Let’s be honest: the Nevada GOP caucuses on Tuesday are only a warm-up act for Super Tuesday a week hence.
That means they’re important in their own right but everybody’s really just waiting for the main event. They’re the Golden Globes to Super Tuesday’s Academy Awards, metaphorically-speaking. They’re Florence & the Machine opening for the U2 360 Tour.
That said there are two things in particular we’re going to be looking for in the Nevada Republican results.
Can Trump crush it in a caucus state?
Nevada should be a great state for Donald Trump. After all, Las Vegas is perhaps the most Trumpian city in America, even more so than Trump’s native New York. And he’s done very well in Nevada polls to this point. In a recent CNN/ORC survey he was the presidential choice of 45 percent of Nevada Republicans, leading second-place Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida by 26 percentage points.
But the GOP race has turned fluid in recent days. The emergence of Senator Rubio as the establishment/elite Republican choice may have complicated the Silver State race in ways pollsters have yet to pick up.
Trump should still win. Nevada is notoriously hard to poll, given many workers have night hours, but The Donald is so far ahead that he’s got a big cushion against pollster error. The only real danger for him is that this is a caucus state. Turnout is tiny in caucuses, as opposed to primaries. Will the fact that Trump does not have as extensive a ground operation as other campaigns turn out to be fatal?
Trump lost the Iowa caucuses, after all. And there are 13 more caucuses to come, though most are in low-population states or territories such as the Virgin Islands. So his margin number in Nevada could be crucial.
“If Trump gets 40-something percent of the vote in Nevada, in line with the polls, that will be a sign that turnout might not be such a problem for him.... If Trump is in the 20s or low 30s instead – and certainly if he loses Nevada – that will suggest there are openings for Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Rubio later in the calendar,” writes political data expert Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.
Who finishes second?
The CNN/ORC poll quoted above has Rubio winning Nevada’s silver medal. But all other major Nevada surveys this election cycle, including a recent Gravis Marketing survey, have Senator Cruz edging Rubio for second.
Rubio has Las Vegas roots. He lived here as a child while his mother worked as a maid and his father tended a hotel bar. He’s picked up a number of establishment endorsements in recent days, such as former presidential nominee and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and current Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, giving his campaign an appearance of momentum.
Cruz’s campaign, in contrast, has had a bad week. Cruz fired his national spokesman for retweeting a false story claiming Rubio insulted the Bible. He’s tried – perhaps improbably – to outflank Trump to the right on his signature issue of illegal immigration.
Oh, and don’t forget that Rubio edged Cruz for second in Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
All this means Rubio and Cruz are locked in a desperate battle to finish second in Nevada. Rubio needs this “win” to prove his new status as the establishment choice actually means something. Cruz needs it to prove that he’s not sinking towards irrelevance as Super Tuesday looms, seven days away.