USA 2012: Nevada caucuses 2012

After Florida’s primary on January 31, the the race for the Republican nomination in the United States shifted far westward to Nevada, which held caucuses on February 4.

Following his landslide defeat to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, Mitt Romney roared back in Florida with a 14-point win over Gingrich in the biggest state to vote thus far. Romney’s crushing of Gingrich in Florida was made possible by Romney’s huge financial base, which far outweighs Gingrich’s financial backings, and which made a series of hard hitting attack ads on Gingrich possible for Romney. Gingrich not only came out of Florida limping on to the next contests, he also came out of there with his favourability ratings almost down the train with GOP voters and a campaign which seems crazier by the day. Romney’s win in Florida re-established him as the likely nominee, but he will have to wait longer than he might want to officially get that crown. In the meantime, however, Romney can cheer himself up with a February schedule which is generally leaning in his favour and pretty unfavourable to Gingrich, who pins his hopes on Southern primaries on Super Tuesday March 6.

The first of the February contests was Nevada, where Mitt Romney had won 51% against Ron Paul’s 13.7% in 2008. Nevada’s caucus electorate is predictably very conservative – it was only slightly less conservative than Iowa’s caucus electorate in 2008 – and that advantaged Romney in 2008 but disadvantages him now. But 25% of Nevada’s GOP electorate is Mormon, which is Mitt Romney’s strongest base. Organization is also pretty important in a caucus, where a candidate’s ability to get out the vote is one of the main keys to caucus success. Romney has one of the strongest organization of any GOP candidate, while in contrast Gingrich’s organization in Nevada was in shambles and barely operative. Ron Paul’s Nevada machine, however, was well-oiled, and Paul has always performed strongly in caucus states, and perhaps doubly so this year as he appeals more and more to deficit-hawk conservatives.

The caucuses were a total mess and the vote counting process was a disgrace. It took the party about a full day to figure out what to count, how to count and when to count the votes in Clark County (Las Vegas), meaning that full results basically came out this morning after they wasted the whole of yesterday figuring out what they were doing.

Results and Conclusions

Mitt Romney 50.12%
Newt Gingrich 21.15%
Ron Paul 18.77%
Rick Santorum 9.96%

Mitt Romney was able to win a pretty significant victory in Nevada, with over 50% of the vote, despite the conservatism of 83% of caucus-goers. He won a result slightly below his 2008 result, likely because of his struggles with conservative voters thus far this year. But it is still a very significant win for Romney, a win which again boosts his momentum going into February.

Newt Gingrich manged to place a very distant second, surprisingly beating out Ron Paul for second place when many had assumed that Paul would do quite well (over 20% at least) in a state which is generally seen as being favourable to his campaign. Gingrich likely remains the second-place contender in the national race, but his path to a potential nomination is very much unclear and his campaign will struggle throughout February despite his insistence that he will fight until the convention in August. Perhaps Romney quite likes it that way, because having a Newt Gingrich consistently placing second but not dropping out only divides the ‘not-Romney’ vote and Gingrich is far less of a threat to Romney in a one-on-one fight than Santorum is. Santorum’s main problem is his lack of funds and his very feeble non-Iowa organization, because otherwise Santorum has the qualities required to seriously threaten Romney: a clean, polished and well-managed campaign, a strong and conservative record. In contrast, Gingrich’s campaign is all over the place, full of mishaps, his past full of skeletons and a record which doesn’t really reek of sparkling-clean conservatism. Yet, Santorum has too few funds and an organization too weak to appear as a viable conservative alternative. His base so far seems to be non-Southern religious/social populist conservatives, which is a very limited base to work with. Santorum placed a very poor fourth in Nevada, where he had invested some resources, with only 10% of the vote.

The February 7 contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri are a make-or-break chance for Santorum, who must fight to maintain his campaign in the sphere of relevance. Missouri’s primary is a joke as it is non-binding, but given that Gingrich is not on the ballot there, Santorum has a great chance at proving himself one-on-one against Romney in a state which has some demographics favourable to the not-Romney candidates. Romney carried Minnesota’s caucuses easily in 2008 against John McCain, but a poll has shown Santorum leading a very divided field, and a win in Minnesota would be excellent news for Santorum.

Ron Paul will also be fighting for the prize in Minnesota, where he might be within striking distance of his first state victory. A victory in Minnesota could boost his chances in Maine’s week-long caucuses (Feb 4-11), where early leaks have said that Paul is actually ahead thus far. Ron Paul won’t win the nomination, but in the very slight chance that it boils down to a convention fight, a Paul coming in with a big slate of delegates could give him some pretty strong bargaining cards.

