Why Nevada was Important for Donald Trump

It is easy to dismiss the Nevada caucus as an insignificant skirmish in the long and extended series of battles that ultimately lead to the Republican Party nomination. After all, it is a small state that held a caucus (as opposed to a primary) where less than 80,000 of partly faithful trudged out to vote in an ill-managed and somewhat controversial process. It is also a state with unique demographics; in the 2012 primary, for example, 25% of the Republican electorate belonged to the Church of the Latter Day Saint (i.e. Mormon faith).

All of these are legitimate issues; however, these should not in any way undermine the fact that Donald Trump had one of the best nights of his campaign so far. Not only did he win, he crushed the opposition with a 46% vote share and also allayed a number of concerns that had become apparent from his earlier performances.

On the day of the election, Real Clear Politics displayed only two recent polls conducted in Nevada, both of which were led by Trump with his vote shares being 39% in one and 45% in another. However, both of these polls were conducted in the period between 10th and 15th February and no recent polls were available. Also, Nevada is a notoriously difficult state to poll. It was conducting a caucus where only the dedicated party members come out to vote. The turnout was abysmally low, at around 33,000 in 2012 and thus it is very difficult for pollsters to model the turnout. As a result, there were a lot of reasons to remain extremely sceptical of polls while heading into the Nevada caucus.

Apart from this, in the three elections held so far in the primary calendar before Nevada, Trump had done well in the two primaries which had much higher turnout and struggled in the only caucus held in Iowa where despite leading in polls conducted before the caucus, he lost to Ted Cruz. An easy conclusion was that Trump would struggle in low turnout caucuses which draw out a disproportionate number of extremely conservative voters, the kind of voters who are more likely to support a candidate like Ted Cruz than Donald Trump. Also, to excel in a caucus state, one needs a strong ground game and ability to turn out voters, things which the Trump campaign was in short supply of, for it was almost completely dependent on Trump’s media exposure to reach out to voters. The Mormon vote factor was also a major unknown as they could tip the scale in favour of either Cruz or Rubio.

All of these made me feel that Nevada would perhaps have some negative surprise for Trump.

As the results tickled in though, I could not be more wrong. First of all, the turnout was more than double that of 2012. Since Trump won overwhelmingly, this most probably means an outburst of support for Trump. Secondly, Trump won each and every county in the state, except two sparsely populated Mormon dominated counties bordering Utah which went to Ted Cruz. He did very well in the urban centers as well, winning 49% of the votes in the Clarke country (which has Las Vegas) and 44% of the votes in Washoe county. Thirdly, Trump has started to become more palatable to the very conservative voters. It is true that the percentage of very conservative voters in Nevada was less in 2016 compared to 2012 (40% vs 49%), probably on account of higher turnout this year. However, even among very conservative voters, Trump had the support of 38% of voters compared to 34% for Cruz.

Among the various issues, immigration, economy and terrorism are typically strong points for Trump while he struggles among voters who prioritize Government spending. In Nevada, Trump easily led among voters who considered Government spending their most important issue. Trump generally struggles badly among voters who want the candidate to reflect their values, often polling in single digits among such voters and also among voters who want to elect a candidate who can win in the general election, although to a lesser extent. In Nevada, he lost these voters to Cruz and Rubio respectively, as in Iowa and South Carolina, but his performance was much better among such voters, winning 20% of the support of value voters and 33% of the support of voters concerned with electability.

Chart II

There continues to be stark divide between the preferences of Republican voters who want an experienced candidate and those who do not. Rubio continues to lead the former group while Trump continues to crush everyone else among the latter. But, whereas in the primaries till now, the question used to almost equally divide the voters, in Nevada, 61% of voters wanted someone from outside the Government. This is also reflected in another question which asks the voters about their feelings towards the federal government; fully 59% of voters describe the feeling as angry and Trump wins among such voters with a 48% vote share.

Chart I

Trump again continues to struggle among voters who decided late. But voters deciding late in the Nevada caucus were much lower; only 30% of the voters decided their voting preference in the last one week. Rubio again dominated among such voters (with 39% of such votes, compared to 26% for Trump), thus over-performing his polling numbers, like in Iowa and South Carolina, but it was again a case of too little and too late for him.

