LAS VEGAS — Donald Trump convincingly won the Nevada presidential caucuses here Tuesday evening, the Associated Press projected, accelerating his march to the Republican nomination as his top two rivals fell short here despite aggressive campaigning in the closing days.
An angry electorate hungry for a political outsider in the White House handed Trump his third straight win in Nevada as the billionaire mogul used visceral rhetoric to tap into anxieties about the economy, terrorism and illegal immigration.
Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas trailed Trump as early returns began rolling in, underscoring the challenge for them and the other candidates to slow Trump’s momentum heading into next week’s critical “Super Tuesday” contests.
The high turnout of voters apparently overwhelmed organizers at some caucus locations. There were isolated reports of double voting, paper ballots running low and what a Republican Party official described as “chaos” at a couple caucus sites here in Clark County, the state’s biggest population center.
Some volunteer caucus officials collecting ballots wore Trump campaign T-shirts and hats, which sparked an outcry and allegations of voter intimidation on social media.
The Nevada Republican Party’s caucus rules allow precinct workers to wear campaign paraphernalia. “Volunteers went through extensive training & are doing a great job,” read a party statement.
Early entrance polling reported by CBS News showed nearly six in 10 caucus-goers said they were angry at the federal government, and a similar percentage wanted the next president to be a political outsider.
Trump, who visited caucus sites on Tuesday night to motivate his supporters, had led every recent public poll by double digits. Enormous crowds pack his rallies, including one Monday night in Las Vegas that drew an estimated 8,000 people.
Trump’s nationalist call to deport illegal immigrants and wall them off has resonated with Nevada’s working-class whites resentful of the booming Latino population.
But a Trump win was not seen as a done deal. The state’s caucuses are peculiar and unpredictable – and Cruz and Rubio labored hard to spring a surprise.
Cruz worked Nevada harder than any candidate, flying immediately to the state from South Carolina and making nine, crowded campaign stops.
Yet a message seemingly tailored to Nevada’s libertarian-leaning Republicans – with a particular focus on the federal control of land in Nevada — did not seem to resonate as Cruz might have hoped.
The day before the vote was squandered when Cruz fired his communications director, Rick Tyler, who published a false smear of Rubio on Facebook.
The Cruz roadshow had a slapdash feel, recycling video endorsements from Iowa, one of them ending with the slogan “people of Iowa, it is time to believe again.” In Carson City, when Attorney General Adam Laxalt needed to stall for Cruz’s arrival, he announced a “short video” – and the audience groaned.
Even before the caucus vote, Cruz tried to spin a loss as a speed bump on the way to uniting the conservative base.
“We are competing head to head with Donald Trump among conservatives,” Cruz told reporters Tuesday in northwest Nevada. “We’re competing head to head with Donald Trump among Reagan Democrats – among the working class blue collar workers that are the key to winning. Without the Reagan Democrats, Republicans cannot win in November. And Donald and I are dividing those voters.”
With limited time, Cruz never figured out how to win those voters back. In a TV ad, and in speeches, Cruz promised to hand over the 85 percent of Nevada land owned by the federal government over to the state. It drew applause – and some protesters – but did not move votes.
Like the Cruz campaign, Rubio’s thought it could exploit Trump’s weak state-level organization with a carefully tailored strategy.
Rubio targeted Nevada’s well-organized Mormon community, which propelled Mitt Romney to victory here in 2012, as well as seniors who populate the many retirement communities around Las Vegas.
He also played up his local roots. He lived briefly as a child in Las Vegas, where his father tended bar at a casino and his mother cleaned rooms at a hotel. During that time, his family temporarily converted to Mormonism.
Dozens of extended family members still live here. “He has more family members in Nevada than in Florida,” Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, Rubio’s state campaign chairman, said Sunday night at a rally in North Las Vegas.
All along, however, Nevada was Trump’s to lose.
“You’ve got to vote tomorrow,” he told his Monday night crowd. “You’ve got to vote, vote, vote! . . . We have a big lead, and we don’t want to blow it.”
Trump focused on big rallies in Las Vegas and the Reno area – the state’s two main population centers – but he had a ground organization as well. His state director, Charles Munoz, cut his teeth with Americans for Prosperity, the political activist group funded by the industrial billionaire Koch brothers. Just 26 years old when he was hired in August, Munoz has never run a campaign before and rarely speaks to the media.
Trump’s campaign bought limited television advertising time in Las Vegas. In its main spot, which also ran in South Carolina, a man whose son was murdered by an undocumented immigrant says that Trump is “the only one” he trusts to secure the border.
Running Cruz’s campaign is Robert Uithoven, who has assigned chairs in all 17 counties and secured the endorsement of Attorney General Adam Laxalt.
When Cruz took the stage for a 30-minute version of his stump speech at a rally Sunday night, his backdrop was a poster showing Nevada mountains and some scrubby trees under the slogan “Return Our Land.”
Rubio campaigned across Nevada with a broader message, trying to appeal to a more diverse cross-section of the electorate. Many of the state’s top elected officials are backing him; Sen. Dean Heller joined the Rubio team Sunday.
Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has angered conservatives over a state tax increase, decided to stay on the sidelines, though caucused for Rubio on Tuesday night.
Rubio also attracted some star power. Donnie Wahlberg, a founding member of New Kids on the Block, a boy band popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, endorsed him at his Sunday night rally.
“I have never, ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate – that is, until this year, thanks to Marco Rubio,” Wahlberg said.
Rubio also has the support of Rick Harrison, a celebrated Las Vegas pawn shop owner and host of the “Pawn Stars” reality-television show. “I really think he’s got a shot at winning on Tuesday,” Harrison told the Sunday night crowd.