Entrance Poll Data

Nevada’s electorate was quite old: 35% were above 65, about the same as in Florida. Given that older voters heavily back Romney everywhere (they did so in Nevada again, with 54%, the highest of all age groups), this likely explains part of why Romney won. He still won all other age groups except Paul’s core 17-29 base, which preferred Paul over Romney by 5 points (41-36). In terms of income, again, we find a graduated income scale in perfect correlation with Romney’s support. He lost those earning less than $30k to Gingrich and Paul (32 and 31% respectively vs. 29%) while winning all other income groups, peaking at 54% among those who earned between $100-200k. Nevada’s voters are not known for being extremely rich, and those earning over $200k made up only 6% of the electorate – too small for a reliable sample. They likely backed Romney very heavily.

83% of Nevada’s caucus-goers were conservatives – as much as in Iowa and 8% more than in the 2008 Nevada caucuses. That Romney was able to dominate this group without too much worries is encouraging for him, who has so far struggled to win conservatives (he lost the very conservative crowd to Newt in Florida). Conservatives gave him 51% support against 23% for Gingrich and 15% for Paul. This is down 5 from 2008, when Romney was clearly the conservative alternative to McCain. In fact, Romney did better with conservatives than moderates: he won moderates/liberals 48-36 over Paul. The 49% who identified as ‘very conservative’ backed Romney 46-25 over Gingrich, a result down 11 points from 2008 for Mitt. Yet, his result with moderates is up 11 on 2008. Nevada’s conservative electorate is unlike the ‘Southern-type’ conservative electorate in Iowa, South Carolina or Florida. Nevada conservatives are probably those who care the least about gays and abortions (only 4% cited abortion as their top issue), but are probably very conservative on economic and fiscal issues – 75% supported the Tea Party (those who did backed Romney pretty convincingly too). On issues of taxes and economic conservatives, Romney has indisputable appeal to those types of conservatives. Yet only 4% of those who cited being a “true conservative” as the top candidate quality backed Romney.

Mormons were a quarter of the electorate and gave Romney 88% of the vote, down from 95% in 2008. Catholics gave Romney 48% of the vote, but Protestants only gave him a 37-34 edge over Gingrich.

On the ability to defeat Obama, still the top candidate quality, Romney scored a home run: 70% of those who cited that as their top quality in a candidate backed Romney. His electability card remains a powerful weapon which all other candidates struggle to seize from him.

Geographic Analysis

Results of the NV caucuses (source: uselectionatlas)

Nevada is a large state, but in electoral terms, elections are made and often won in Clark County (Las Vegas), which contained 53% of the GOP caucus-goers. In second place, Washoe County (Reno) contributes another share, while the vast sprawling desert contains few voters. Romney definitely owes part of his success in Nevada to his convincing victory in Clark, where he won 57.7% of the vote, Paul placing a distant second with 19% in the Sin City’s county. Clark County Republicans tend to be affluent and suburban, a perfect base for Romney. There might be a not-insignificant Mormon base in Clark County’s GOP caucus-goers, but Mormons are usually found in Lincoln County, just north of Clark, where Romney won 83.6% of the vote in a county which is about 50% Mormon (and looks like a flipped Utah). To a lesser extent, the Mormon vote likely influenced the results in White Pine County and maybe Elko County, but Elko is a fairly well-off semi-booming gold mining town, which is a kind of place which Romney should do well in.

Gingrich and Santorum performed better in the sparsely populated desert areas (outside those bordering Utah, obviously), likely more Protestant and conservative. Gingrich won 28% to Romney’s 42% in Washoe (Reno), and actually won a county – Mineral – which seems fairly unremarkable except being an old mining boom town county which barely has anybody left anymore (only 103 GOP caucus-goers).

Ron Paul had carried one county against Romney in 2008 – Nye – and he repeated his success in Nye, building on it even, taking 45.8% in Nye, whose biggest town is Pahrump. He also won tiny Esmeralda County – 58 GOP caucus-goers on Saturday. Pahrump and Nye are very libertarian places, part of it influenced by a phenomenon common to the entire Rocky Mountain West – the federal government owns most of the land. Otherwise, Pahrump is a very live-and-let-live type of place: unlike in Vegas, prostitution is legal and brothels operate in town; and people are extremely pro-gun, and voters are libertarian and independent in their politics. This is pure Paul country, and also the type of place – besides Vegas – which the name Nevada often evokes.

30,000 or so GOP voters turned out to caucus on Saturday, which is actually down from 44,000 caucus-goers in 2008. This is not an encouraging sign for the NV GOP in a swing state like Nevada. Unlike in the 2008 Democratic contest, the opposition party seems to have little ground enthusiasm for the candidates lining up to defeat the incumbent. Another part of the story is that the NV GOP is in shambles, as it demonstrated by its total ineptness at vote counting. Their organization on the ground is terrible and their coordination of the caucus was apparently a total mess. While this might not prevent Romney or the GOP candidate from potentially winning the state in November (although I wouldn’t bet on it), it is never good news for a swing state party to be inept at what it does and totally devoid in ground-base or organization.

For the first time since Iowa, we know relatively little about the caucuses and beauty-pageant primary being held on February 7. For the first time, in states such as Minnesota, we have a hard time predicting the outcome.

Posted on February 7, 2012, in Primaries, leadership contests or internal party votes, U.S.A.. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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