The returns from the Nevada caucuses cast doubt on three assumptions that are widely held and often repeated by Republican elites in Washington, who are perhaps too eager to assure one another that Donald Trump still cannot actually win the nomination.
The first is that Trump has a relatively low ceiling of support. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Trump won the Silver State with 46 percent. He beat Marco Rubio by 22 points. Ted Cruz finished a close third with 21.4 percent. As the Washington Examiner's Byron York writes, "If he has a ceiling, at least in Nevada, it is higher than earlier thought."
The second is that Trump will ultimately be hobbled by a lack of organization. After his surprisingly soft second place finish in Iowa, many operatives concluded he would struggle to close the deal in future caucus states. Most of the coverage before last night said it was possible The Donald could lose in Nevada - despite leading in polls - because his rivals had built impressive ground games and his own supporters tend to be lower-propensity voters. Trump's people proved last night that they will show up for caucuses.
The third is that, as the field of candidates condenses, every voter who is not currently for Trump will fall in line behind whoever emerges as his alternative. Many of Cruz's voters actually look a lot like Trump voters demographically and ideologically. It should not be treated as a given that Cruz supporters would automatically move to Rubio if it becomes a two-man race. It stands to reason that many backing the Texan might prefer Trump over the other Cuban American senator, who continues to be dogged by his role in the Gang of Eight immigration bill.
Bottom line: Trump has now won three of the first four contests. Though only about 70,000 people turned out last night,the staggering breadth and depth of his victory suggests that the billionaire is poised to win big when 11 states vote next Tuesday.
According to preliminary network entrance polls, he won every single demographic. He carried men by 24 points and women by 18 points. He won those who describe themselves as very conservative, somewhat conservative and moderate. Just as in South Carolina, he bested Cruz among born-again evangelicals.
Half of voters last night had a college degree. He beat Rubio 41-30 among this group. Among those without a college degree, he led Cruz 51-22. In his victory speech, he boasted: "We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated! We're the smartest people."
• Some pundits even began calling the race for Trump last night. We believe this is very premature, but it's nonetheless significant that Matt Drudge has annointed him.
• There is no sugar coating it: Cruz was the biggest loser last night. He worked Nevada harder than anyone, doing nine events on the ground since Saturday's primary in South Carolina. Our reporter on the Cruz beat, Katie Zezima, reports this morning that Cruz's campaign is now in "TURMOIL" and some key supporters are calling for "a shake-up" in messaging and strategy as Super Tuesday approaches. Based on lots of interviews with voters and activists, she relays that the dirty tricks narrative is breaking through. "I think when it looks like there's a pattern of a Photoshopped picture or now a false tweet, that's not good. It's going too far, it's crossing the line," said Mica Mosbacher, a Cruz donor from Houston. "It was becoming a pattern. . . . When you see one Photoshop and now a false tweet, that was a pattern that needed to be stopped in its tracks."
The New York Times runs a negative profile of Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe today, liberally quoting some of the many enemies he made as an operative in Missouri. "Jeff Roe does not know the difference between fact and fiction," said a city councilman who unsuccessfully sued him for defamation in 2006. "He makes people a little squeamish," said Sam Graves, R-Mo. "It is what it is."
Rich Lowry points to the third-place finish as more evidence that Cruz's theory of the case from last year - to kill Trump with kindness - was built on a fundamental miscalculation: "For a long while it seemed as though Trump might be helping Cruz: the Texan could 'draft' behind him; Trump made Cruz look reasonable by comparison; the establishment might feel compelled to try to take down Trump and let Cruz escape unscathed (little did we know the establishment wouldn't ever go after Trump and that elements of it would actually prefer Trump to Cruz). But all these supposed advantages were based on the idea that Trump would eventually fade or be beaten down. Now that it hasn't happened, Trump has devastated Cruz in an area that was supposed to a strength-his appeal to voters disgusted with Washington who want an outsider."
• Many of Cruz's top surrogates fanned the flames of anger as leaders of the tea party movement seven years ago, and now they're shocked by their inability to channel what they helped unleash. Six in10 Nevada Republicans said they want the next president to come from "outside politics." Of that group, 7 in10 voted for Trump.
Ken Cuccinelli got jeered by Trump supporters last night when he spoke on Cruz's behalf at a caucus site in Summerlin! "It's hard to talk to Trump people, from a persuasion standpoint," he told David Weigel.
Sal Russo, who co-founded the Tea Party Express PAC in 2009, came to Nevada to back Cruz. He decided to check out Trump's Monday night rally on the Strip. There were nearly 10,000 people, eight times more than had ever attended a Cruz rally in the state. "I've been to a lot of rallies," he told Dave. "I've never seen anything like this one. He would say something -- 'punch that guy in the face!' -- and the veins would be popping out of peoples' necks!"
