Cruz and Rubio Played Smart Nevada Politics — and Got Waxed Anyway

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Trump is the one candidate able at this point to run a genuinely national campaign.

When you look closely at how senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz approached Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses, you cannot help but be impressed. Despite all of the competing demands of last week’s pivotal South Carolina primary and the riot of events coming up in March, both candidates came up with smart strategies nicely customized for Nevada. 

Rubio played up his personal connection to Las Vegas (where he lived as a child) and its Mormon community (to which his family once belonged), featuring high-profile LDS endorsers from Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison to Utah’s Jason Chaffetz and Orrin Hatch. He also quickly picked up local support from Jeb Bush’s once-formidable Nevada organization, featuring Senator Dean Heller, and “borrowed” much of Governor Brian Sandoval’s political network. 

Meanwhile, Cruz parachuted into Nevada and immediately tied his campaign to two red-hot local ideological conflicts: the perennial battle over federal land policies (smartly identifying Trump with the highly unpopular cause of eminent-domain “seizures” of private property) and a tax increase being proposed by Sandoval that Nevada conservatives were fighting. After securing the support of Attorney General Mark Laxalt, the closest thing to a surviving “tea party” leader in the state, Cruz conducted his own, distinctly right-wing LDS strategy by featuring talk-show conspiracy theorist and (incidentally) Mormon Glenn Beck in his Nevada events. 

So given the shrewdness of these senatorial strategies and various aspects of the Nevada caucuses that did not bode well for Trump (e.g., a closed caucus structure without Iowa’s EZ same-day party-switch option), it’s no surprise there was speculation in the air Tuesday that the Donald might stumble or at least underwhelm in Nevada.

Didn’t happen, though. On the heels of a monster rally in Las Vegas Monday night, Trump’s national road show trashed all of the local calculations of his rivals and overcame all of the obstacles the caucuses posed for him. Instead of stumbling, Trump set a new and higher “ceiling” for his support while exhibiting strength in nearly every demographic and ideological category. All politics were not, it turned out, local. 

That could be a critical asset for Trump in the massive number of nomination contest events on the near horizon. In the 11 March 1 states with anything like recent polling, Trump leads in nine, and is a close second in the other two. One of the latter is Texas, where Ted Cruz really cannot afford to lose; that will constrain him significantly in how he spends his time and money during the next critical week. Just a bit down the road, on March 15, John Kasich and Marco Rubio will face similarly existential moments in their home states, with the added fear factor that both are winner-take-all contests. Trump leads in the most recent polling in both states; his Florida lead is particularly impressive. That can certainly change (the Florida polls were all taken before Jeb Bush’s withdrawal), but, again, Kasich and Rubio will have to defend their home states even as Trump is free to go where the delegates are.  

It’s hard to measure the intangible value of Trump’s ability to just be himself and give his rambling, stream-of-consciousness speeches before big excited crowds in events that are all but interchangeable. But unless, say, he screws up egregiously in a nationally televised debate like Thursday’s in Houston that knocks him down multiple points everywhere, or one of his surviving opponents instantly implodes, Trump has the enormous advantage of a general able to outflank an opposing army chained to a fixed but vulnerable point of defense.