a black-and-orange rugby shirt with the seal of Cruz’s undergraduate alma mater, Princeton, emblazoned on the breast. But Vance wasn’t a Cruz supporter, at least not yet. His favorite candidate, he said, was Trump.

“Why not Cruz?” Vance was asked.

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Supporters of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump celebrate at his caucus rally in Las Vegas, as TV networks declare him the winner of Nevada’s Republican caucuses on Tuesday. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)

“The whole abortion thing,” said the 59-year-old insurance agent. “A woman gets raped or something, she should be able to get an abortion. The anti-gay thing. I don’t care. If two guys want to get married, two girls, I don’t care. Cruz is against that. Legalizing marijuana, Cruz is against that too. Right now, they’re building seven grow houses around here. I don’t smoke pot. I couldn’t care less. But to me, with ISIS out there, with Syria, North Korea, the economy and jobs … smoking pot is not big on my agenda.”

“Are you concerned that Trump is too extreme to be president?”

“No way,” Vance said. “All he’s doing is throwing fireballs out there to get media attention and to blow up his name. In my heart of hearts, half of that stuff I don’t think he believes in. In his heart of hearts, I think he knows you can’t get 12 million people and round them up. He knows this stuff won’t pass Congress. He just says that. He doesn’t really care. He went to Wharton. He’s very, very smart. He’s a good businessman. He can negotiate. And he’s saying what all of us are thinking.”

“Are you open to being convinced by Cruz today?”

“Yeah,” Vance said. “Of course.”

Vance wasn’t angry. He wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t a bigot. He didn’t hate Muslims or Mexicans. All of the media’s stereotypes about Trump voters? None of that stuff really applied to him. He was just an outspoken guy with a thick Pittsburgh accent who’d never felt at home in either party; he’d voted for Carter, then Reagan, then Bush, then Clinton, then Gore, then Kerry, then McCain, then Romney. His views didn’t fit neatly into either partisan box, so it was hard for him to pick a president on policy alone. To him, personality had come to matter more.

For about 30 minutes, Vance listened carefully to what Cruz had to say. But it didn’t make a difference.

“I can’t fault Cruz on anything in particular,” Vance said as the crowd cleared out. “But I like Trump. I just like him.”

With reporting by Holly Bailey, Liz Goodwin and Daniel Klaidman.