Other Cruz endorsers have begun offering unsolicited, public advice:
JWR columnist David Limbaugh says he needs to not focus so much on religion, quit parsing his opponents' positions like a lawyer and stop getting bogged down in arguments over the 2013 immigration bill.
Radio host Steve Deace, on Conservative Review: "Stop telling us how much you like Trump personally. Stop saying things like 'everyone on this debate stage would be better than Hillary.' Trump is playing for first place or go home. Now go and do likewise."
Cruz basically ignored Rubio in his concession, leaning again on his victory in Iowa. "The undeniable reality that the first four states have shown is that the only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump and the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump is this campaign," he said.
• The Texas primary next Tuesday now becomes either Cruz's Alamo or his Waterloo, depending on what happens. A Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll published yesterday showed Cruz leading Trump there by 8 points, 37-29, with Rubio at 15 percent. In the speech last night, the senator predicted a victory in the Lone Star State next Tuesday and said he cannot "wait to get home." Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Texas, who was in Vegas as a surrogate, went further: "Texas will reward Ted Cruz," he said, via Weigel. "One thing the mainstream media hasn't done a good job of covering is that early voting has started already. By the time the Trumpster finds Texas, half of the votes may well have been cast. . . . If you don't get 20 percent of the vote, you don't qualify for delegates. Probably, the only people who get delegates out of Texas are Cruz and Trump."
• Thinking big picture: Though last night could have gone much better, it would be totally insane for Cruz to drop out and he has the support to bounce back. He and Rubio continue to seem closely matched, despite the influx of establishment endorsements for the Florida senator since South Carolina. And Cruz could be well positioned to run again in 2020 if Trump gets the nomination and loses the general election.
• But, but, but: Rubio's second-place finish really cannot (and should not) be described as a big win. The campaign talked last year about being able to win there and heavily emphasized the years he lived in Vegas as a child. An oft-repeated line was that Marco has more extended family in Nevada than in Florida. Many of the state's top elected officials caucused for Rubio, including Sen. Dean Heller and Gov. Brian Sandoval.
One silver lining: Rubio did best among voters who decided in the past week. He got 42 percent, to 23 percent for Cruz and 18 percent for Trump.
• The latest salvo in the Stop Trump effort: The Club for Growth ponied up a million dollars for an ad campaign attacking him in Oklahoma and Arkansas. (Watch here.) But most outside groups trying to take on Trump are struggling to raise money. "The chances of a well-funded assault to block him . . . are dramatically dwindling," Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel and Isaac Arnsdorf report. "The donors cite the lack of success of the few super PAC attacks that have already targeted Trump have had. GOP strategist Liz Mair said many shy away because they are scared of incurring Trump's wrath . . . Even though many Koch network donors were supportive of the prospect of taking on Trump, sources familiar with the network's planning told said they has concluded its resources would be better spent elsewhere. Likewise, the Crossroads groups, which have so far reported spending $113,000 attacking Clinton, intend to sit out the increasingly bitter GOP primary fight, according to spokesman Ian Prior. 'American Crossroads' focus will continue to be Hillary,' he said."
• Who did Sheldon Adelson vote for last night? Per the Wall Street Journal, the casino mogul would not say. But there are clues: "Spooked that a small handful of reporters were standing around watching him vote, Mr. Adelson covered the top half of his ballot with his left hand as he checked a box on the lower third of his ballot - where the names Rubio, Santorum and Trump appear - with his right. . . . 'I'm not telling you anything,' he said." Miriam, his wife, also wouldn't say. "G0D knows who I like," she said. "Rubio told reporters on his campaign plane that he and Mr. Adelson speak frequently but haven't met in recent weeks."
• Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders gave their last, best pitches to South Carolina voters during CNN's town hall before the state's Saturday primary. The two candidates sought to highlight different parts of their record:
Sanders spent the night courting minorities: The Vermont Senator spent the night playing catchup with African Americans, who favor Hillary by 24 points. Seeking to put to rest criticism of his college plan that was raised by Clinton surrogate James Clyburn earlier this week, he promised to expand funding for historically black colleges. (That was not part of his earlier proposals.) "We must sustain and strengthen historically black colleges and universities," he said. When asked which Supreme Court justice he most admired, Sanders answered without skipping a beat. "Thurgood Marshall," he declared, naming the first African American judge to take bench at the high court.
• Clinton, meanwhile, promised to go hard after Wall Street. The former Secretary of State faced criticism in a different department: her failure to release transcripts of paid speeches given to Goldman Sachs. "Sure, I'll do it if everybody else does," the former Secretary demurred, circling back to a familiar refrain after being pressed by moderator Chris Cuomo. "But this is about whether I have the best plan to go after Wall Street," she said. "Why is there one standard for me and not for everybody else?"