In the third presidential nominating contest for both the Democrats and the Republicans, everything the polls said would happen did. And still the night was full of surprises.
Let's start with the Republicans.
Donald J. Trump officially won a contest that he had been winning for some time. Almost everyone knew he was going to win it, but some people clung to the belief that he wouldn’t actually pull it off.
I’m not talking about the South Carolina primary, though he also won that. I’m talking about his war on the candidacy of Jeb Bush.
Who would have predicted that in 2016 the younger Bush brother would pour money and manpower into an unwinnable fight, only to discover that the facts on the ground weren’t what they seemed, that for some time his advisers had just been telling him what he wanted to hear, and that the madman he hoped to eliminate had a lot more support than most people believed possible?
It seems like just yesterday that Jeb was telling CBS’s Major Garrett that his campaign was “mission accomplished.” Now it’s over, and all that remains is what seems like unmanageable chaos in the GOP field.
So what does this mean for the remaining candidates in the fight for the Republican nomination? It certainly doesn’t look good for anyone who isn’t named Donald Trump.
Sure, Jeb’s exit from the race does mean that his 5% to 8% support can be redistributed to other establishment candidates. But Trump finished 10 points ahead of his nearest competitor in South Carolina and is running well ahead of all his rivals in the polls for Tuesday’s Nevada GOP caucus.
This despite the fact that he spent two weeks defying GOP orthodoxy by criticizing the last serving Republican president, saying Planned Parenthood does “good things,” and, most recently, endorsing the individual health-insurance mandate, which somehow went from being THE conservative litmus test of the 2012 race to being nothing more than a shrug emoji in the GOP platform.
Marco Rubio narrowly beat Ted Cruz for second place and declared that "this has become a three-person race." But it’s hard to argue at this point that Trump is not the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.
On to the Democrats. Hillary Clinton won the Nevada caucuses by 5 percentage points. The conventional wisdom had been that Bernie Sanders could only win there if he managed to break through Clinton’s “firewall” of Latino and Latina supporters. So Sanders supporters were optimistic when major media outlets reported that entrance polls showed him winning the Latin@ vote by a small margin.
So what happened? The short story: The media lied. As Vox’s Dara Lind incisively points out, entrance polls aren’t designed to measure the demographics of the voting population. Pollsters are placed strategically to test a specific sample of voters that will allow media organizations to make the quickest and most accurate projections about who won the race. They are not conducted to accurately represent the demographics of the electorate.
Nobody expects your average election observer to know that, but you know who probably should? The media outlets that designed those polls in the first place. Almost every one of those outlets reported the early polling as a good sign for Sanders, only to eat their words later.
Those polls do suggest that Sanders had some appeal in Nevada’s Latin@ community, so what was it that gave his opponent the edge? Ironically enough for the socialist senator from Vermont, his opponent may have had an edge because the capital class decided to give the proletariat some paid time off.
An influential local culinary workers union that has endorsed candidates in previous elections stayed on the sidelines this year. Other endorsements don’t make much of a difference, but the culinary workers' endorsement comes with a voter-turnout operation. The local's decision not to endorse meant no extra turnout. That wasn’t a good thing for Clinton, who polled ahead of Sanders in the area around Las Vegas where the culinary workers are concentrated.
Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada came to Clinton’s rescue. At the last minute, he pushed the union leadership to get their ranks to the polls on caucus day, and the union negotiated paid time off for workers at several major casinos. According to MSNBC, Clinton won several of the precincts on the Vegas Strip by almost 2 to 1.
Sanders has an uphill climb in the primary next Saturday in South Carolina, where he trails Clinton in recent polls by about 20 points. He may fare a little better on March 1, when he’s favored to win primaries in Massachusetts and his home state of Vermont, and has opportunities for wins in left-leaning caucus states like Colorado and Minnesota. Clinton, on the other hand, will benefit from a large number of Southern states that day.
This loss narrows Sanders’ outside path to the nomination, but anyone who thinks he’ll get out soon should think again. Sanders is still sitting on a ton of money and has an incredibly powerful small-dollar fundraising operation that can keep him running all the way to the convention.