By Jacob Solis
It’s finally official. All of Nevada’s precious caucus votes have been cast and a candidate has finally come out on top. That candidate, as many have probably heard by now, is none other than Donald J. Trump.
The real estate tycoon has flipped the American political landscape upside down, defying pundits and party leaders as well as the typical political calculus. But what is that political calculus and how does Trump’s big win in Nevada factor in? What was the driving force behind that win and will any of this impact the 11-state voting bonanza that is Super Tuesday?
Here are the facts:
A normal year
Politics in the United States is (usually) tightly bound to certain patterns and institutions, especially when it comes to winning elections. In the past, two things have driven electoral victories: money and endorsements.
The idea that money wins elections is a fairly logical one. All those buttons and TV ads cost a pretty penny, and only candidates with enough dough to continuously and vigorously push their message across the airwaves and elsewhere usually stick around long enough to be nominated.
This money, especially in the past 20 years, is coming from political action committees, or PACs, as well as the less-restricted super PAC.
These PACs act as a rather ingenious workaround to campaign finance regulations that put a pin on the amount of money any one individual can spend on any one campaign, that limit being $5,200 per two-year election cycle.
PACs, as defined by the Federal Election Commission, are political committees that represent the interests of corporations, unions or interest groups. This can include anyone from the National Rifle Association to Nevada’s own Culinary Union. These PACs are limited in much the same way as people, with spending limits on individual campaigns set in the four-figure range.
Super PACs, however, have no such restrictions. This unlimited fundraising usually provides a driving force for presidential campaigns, as it did when Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC raised $110 million before he even entered the race.
However, where money keeps campaigns afloat, it’s endorsements that seal nominations. The data-journalism site FiveThirtyEight has tracked and weighted endorsements for every presidential race from 1980 to the present, and in every single race but 2008, the eventual nominee had a majority of the possible endorsements by the halfway mark between Iowa and the nominating conventions.
This year is no normal year
First, let’s look at the money.
Donald Trump, in a fashion not too dissimilar to Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders, has shunned so-called “big money.” In its stead, the Donald has used a fair amount of his own money to fund his campaign, coupled with an equally fair amount of small contributions from supporters.
As a result, Trump has only raised $27.3 million for his campaign war chest, according to The New York Times. Of all the candidates left in the race on both sides of the aisle, it puts Trump tied for dead last in fundraising alongside Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
For comparison, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic fundraiser, has raised $188 million. In the Republican race, Ted Cruz has raised just over $100 million. For each of those candidates, $50 million or more came directly from PACs or super PACs, again according to The New York Times.
While things may be panning out nicely for Clinton, the outlook is not so rosy for Cruz, who trails Trump nationally by an average of 16 points.
In terms of endorsements, Trump fares no better. While he picked up a welcome endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Friday, and has picked up two other endorsements since, Trump has still only received five total.
It’s a far cry from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s pulled in more than 60 endorsements including one from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a rising star in the GOP whose name has been mentioned more than once as a potential vice presidential nominee.
Even so, Haley’s endorsement meant little in the South Carolina primary, which Rubio lost soundly by 10 percent.
And in Nevada, both these things meant even less to the juggernaut Trump campaign, which won the state by more than 20 percent, winning pluralities in every single demographic. Trump did it by pulling out a record number of caucusgoers — just over 75,000. It’s almost double the Republican turnout from 2008 and almost 2 1/2 times the turnout from 2012.
This turnout is key for Trump, because it is composed largely of first-time voters who had been keeping themselves from the polls because they had been alienated, in some way, shape or form, by the Republican Party. Now, Trump has created a party of his own that is driven by voters ready and willing to break away from the party elites who had, up until this year, held sway over the system.
What does this mean for Super Tuesday?
It all means an uphill battle for the fledgling Rubio and Cruz, who have failed to stem Trump’s momentum since the Iowa caucus nearly one month ago. The fact that no Republican since 1988 has won New Hampshire and South Carolina — as Trump has done — and failed to win the nomination has more than upset pundits and party insiders alike.
It comes as a respite then that even with his electoral wins, Trump has only ever won a plurality of the vote, not a majority (though he came close in Nevada), and is generally viewed poorly among moderate Republicans. But even in blue states like California and New York, FiveThirtyEight predicts Trump wins, though it should be noted that polling to support these conclusions is remarkably sparse.
At this moment, on Super Tuesday itself, the only possible scenario where Trump doesn’t take the nomination is one where Rubio, Cruz and even Kasich stick in the race for the long haul. If that happens, the fight for the GOP nomination is far from over. If that doesn’t happen, the GOP may just have to accept a Trump nomination come July.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.