If Ted Cruz can't win Bunkerville, where can he win?
At this point, the only thing surprising about Donald Trump winning a Republican primary is the fact that we all—the media, the panicked liberal voters, the GOP Establishment—continue to be surprised. Almost immediately after voting ended in the chaotic Nevada caucuses Tuesday, the networks called the race for the Republican frontrunner, confirming what polls had long predicted in the Silver State. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Trump won 46 percent of the vote, nearly double the total for Marco Rubio, whose second-place finish somehow didn't stop him from sounding triumphant in interviews.
The breakdown of the vote was similar to what it was in South Carolina days earlier, with Rubio barely edging out Ted Cruz, and Trump wiping the floor with both of them. According to CNN exit polling, Trump dominated across every demographic, even the ones he wasn't supposed to win. He won among young voters and educated ones, among evangelicals and ultra-conservatives—hell, he even won among Hispanics.
The explanation for this, as polling analysts have pointed out, is anger. This, of course, has been the driving force behind Trump's success across the country, but exit polls show that Nevada's Republican caucus voters weren't just run-of-the-mill angry—they were furious. According to data collected by ABC News , six in ten voters described themselves as angry at the way the federal government is run, compared to just four in ten who described themselves that way in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
This isn't surprising. Nevada is in the West, and the regional strain of conservatism is a defiant one. The best contemporary example of this is Nevada's rogue rancher Cliven Bundy, who with his sons led a band of disaffected "militia men" in an armed uprising against the federal Bureau of Land Management. Bundy is now in jail, along with two of his sons, for their role in the bizarre occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon last month. But Bundy sympathizers remain a real constituency in their home state, where the federal government's management of land and natural resources has been an increasing source of frustration for conservatives.
City dwellers often need to be reminded that the federal government owns an astonishing amount of the rural West. Since the Bundy Ranch standoff, and even before then, there has been a growing movement in many Western states that calls for the feds to transfer ownership of the land back to states and counties, or into private hands.
This is a fairly complex issue that fires a few people up mightily, but it generally doesn't get much mainstream attention. The movement typically only shows up in the news when the guns come out. But not everyone who loves individual liberty and hates federal ownership of lands has the time or inclination to wage an insurgency against the federal government. The majority of people who hold these views are just regular voters just happen to have some unconventional beliefs about who actually owns the land in their state.
When they're not dealing with some anti-government revolt among their ranks, sovereign state activists engage in run-of-the-mill politicking conducted by an assortment of state lawmakers and sheriffs and land transfer advocacy groups like the American Lands Council, Free the Lands, and the Koch brothers–backed Federalism in Action. Lawmakers in several states, including Nevada, have introduced bills to reclaim land from the feds; on Thursday, the US House National Resources Committee will vote on three bills that would cede some land back to states, or to private ownership. (These proposals have been criticized for potentially opening up protected wilderness areas to mining and logging.)
In theory, what we might call the Bundy constituency should have been a strong base of support for Cruz, a Texas senator who has staked his entire career on the kind of anti-government confrontation that Bundy sympathizers seem to love. In the lead-up to the Nevada caucuses, Cruz's campaign actively courted these voters, working the land use issue into his speeches, and putting out a campaign ad promising that, if elected president, he "will fight day and night to return full control of Nevada's lands to its rightful owners—its citizens."
In contrast, Trump, a champion of eminent domain, has been on what one would assume is the wrong side of the issue. "I don't like the idea because I want to keep the lands great," he said when asked about transferring control of federal land to the states by Field and Stream magazine last month. "You don't know what the state is going to do."
And yet it was Trump, not Cruz, who appeared to win the land use movement's votes in Nevada on Tuesday. While exit polls didn't ask about the issue specifically, Trump won definitively among voters who said they were angry or dissatisfied with the federal government. Among the six in ten Nevada Republicans who said they preferred a candidate from outside the system, Trump won by a whopping 71 percent. More tellingly, perhaps, he won among those who described themselves as "very conservative," beating Cruz 38 percent to 34 percent.
Cruz did manage to have picked up some support, including endorsements from some of the state's most prominent sovereign land advocates. County voting tallies shows that he won Elko County, a staunchly conservative area of the state with a strong Republican organization, as well as Lincoln County, home to just 5,000 people, and also to Area 51 and the "Extraterrestrial Highway." The latter has been the site of a heated opposition to the federal government's recent decision to designate a 1,100-square-mile national monument straddling the county.
But while Cruz may have the support of far-right state politicians—the sort of new Republican Establishment birthed by the Tea Party—Trump seems to have a solid lock on their rank-and-file. Obviously, this is a bad sign for Cruz, signaling that when conservatives are faced with the choice between him and Trump, they will continue to choose the candidate who's louder, brasher, and even more of a dick. And should Cruz drop out of the race, it's hard to imagine those ultra-conservatives deciding to embrace Rubio over Trump.
What Nevada demonstrated is what observers who've been dreading a Trump nomination haven't been willing to admit: Republican voters really love Donald Trump. From the Deep South to the Northeast to the West, voters are angry and have found someone who validates, reflects, and amplifies their anger. It doesn't particularly matter that he might not share their specific anger about land use rights or whatever.
Reporting contributed by Mike Pearl.
Follow Grace on Twitter.