Chart III

To top it all, Trump even won by a huge margin of 45%-27% among Hispanics who have been among the more frequent targets of his xenophobic statements, although political nerds will continue to debate if that statistic makes any sense, considering the small sample size (only around 8% of Republican voters were Latinos).

All said and done, Trump won nearly 46% of the votes. This is similar to the votes racked up by Mitt Romney in 2012 (around 50% in both 2008 and 2012). Although it is tempting to compare the results of the two candidates, Trump actually did better in counties which were not very favourable to Romney and vice versa. A scatter plot showing the county wise voting share comparison of Trump in 2016 and Romney in 2012 shows as much:

Chart IV

However, it may be mentioned here that both Romney and Trump did very well in Clarke County which is by far the largest county in the state. Around 68% of the total voting population of Nevada in the 2012 general election came from this single county.

For Ted Cruz, it is difficult to take anything positive from tonight. He has now lost in a Southern primary and a western caucus, in two regions which should have been most favourable to him. In fact, he finished below Rubio in both the states. I had written before that Cruz’s performance till now has followed a pattern – he does very well among very conservative voters, his support drops by half among somewhat conservative voters, he loses support by another half among moderate voters. This pattern held up in Nevada as well. He won 34% of very conservative votes, 16% of somewhat conservative votes and 7% of moderate votes, in an almost exact replica of South Carolina performance. If this is leading him to third place in states having higher percentage of very conservative votes and lower percentage of moderate voters, it does not speak very highly of his prospects in the more moderate terrains of east and west coast or even mid west. To make matters worse, Cruz even lost the very conservative votes to Trump.

Chart VI

Marco Rubio’s campaign will spin coming second in Nevada as a sort of success for him. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to find positives for him as well. Nevada was once supposed to be a state favourable to Rubio, a state which would act as a firewall for him after below par performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. After all, Rubio had spent a part of his childhood in the state and even attended the Mormon church. In fact, Civis Analytics conduct a series of state wide polls in the period between August and December, 2015 and found out that North-east, Florida and the West (including Nevada) were among the regions most favourable to Rubio.

But depressingly for Rubio, he lost the counties bordering Utah decisively to both Cruz and Trump. Although the population of such counties is not very high, it does not portend very well for Rubio in the other western states of Utah and Arizona which have a large Mormon population and which he should be winning to have any shot at the nomination. Further, Rubio also got only around 25% of the votes in the urban counties of Clarke County and Washoe County, counties which should be favourable to a mainstream candidate like him, badly lagging Trump in both.

After the results of South Carolina, I spoke about how the countywise performance of Rubio mirrored that of Romney in 2012. But in Nevada, the relationship was very weak. The county wise comparison is mentioned in the following scatter plot.

Chart V

In Nevada, Rubio did not have the excuse of a divided establishment lane either. Bush and Christie have already dropped out and Kasich got a mere 3.6% of the vote share. Among voters who prefer experience, Rubio was the overwhelming favourite, winning 53% of such voters, far more than in Iowa or South Carolina. It was just that such voters were a significant minority in Nevada (32% of total voters), as opposed to roughly half the voters in earlier states.

Finally, a word about Kasich. Again, I like his sunny temperament and I acknowledge that he has a great resume. But I am not sure what he is trying to achieve at this moment. His performance in Nevada was beyond bad, he finished dead last in each of the seventeen counties, even behind Ben Carson. You just cannot win the Republican nomination by campaigning hard in the North-east.

On the flipside, it is, of course, also very easy to overstate the significance of the Nevada caucus. After all, as I mentioned above, it was a caucus attended only by around 76,000 voters. However, the Super Tuesday is just a week away and currently, Trump is leading pretty much everywhere in the map, often by staggering margins. Today’s results have further reinforced the aura of invincibility surrounding Trump’s campaign. Rubio and Cruz have to shake up the race vigorously in the next few days, otherwise by the end of this fortnight, they may be looking at a Trump delegate lead that becomes almost insurmountable.


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