Donald Trump triumphed in the Nevada caucuses on Tuesday, in a resounding win that cemented his position as the Republican presidential frontrunner with a lead that could soon be unassailable.
The billionaire reality TV star has now won three of the four early nominating states, after other convincing wins in South Carolina and New Hampshire.
The Nevada result was called at 9pm local time by the Associated Press. By 2.30am, when all precincts had reported, Trump had a remarkable 45.9% of the vote.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the two senators best placed to challenge Trump, battled it out for second place, with Rubio on 23.9% edging Cruz, who got 21.4%.
However, their race for second place was overshadowed by the magnitude of Trump’s victory, which exit polls indicated was predicated upon a sweep of virtually every single demographic in the state, including those previously considered loyal to his rivals.
At his Las Vegas victory party at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, Trump described the diversity of his supporters. “We won the evangelicals. We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated. We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people.”
He got the loudest applause when he pointed out exit polls that showed he won close to half the Latino vote. The exit data, from CNN, was based on a small sample of Latino voters, but it was nonetheless a surprising figure for a candidate who has called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals”.
“Number one with Hispanics,” Trump said. “I’m really happy about that.”
Looking ahead to Super Tuesday
The Republicans now look ahead to Super Tuesday on 1 March, when 11 states are due to hold contests that could have a decisive impact on the race.
Trump appears to have a lead in all the states in which recent surveys are available, except Arkansas and Texas, Cruz’s home state. In a sign of the breadth of his support, Trump is ahead of the pack in deeply conservative Super Tuesday states such as Alabama, Georgia and Alaska, and Democratic-leaning states such as Minnesota.
In Massachusetts, another left-leaning Super Tuesday state, Trump leads by 50 percentage points, according to a recent poll that put Rubio at 16%.
Trump’s commanding victory in Nevada was expected even before the caucuses closed, amid complaints about caucus volunteers – those who distribute and count the ballots – wearing official Donald Trump apparel. The Nevada GOP said it was “not against the rules” for volunteers to wear candidate hats and T-shirts.
There were also reports of voter registration mistakes at some sites, and long queues at others that may have been struggling with high turnout.
Both Cruz and Rubio needed a win in Nevada to gain the momentum required to mount a meaningful challenge to Trump, who has confounded the political establishment with a presidential campaign that some are equating to outright demagoguery.
At an eve-of-caucuses rally in Las Vegas on Monday, one of Trump’s most extraordinary to date, the businessman appeared fearless and unencumbered by the normal rules of politics. He lampooned Cruz as “sick”, said that banned torture techniques did not go far enough, and reacted to a heckler by saying: “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
Although the Republican race is still at an early phase, and Trump is a long way off from the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the party’s nomination, he is now the clear and dominant frontrunner. That is partly due to a change in the nominating rules introduced by the Republican National Committee (RNC) following the long and drawn-out race of 2012 that Mitt Romney eventually won.
The 2016 nominating contest was truncated, meaning a candidate can now secure the party’s backing more quickly. In another rule change, designed to prevent GOP outsiders from mounting long-shot challenges, a nominee must score clear victories in at least eight states in order to be nominated at the convention as opposed to five states. That change is also likely to benefit Trump.
What’s next for Trump’s Republican rivals
Currently, Rubio and Cruz are essentially vying for second place, before either can emerge as a challenger to Trump. However, for that to happen, many experts believe one of them would need to pull out to make way for the other.
That seems highly unlikely for candidates who come from opposite wings of the party. And even in the unlikely case it happens, it is not clear that Trump would not simply absorb many of their voters.
The evidence in Las Vegas, as elsewhere in the country, points to this being an election year in which Republican voters – disaffected with conventional politics, angry and fearful about a quickly changing world– want to gamble on Trump.
It is remarkable how many people lured to his mega rallies say they are not partisan Republicans, but the kind of voters who dip in and out of elections during once-in-a-generation contests.
