1) Hillary firewall holds; Bernie hits his ceiling
Despite a last-minute surge of “Bern-mentum” and weakening support among Latinos, Hillary Clinton put up a strong showing at the Nevada caucuses on Saturday thanks in part to strong support from African-Americans and older voters. Her coalition today looks like a hybrid of the Clinton 2008 base (women, core Democrats, and older voters) and Obama’s 2008 voters (African-Americans and more affluent, college-educated white voters).
Sanders, meanwhile, failed to prove that his coalition, while energized and engaged, has the depth and breadth needed to survive in states that are more diverse. For example, while he once again crushed Clinton among young people - winning those under 45 years old with 72 percent - and made inroads with Latinos, he lost African-Americans by 54 points and those over 45 years old (who made up 63 percent of the electorate) by 34 points. Moreover, if the exit polls are correct, he carried Latinos by just 8 points. In her narrow 2008 win in Nevada, Clinton won Latinos by 38 points.
Sanders’ road post-Nevada doesn’t get much easier. The playing field for the next couple of weeks is on decidedly tough terrain for him. Upcoming primaries between now andMarch 1 include racially diverse states like South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Colorado and Virginia.
Sanders has the money and the energy to go deep into the primary season. However, at some point, as Clinton learned in 2008, the delegate math starts to work against you and there’s simply nothing you can do to change that.
2) Trump wins big and is going to be tough to stop
Trump deserves his due - he won big last night. This, despite a terrible debate performance, a fight with the Pope (!), and an ongoing war of words with Ted Cruz. As he did in New Hampshire, Trump won with a broad though not particularly deep coalition of voters. He ran best with moderate, independent and non-college educated voters. But, he also managed to carry evangelicals, Republicans and men. It is likely that he will win all of the state’s 50 delegates, which would keep him on track to clinch the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination.
The only question now is whether he can be stopped? Trump has a narrow “trading range” with a solid floor of about 25 percent and a ceiling somewhere around 35 percent. In a two-way race, that 35 percent is a problem. But, in a five-way contest, that 35 percent can still be enough to win. Even split three ways, Trump can squeak out a victory with 35 percent. Unless and until the field gets culled to Trump and one strong alternative, the billionaire has to be considered the favorite.
3) Cruz is in trouble - big trouble
From the beginning, Cruz’s strategy was based on putting together a strong showing among conservative and evangelical voters that would help muscle him through South Carolina and the SEC primary states. Yet in South Carolina, a state where 73 percent of the electorate defined themselves as evangelical, and where Cruz attacked Trump for his past support of abortion rights, Cruz lost the evangelical vote to Trump by six points! If Cruz can’t win in South Carolina, a state tailor-made for a conservative, evangelical candidate, what makes him think that he can win in similar-looking southern states that vote on March 1? And, as I wrote earlier this week, losing out on South Carolina’s 50 delegates puts a major - perhaps insurmountable - roadblock in his path to winning the delegate race.
4) Rubio now officially the “establishment” winner - now must prove he can beat Trump
Marco Rubio did in South Carolina what he failed to do in New Hampshire: finish strongly ahead of his establishment rivals Jeb Bush and John Kasich. With Bush now out of the contest, Rubio not only gets access to Bush’s donors and voters, but also benefits from no longer having to endure the millions of dollars of attacks lobbed at him by the Bush super PAC.
Still standing in Rubio’s way, however, is Kasich. Kasich has no real path to winning the GOP nomination. However, he could siphon away enough votes from Rubio to make Rubio’s path tougher. In South Carolina, for example, adding Bush's 8 percent of the vote to Rubio's 23 percent still leaves Rubio two points shy of beating Trump's 33 percent. It's only when you add Kasich's 8 percent showing that Rubio gets over the top. The question now, however, is if Kasich will have either the money or the momentum to hold on much longer. If Rubio beats Kasich handily in Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia on March 1, Kasich will lack the rationale - and cash - to make it until the March 8 Michigan and March 15 Ohio primaries.
The pressure is then on Rubio to show he can stand up to Trump on the debate stage (Bush's failure to do so was a big reason for his loss) as well as to win in non-southern states like Illinois, Ohio, and Florida in mid-March and in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New York in mid-April. If he does, he has a real path to the nomination.
The primary fights are far from over, but after this weekend it’s clear that Clinton, Trump and Rubio look stronger, while Cruz and Sanders look weaker.