LAS VEGAS — Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s victories Saturday in Nevada and South Carolina raise two big questions for the next stops in the primary season.
Can Clinton build on her narrow Nevada victory and chalk up a bigger win next Saturday in South Carolina, which features a substantial African American population, and can Trump move even further away from the pack—including establishment favorite Marco Rubio – Tuesday in the Silver State.
In Nevada, Clinton edged out a slim win over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by 53 percent to 47 percent.
Many political experts predicted the Silver State results would be close. Clinton’s campaign even noticeably dialed back its rhetoric about Nevada being a “firewall” that would prevent Sanders from gaining further traction.
Clinton’s close first place finish in the state hardly qualifies as a sturdy barrier against Sander’s campaign, which will likely continue to ride the momentum it gained from a close second place in Iowa and a win in New Hampshire.
“They write these firewall stories eight months ago. It’s crazy. It’s all about somebody who spoke to somebody who spoke to a campaign manager,” said Paul Tewes, a Democratic strategist who ran Barack Obama’s ground game in Iowa in 2008. “I don’t think there’s a state right now that’s a knockout blow. I think this goes for a while. They both have money, they both have a following—this is a going to be a march probably to the convention.”
Clinton and Sanders spent days in Nevada hosting “get out the caucus” rallies. Sanders focused his efforts on cities in northern areas of the state around Reno and Carson City –communities that typically vote more conservatively and have smaller minority populations. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton focused their energy on the more heavily populated and minority-mixed Clark County, just outside of the Las Vegas strip.
Entrance polls in Nevada showed that Sanders was able to capture the hearts of younger voters, getting 76 percent support from voters under 45. Getting the younger vote has been a primary tactic so far in his campaign. But it wasn’t enough to edge out a win over Clinton in Nevada, who has had an established presence in the state for more than six months.
Winning over Nevada’s key minority groups — over half the population identifies as non-white — also worked to Clinton’s favor. Entrance polls showed that while Sanders clinched Latino support in the state, Clinton won among non-white voters overall — an outcome she’ll hope to repeat in the diverse Palmetto State this coming Saturday.
Clinton’s success with minority voters could be attributed to her overwhelming support among Nevada unions. Most of the biggest unions in the state endorsed her.
John Ralston, a political expert in the state who hosts a local PBS show on politics, said that getting the union vote would be a key to Clinton’s success.
“In the Democratic primary in general unions are important and in a caucus they are even more important because the turn out is so low and it drives them to come up. And Hillary has most of the big ones on her side and that can be a big impact if they go out and vote for her,” Ralston said.
The Republican candidates are now shifting their attention to Nevada, and the most recent polling shows that the race is not nearly as tight as the Clinton-Sanders battle.
Donald Trump — who has strong ties to Sin City, including a hotel that towers over the strip with his name on it — stands out as the frontrunner with 39 percent of likely voters supporting him. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz follows with 23 percent, and next comes Florida Sen. Marco Rubio with 19. What the polls don’t show, of course, is whether any Jeb Bush supporters will shift over to Rubio now that the former Florida governor has dropped out.
“Certainly among those with less education here there has been a sense of concern about heightened competition for low skill work, and Las Vegas and southern Nevada has been a place where typically you can experience some upward mobility with a high school degree or less,” said John Tuman, chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
That’s where immigration and changing demographics come in, he said.
“The foreign-born population in Nevada from 2000 to 2010 has grown quicker than the overall population. The vast majority is from Mexico. … I think that’s what resonates big with conservative voters when Trump ramps the rhetoric on immigration,” Tuman said.
Ford O’Connell, former adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the thing to watch in Nevada will be who wins second place after a near tie for the spot in South Carolina between Cruz and Rubio. While Rubio has lived in Nevada, Republicans in the state have so far not rallied around him.
“It looks like it’s a three person race at this point with Trump out in front,” Tuman said. “Rubio has roots in Nevada and there are people within the Republican establishment and in the state party organization as well who like Rubio and have been talking enthusiastically about him, but I don’t think he’s going to have much appeal to Latinos. From what we know their share of the Republican caucus participation will be very low.”
Instead Tuman believes Cruz may see a strong finish in the state, despite the lack of an evangelical base in Nevada.
“Cruz is able to appeal to large constituencies. There are social conservatives here who are not necessarily self-identified evangelicals but I think they find him perhaps more appealing compared to Trump,” Tuman said.
Nevertheless, what Nevada ultimately reveals about who the Republican Party’s nominee is likely to be is uncertain. One key question is whether the Silver State will whittle down the cast of candidates to three.
“If it doesn’t consolidate before March 15, when all of a sudden the Republican primaries become winner take all, it’s going to be a disaster for the party moderates,” O’Connell said. “As long as the field stays wide, as in more than three candidates, Trump is in good shape.”