Patrick Cress, a 61-year-old businessman at the Trump rally, said that the last time he voted in an election was 1972, for Democrat George McGovern. “I was a kid in California and we wanted them to legalize marijuana,” he said. (McGovern never actually supported flat-out legalization, although many of his younger supporters thought he did.)
“You don’t have to say, ‘Who is this Trump guy’. You’ve been seeing him on the TV for years and years and years,” Cress said, adding that the frontrunner stands for “jobs, money, [not] getting ripped off by other countries”.
Cress, who owns a fireworks business in New Mexico and imports his stock from China, was unperturbed by Trump’s promise of tariffs on imports from the country. “I’m willing to pay for it. I want to see my country winning again,” he said. “Trump is a winner. And I’m sick of losing.”
Perhaps the final deadline for Rubio or Cruz to throw a meaningful wrench in Trump’s path would be 15 March, when candidates enter the phase when the winner takes all a state’s delegates.
But even in those big-prize states, Trump maintains a lead over rivals who should have a home advantage. They include Rubio, who trails Trump in Florida, and John Kasich, the governor of Ohio who came second in the New Hampshire race but is trailing Trump in his own swing state.
In Nevada Kasich, who skipped campaigning in the state, won 3.6% of the vote. The only other Republican left in the race is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who had 4.8%.
Even though Rubio appeared to be on course to come in second or third in Nevada, the results were arguably most disappointing for him. The senator from Florida spent part of his childhood in Las Vegas when his father worked behind a bar and his mother was a hotel maid. He was also baptized as a Mormon, a key voting demographic in the state that his campaign had pursued relentlessly.
Rubio was also hoping for a boost after a slew of senior Republican figures reacted to ex-Florida Jeb Bush exiting the race on Saturday by endorsing Rubio. If Rubio received a lift from his former mentor’s withdrawal, it did not show in Nevada.
Sensing defeat, Rubio did not even stay in Nevada to see the results come through.
Cruz, who had a torrid campaign in Nevada, and was forced to fire his national campaign spokesman over a scandal involving false accusations he promoted about Rubio’s commitment to the Bible, did stay to deliver remarks after the results.
Drawing on his victory in the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa, Cruz stressed he was the only candidate to knock Trump off his perch. “The undeniable reality the first four states has shown is the only campaign that has beat Donald Trump, and the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump, is this one,” Cruz told supporters.
The Iowa contest, which took place just three weeks ago, seems in the distant past now that the race has been commandeered by the former host of The Apprentice.
‘Winning, winning, winning’
Michael Steele, a former chairman of the RNC, acknowledged Trump’s rise was “dismaying” to political elites.
“There’s a lot that makes you shake your head, but you cannot take away from him the absolute enormity of coming in completely from the outside, with no political experience, and he has just cut through this process like a hot knife through butter,” he said, speaking hours before the Nevada result.
“You go into Super Tuesday and the worst case scenario for Donald Trump right now is winning 10 out of 14 states. At what point do you start treating him like the nominee?”
Trump was already behaving as such during his victory speech. On the day Barack Obama sent his final plan to close the detention facility on Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay, to the US Congress, Trump made clear he would make a very different commander-in-chief.
“Gitmo, we’re keeping that open,” he said. “And we’re gonna load it up with a lot of bad dudes out there. We’re gonna have our borders nice and strong, and we’re gonna build the wall,” he said, referring to his flagship policy of building a giant wall between the US and Mexico.
Luxuriating in his decisive victory, he noted how his campaign was “winning, winning, winning” and reflected on the states ahead. Overstating his strength in Texas and Arkansas, where, technically, he is trailing Cruz, the general thrust of his optimism was well-founded.
“We’ve had some great numbers coming out of Texas. And some amazing numbers coming out of Tennessee, and Georgia, and Arkansas. And then a couple of weeks later, Florida. We love Florida. We’re going to do very well in Ohio – we’re beating the governor; it is always nice to be beating the governor. And Michigan. The whole thing. It is going to be an amazing two months.”
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