Republican Caucuses Begin in Nevada

February 24, 2016, 1:44 AM UTC
Photograph by Ethan Miller/ Getty Images

Update, Feb. 24 12:18 a.m.: Donald Trump has won the Republican caucuses in Nevada, according to AP projections.

Even before doors closed on Nevada’s caucuses on Tuesday, it was clear that the results would inevitably be dismissed as shady.

Caucus locations weren’t set to shut down until 9 p.m. local time (midnight on the East Coast), but Twitter and other social media platforms were screaming about fraud. A win by Donald Trump—if the few polls turn out to be predictive—would likely immediately to be discounted by his critics. After all, there were pictures on Twitter of ballot collectors dressed in Trump gear.

The caucuses were not a state-run affair, as primaries in other states are. Instead, they were being run by the state GOP, and its leaders were feeling the criticism that, in typical online fashion, seemed to gain steam with each retweet.

“It’s not against the rules for volunteers to wear candidate gear,” the state party tweeted. “Volunteers went through extensive training & are doing a great job.”

In another tweet, the party tried to downplay the controversies: “There have been no official reports of voting irregularities or violations.”

Nevadans were trying to decide whether they wanted to be the third domino in a row to fall in favor for Trump, the brash billionaire who began Tuesday the odds-on-favorite to prevail. Nevada’s caucuses are almost impossible to predict and trickier still to win.

The caucuses come amid a winnowing of the GOP field down to five, although it really is just a three-man race in Nevada. Trump has proved a durability many Republicans thought impossible, and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas were gaining steam after strong finishes in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Turnout in Nevada is expected to be low, and might be the first time rivals see Trump prevail in a place that isn’t seeing a crush of new voters. Turnout is expected to be just 10 to 15% of the 400,000 registered Republicans. That has meant public polling has been rare and is notoriously unreliable.

Cruz and Rubio, meanwhile, are locked in an increasingly testy fight behind Trump. The pair essentially tied in South Carolina on Saturday, a contest that, at least for the moment, relegated Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to a second tier—and forced Jeb Bush from the race altogether. Rubio edged out Cruz in South Carolina, although both campaigns expected Tuesday’s results in Nevada to be tight.

Campaigns were careful not to set expectations too high in the volatile state. “Our hope and expectation is to do well here,” Cruz told reporters Sunday in Pahrump, Nevada. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Rubio ally, said his candidate needs only finish in the “top three”—in what is essentially a three-man race—to claim victory.

At stake are just 30 of the 2,472 delegates who will attend the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and they will be divided proportionally among the finishers. So far, only 102 have been awarded in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, with Trump leading with 68.

Those early states helped winnow the field of contenders such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Tuesday’s results were unlikely to trim the field any more. Kasich was largely sitting out the Nevada contest, focusing on larger contests set for the coming weeks, while Carson’s phantom campaign has held only a handful of campaign events between presidential debates.

The five remaining candidates were set to meet Thursdaynight in Houston for a debate ahead of the biggest day yet for Republicans: March 1, when 13 states were set to weigh-in. The Super Tuesday contest was scheduled to award 571 delegates—the biggest chunk so far.

That’s why Rubio was set to watch the Nevada caucuses from Grand Rapids, Michigan, which votes on March 8. Kasich was set to be in Georgia. Cruz and Trump were scheduled to be Nevada on caucus night, but the evening’s event was unlikely to upend a campaign that has already seen frontrunners fall, a billionaire appeal to struggling working-class voters and former Iowa winners pack their bags and exit.

That’s why Trump holds the best hand here—and not just because his name is splashed across a golden tower on the famous Las Vegas Strip. Trump better than most understands that voters are looking for an outsider and a fighter. It’s good odds that Trump will add to his growing list of wins.

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