The Long (But Not Impossible) Odds of a Rubio Upset Tonight

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Marco Rubio Holds Campaign Rally In North Las Vegas
Does a pile of endorsements mean anything anymore?Photo: Ethan Miller/2016 Getty Images

Tonight’s Nevada Republican caucuses are generally being treated as a mere teaser for March 1, a.k.a. Super Tuesday, when 14 states will hold primaries or caucuses. Nevada’s gatherings won’t conclude until midnight EST, and the sparse polling (just two public surveys this calendar year) indicates a ho-hum walkaway for Donald Trump, whose name appears nightly on the neon landscape of the Las Vegas Strip via his branded hotel. 

But Nevada also represents a microcosm of this week’s big Republican development: the beginning of a consolidation of elected officials behind Marco Rubio. Three of the four Republican members of Nevada’s congressional delegation endorsed Rubio over the weekend, including Senator Dean Heller, a former Bush supporter. Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison heads up a potentially important contingent of Mormon supporters for Rubio, who was a Nevada Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints member as a child. Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah has been campaigning for Rubio in Nevada, and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah has backed his campaign as well; if LDS turnout comes even close to the numbers that Mitt Romney drew in 2008 and 2012 (about 25 percent of the total vote), that could be an ace in the hole. Rubio also has a well-regarded Nevada organization, which typically matters in low-turnout caucuses.

Could Rubio manage an upset tonight? The odds aren’t good, per the one Nevada journalist Washingtonians consult on these matters:

It would take a miracle for him to finish any higher than second,” said veteran Nevada journalist Jon Ralston. “He’s got a very, very good ground game run by some very smart people. … They know what they’re doing.”

Aside from Trump’s big lead in the polls, there’s this little matter of Ted Cruz, who also has a well-regarded Nevada organization, along with the backing of Attorney General Mark Laxalt, the closest thing the state has to an insurgent conservative leader. And Cruz has skillfully tied himself to the conservative side in two local disputes: a controversial tax increase being pushed by Republican governor Brian Sandoval, and Cliven Bundy–style opposition to federal land policies, which Cruz is using to blast Trump’s robust defense of eminent-domain proceedings. 

The bottom line is that Rubio’s Establishment Republican supporters, hopeful for any sign that a consolidation of support behind him can halt Trump’s momentum and push Cruz out of the race, would go absolutely wild if the Floridian somehow won Nevada. Indeed, even a strong second-place finish would earn some hype, combined with Rubio’s by-an-eyelash No. 2 finish in South Carolina. On the other hand, if Trump wins and Cruz is second, Nevada will for the most part be allowed to resume its status as a 2016 footnote. Either way, we may learn a lot about the actual value of Rubio’s growing stack of endorsements.