5 things to watch for in Nevada’s GOP caucuses

5 things to watch for in Nevada’s GOP caucuses
© Greg Nash

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE hopes to rack up his third consecutive win as the GOP presidential race heads to Nevada on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE continue their fight to be the candidate who emerges as the one most likely to derail Trump. 

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Here are five things to watch for in the Silver State’s caucuses, the last stop before next week’s onslaught of contests known as Super Tuesday. 

 

Can Trump win a caucus?

Trump has proved that he can turn out his supporters in high numbers, posting decisive wins in both the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.

But Nevada’s caucus process, which typically draws low voter turnout, could complicate his rise there. Trump’s only loss this election cycle occurred  in Iowa’s caucuses, to Cruz.

Ground games are essential in caucus states, and that’s a spot where Trump has lagged compared to rivals like Cruz and Rubio.

Just 33,000 Republicans turned out for the 2012 caucuses, less than 10 percent of the state’s registered Republicans and five times fewer voters than caucused in Iowa earlier this month.

Trump’s path to victory hinges on, as it does in most states, how successful his organization will be at driving that number as high as possible by convincing new voters to spend an evening caucusing for him.

 

Can Rubio break out?

Fresh off a tight second-place finish in South Carolina, Rubio has been bolstered by the departure of Jeb Bush as he looks to lock in his role as the establishment candidate and post a decisive win ahead of Super Tuesday.

The Florida senator likely is hoping to replicate Romney’s 2012 strategy, which relied in part on winning about 90 percent of the Mormon vote. Rubio has a unique appeal with that segment, having been baptized into the church as a child while living in Las Vegas before leaving the faith as a teenager.

Since South Carolina, Rubio has amassed support from three Nevada lawmakers, including Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerDems look to use Moore against GOP Senate hearing shows Fed chair nominee acts the part Senate GOP votes to begin debate on tax bill MORE, an influential Mormon congressman who previously backed Bush. And Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison leads Rubio’s efforts in the state.

A strong second-place showing would go far to establish him as the main alternative to Trump and deal a severe blow to chief rival Cruz.

 

Can Cruz dominate with the base?

Cruz is in many ways the most conservative candidate in the field, typically a boon because primary voters trend further toward the political poles than the general electorate.

But while he sits in second place in the delegate count, with 11 compared to Trump’s 68, his path seems more complicated in Nevada.

The state lacks an overwhelming evangelical population, voters Cruz has worked hard to win over. But even with that natural constituency, Cruz has seen Trump win the bloc in two of the three contests so far, and Ben Carson’s long-shot candidacy continues to divert evangelicals his way.

Cruz will likely embrace his conservatism amid an aggressive push both on the airwaves and on the stump to tar Trump as a moderate. Voters identifying as “very conservative” made up almost half the caucus turnout in 2012, so a dominant performance with that group could go a long way on Tuesday.

 

Is this Carson’s swan song?

Carson is largely expected to finish as an afterthought in Nevada as his presidential campaign continues to sputter along.

It’s all been downhill for Carson since a fourth-place result in Iowa, finishing eighth in New Hampshire and sixth in South Carolina.

But the retired neurosurgeon, once battling Trump for the top of the polls, continues to press on, arguing he owes it to his supporters to try to turn his campaign around.

Absent a major surprise in Nevada, which would require a commanding win among evangelicals, a turnaround is unlikely.

The race immediately becomes more expensive heading into Super Tuesday, when campaigns will need the resources to compete in the 11 states awarding delegates that day.

So with Carson’s continuous money woes — he’s down to just $4 million on hand after spending more than he made in January — he’ll likely lack the finances to make a play outside of a few states.

 

How will pre-caucus polls fare?

Nevada is a notoriously difficult state to poll. So while pundits and political junkies have labored on every fluctuation in the dozens of polls in other early-voting states, Republicans head into Nevada largely flying blind.

There have been just five polls of Nevada Republicans aggregated by RealClearPolitics during this cycle — three by Gravis and two by CNN/ORC — and just two of them in 2016.

CNN’s most recent figures showed Trump with a dominating lead, followed by Rubio and Cruz locked in a tight race for second.

The lack of polls is likely purposeful. Pollsters rarely find success in Nevada, which that led to a similar dearth of polling there in 2012.

In 2008, RealClearPolitics’s final averages had Romney with 26 percent and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE in second, with 21 percent. Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giulianni and Fred Thompson all trailed in a tight race for third.

But Romney finished with 51 percent of the vote, while Ron Paul overcame his bottom-of-the-barrel polling to finish in a distant second.