July 9th, 2020


Four lessons from the first four primaries

David Weigel

By David Weigel

Published Feb. 25, 2016

Six months ago, if anyone suggested that one candidate would win three of the first four Republican contests and come second in the fourth, you'd have thought he was talking about the nominee. The rules are different for Donald Trump -- so different that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, could insist Trump "underperformed what Mitt Romney did in Nevada," and be received credibly on Fox News. At least three, possibly four Republican candidates can still find promising or revealing results when they pore over these states.

Stop trying to make the "liberty lane" happen. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has worked harder to win over libertarian votes than any candidate who was not explicitly a "libertarian." He successfully captured most of Sen. Rand Paul's, R-Kentucky, support before the New Hampshire primary; in that state and Nevada he went on to personally lobby "Paulians." In Nevada, he told audiences that he'd won over "the local chair of the Ron Paul and Rand Paul campaigns," and he ran an ad campaign promising to restore "Nevada land" to the state from the federal government.

In 2012, Ron Paul came second in New Hampshire and Nevada. In 2016, Ted Cruz came third. The reasons are clearer with every primary -- Paul's coalition included a great number of voters who were more anti-establishment than ideological, and they have moved over to Donald Trump. Of the 2016 candidates, only Cruz competed in Nevada's Nye County, in the population center of Pahrump. Paul won that county with 45.6 percent of the vote. Cruz won just 23.5 percent, as Trump won an overall majority. It was the same in New Hampshire, where the one county that went for Paul in 2012, rural Coos County, plunked Cruz in fourth place.

Ankeny, Ankeny everywhere. As James Hohmann reported this week in the Daily 202, Rubio's delegate hunt is nicknamed the "Ankeny strategy," after the anonymous Des Moines suburb where his Iowa campaign was headquartered. In late 2015, when Rubio appeared to have fallen far behind Trump and Cruz in the state, rival campaigns derisively called him "the Mayor of Ankeny," a candidate who seemed to hit the same population centers again and again. That's a strategy now. "Name the state, and there's an Ankeny in that state," said Rubio deputy campaign manager Rich Beeson.

In Nevada, Rubio found his own personal Ankenies -- Summerlin, North Las Vegas, Henderson. While Cruz stumped in rural areas, Rubio ignored them apart from an 11th-hour stop in Elko. His reward -- a margin of 1,861 votes over Cruz, less than his 2,257 margin in Clark County. He'd done the same in South Carolina, running even or behind Cruz in much of the state, but leading him by just 1,091 votes statewide. How? Rubio won two counties, Richland (which contains the city of Columbia) and Charleston. His margins over Cruz in those counties, respectively, were 2,991 votes and 6,197 votes.

Cruz, who has built a bigger geographic coalition than Rubio, cannot stand that these narrow results are being spun as Rubio triumphs. In Texas on Wednesday, he asked reporters -- who were asking whether a loss in that state's primary would end his campaign -- "how many reporters ask Marco Rubio, after losing four states in a row: So when do you drop out?"

The "political revolution" is Republican. Marco Rubio won 17,940 votes in Nevada, enough for a wan second place. Four years earlier, Mitt Romney won 16,486 votes in Nevada. It was enough for a landslide, more than 50 percent of the total vote. Nevada's Democratic caucuses saw turnout fall roughly one-third from 2008, the last competitive primary. Nevada's Republican caucuses saw turnout double.

Late on Wednesday, the Democratic National Committee attempted to spin this with a memo comparing turnout in its two-way primary with turnout in the Republican race. "The 80,000 Democrats turned out to caucus across Nevada by just TWO Democrats was more than the 75,000 Republicans who were turned out by SIX Republicans," insisted the DNC's Luis Miranda. But at the same time, the proportion of people who call themselves "liberals" spiked noticeably. Anyone who has covered the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, can tell you that some of those voters are newly turned on to politics. A lot more voters have bolted, and are pulling Republican ballots to vote in a race defined by Donald Trump.

National polls are useless. Do you remember the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from last week, the one that found Cruz surging ahead of a faltering Donald Trump? Of course you don't.