Decisive Win for Trump in Nevada Means Soul Searching for Cruz and Rubio

Trump's rivals in the Republican race need to come up with counter-measures quickly if they are going to stop the billionaire's seemingly unstoppable rise — or, one of them needs to drop out.
February 24, 2016, 9:15am
Cruz, Trump and Rubio at a debate in South Carolina on February 20. Photo by Erik S Lesser/EPA

So it's a hat trick. The billionaire Donald Trump has won an emphatic victory in Nevada, leaving the Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz campaigns in an even more precarious position.

The third consecutive win for the businessman saw him easily outdistance his rivals, winning 45.06 percent of the vote with 71 percent of the ballots tabulated. Rubio — who spent much of his childhood in Nevada — was second with 23.55 percent while Ted Cruz was at 22.36 percent.

Broadcast networks called the state for Trump almost immediately after voting ended, with the state Republican Party confirming the victory soon after. While Trump was celebrating, there were questions raised over disorganization in the caucusing halls and alleged double voting.

There were also concerns raised that some volunteers were wearing candidates' campaign gear. But the Nevada Republican Party tweeted that was not against the rules and there were "no official reports of voting irregularities or violations" at caucus sites.

Related: Hijinks, Confusion and Allegations of Voter Fraud Dominate Republican Caucuses in Nevada

Trump's decisive win is a further blow to Republican establishment figures who, less than a month ago, were hoping that the outspoken billionaire's insurgent candidacy was stalled after he lost the opening nominating contest in Iowa to Cruz.

But since then, Trump has tallied wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and now Nevada, with a suite of southern states ahead on March 1, so-called Super Tuesday.

"If you listen to the pundits, we weren't expected to win too much, and now we're winning, winning, winning the country," Trump said at a victory rally in Las Vegas.

Polls suggest Trump will do well in many of those Super Tuesday states, placing further pressure on Cruz, Rubio, and Ohio Governor John Kasich, another presidential candidate who was not a factor in Nevada, to come up with counter-measures quickly.

"These guys have to figure out how to turn their fire on Trump," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist in Washington. Absent that, he said, "which one is going to get out of this field?"

In the run-up to Nevada, most of Trump's rivals left him alone, preferring to tussle with each other in a bid to be the last surviving challenger to the frontrunner.

Related: The Question for Republicans After South Carolina: Can Anyone Stop Trump?

Not long after Trump's win was certified in Nevada, Cruz's campaign released a statement criticizing Rubio for not winning the state, but did not mention Trump at all.

Rubio, who has emerged as the Republican establishment's favorite to derail Trump's progress, can take some solace in finishing second. But that also has to be viewed as somewhat of a setback considering that he had frequently campaigned in Nevada, having lived there for years as a child. A Cuban-American, he had attempted to rally the support of the state's large Latino population.

Rubio had also benefited from the departure Saturday of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, from the race. That brought an influx of new funds, a bevy of endorsements, and a wealth of media attention. But none of it was enough to overtake Trump.

As for Cruz, he is facing mounting questions about the viability of his campaign. After Cruz's Iowa win, Trump has made serious inroads among his core base of conservative supporters, draining anti-government hardliners and evangelicals.

Cruz attempted to appeal to Nevada's fierce libertarian wing, appealing directly to those who supported local rancher Cliven Bundy's armed protest against the federal government in 2014 and a similar more recent one staged by Bundy's sons at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. But that, too, was not enough.

The upcoming March 1 primary in his home state of Texas is looming as a make-or-break moment for him.

Related: 'Mr. Trump Will Not Be President': Obama Goes on the Offensive Against Republican Candidates

Despite early reports on social media of procedural irregularities at many Nevada caucus sites, the Republican National Committee and the party's state chapter said voting ran smoothly. Higher-than-normal turnout was reported, although historically, few of the state's citizens participate in the Republican caucus.

Nevada's contest had been viewed as a test of whether Trump had organizational might to match his star power. Unlike primaries, caucuses are more dependent on the abilities of campaigns to motivate supporters to participate. Trump's failure to do that in Iowa contributed to his defeat there.

He had no such problems in Nevada, and he is expected to win the bulk of Nevada's 30 delegates. That would give him more than 80 before February ends, dwarfing the tallies of Cruz and Rubio.

While more than 1,200 are needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination, Trump has built a formidable head start.

Related: Here's What You Need to Know About the Nevada Caucuses