Nevada Democrats gave Hillary Clinton a much-needed win in the state’s caucuses, while South Carolina Republicans handed Donald Trump a much-expected win in their state’s primary. Below, I broke down some less obvious winners and losers from the night.
– Donald Trump: The real estate mogul was supposed to win South Carolina. He did. Sure, his margin looks likely to be slightly smaller than polls in the run-up to the vote suggested. But anyone who spins that as some sort of loss for Trump is kidding themselves.
Trump has now won two out of the first three states to vote and is very likely – if you believe polling – to cruise in Nevada’s caucuses Tuesday as well. Trump is also ahead in virtually every one of the 13 states set to vote March 1. There can be no doubt now: Donald Trump is the favorite to be the Republican nominee for president. The GOP establishment needs to come to grips with that fact – and figure out whether there is anyway they can stop him.
– Hillary Clinton: She had to win Nevada to avoid an establishment panic that could have jeopardized her standing in South Carolina and the March 1 and March 15 states. And she got it. Clinton’s team proves its organizing mettle – more on that below – despite the fact that all of the reporting coming out of Nevada in the final days before Saturday’s caucus suggested that the race was tied but that Sanders had the momentum edge. In her victory speech, Clinton name-checked both Flint (Michigan) and Ferguson (Missouri), a not-so-subtle signal to black voters that she is attuned to their concerns and is their candidate. She also made sure to note that she is not a single-issue candidate and this is not a single-issue campaign – a clear shot at Sanders going forward.
– Marco Rubio: The Florida senator got what he needed tonight: a clear signal that he is the establishment candidate who can win. Bush getting out of the race opens up a massive amount of major donor money for Rubio. Beating Ted Cruz was likely just icing on the cake. Rubio should be well positioned to do well in Nevada in three days’ time – a showing that will solidify him as the clear alternative to Trump. This was, without question, Rubio’s best night of the race – and the one that makes clear that he is in the race to stay and, maybe, to win.
– Latino voters: Sanders’s eight-point win over Clinton among Latinos was one of the most surprising elements of the Nevada caucuses. It also means that Latinos will become a hugely targeted bloc of voters in virtually every state from now on. Clinton leaves Nevada with a win, yes, but with a problem that she needs to solve between now and the end of primary season: how to reach and win over Latinos.
– Robby Mook: Clinton’s campaign manager was chosen for his low-key style and organizing chops. Few people said it publicly before Nevada’s vote, but had Clinton lost, it might have been the end for Mook. Her win is a victory for her commitment to organizing and to Mook. He is now on much more solid ground – and deserves a lot of credit for putting himself in that spot.
– Nikki Haley: The South Carolina governor jumped into the race for Rubio this week and can now claim she helped him to second place. (Yes, I know that seven in 10 Republicans said the Haley endorsement didn’t make their mind up. People never say that someone else influences their vote; we’re too proud.) Haley – along with Sen. Tim Scott – allowed Rubio to cast himself as part of the new face of the Republican party, a powerful message going forward in the race. And if Rubio winds up as the nominee, Haley will be first among equals to be his vice presidential pick.
– Jeb Bush/George W. Bush: South Carolina was a state the former Florida governor needed to surprise some people. He didn’t, finishing a distant fourth. To his credit, he acknowledged the obvious soon after the polls closed and ended his candidacy. That the end came for Jeb in South Carolina – a place that he and his campaign touted as “Bush Country” – amid a full frontal assault by Trump on the legacy of George W. Bush, is particularly painful for the Bush family and a remarkable testament to the fact that the GOP of the Bushes is no more.
– Bernie Sanders: Close in Iowa is one thing. Close in Nevada is another. If David wants to slay Goliath, he needs to find rocks that actually slay the giant. Right now, Sanders’s win in New Hampshire looks like the exception, not the rule. Ask yourself this: Where’s the next state that Sanders wins? The Colorado caucuses or the Minnesota caucuses March 1? Maybe. But Clinton will be favored in the vast majority of those states including such delegate-rich ones as Virginia and Georgia. Sanders will continue on – his money and his message won’t run out anytime soon – and be a major player going forward. But Nevada may wind up in retrospect looking like the moment the race tipped against Sanders.
– Ted Cruz: The South Carolina electorate was ready-made for the Texas senator: heavily evangelical and very conservative. And yet Cruz finished well behind Trump and might be edged out by Rubio as well. Cruz’s problems were exposed in a close look at the exit polls: He isn’t winning enough of the evangelical vote and he can’t win votes outside of the evangelical community. Trump beat Cruz among evangelical voters 31 percent to 27 percent; among non-evangelicals Cruz got just 13 percent, well behind Trump and Rubio. Cruz is now in danger of being cast as the 2016 iteration of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum – social conservatives who simply weren’t able to expand beyond that base. That’s not a group Cruz wants to be lumped in with.
– Organization for Republicans: There’s no debate that Cruz and Rubio had better organizations than Trump in South Carolina. So, for that matter, did Bush. Didn’t matter. Trump won relatively easily – as he did in New Hampshire where his organization was not the match of many of the people he beat. Once the race moves beyond Nevada, organization will matter less and less, with lots of big states voting March 1 and March 15. Trump is well on his way to proving that the vaunted organizations don’t matter – or that they matter a whole lot less.