As expected, Mitt Romney cruised to an easy win in the Nevada Caucuses on Saturday, more than doubling the vote of his closest rival Newt Gingrich, and leaving Ron Paul and Rick Santorum far behind.
Snafus in tallying the votes from Las Vegas and Clark County, the state's most populous, delayed the final numbers, perhaps into Monday. As of Sunday night, AP is reporting that with 89% of the votes counted, Romney leads with 49%, Gingrich is second with 21%, Ron Paul will finish 3rd with 18%, and Rick Santorum last with 10%.
Gingrich, who declined to give a concession speech and held a press conference instead, continued his brutal assault on the frontrunner, while assuring the media he was in the race until the convention. "I will be a candidate for President of the United States, we will go to Tampa," he told the assembled media in a half hour press conference. That may be his plan, but the immediate future does not appear favorable for the former speaker. The February 7 caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota are not likely to turn his fortunes around, while the Michigan and Arizona primaries at the end of this month are currently Romney strongholds as well.
It was the Mormon vote that propelled Romney to victory. According to entrance polls, one in four voters were LDS members and Romney won 91% of them. Fully 4 in 10 Romney votes came from Mormons -- a fact that some observers believe made the results less significant than some of the entrance poll numbers would indicate.
The former Massachusetts governor gave Gingrich a significant drubbing across the board, winning self-identified conservatives, tea party supporters, evangelical Christians, and all income groups except those making less than $30,000 a year.
Romney also won big with voters who see defeating Barack Obama as the number one issues of the campaign. More than 4 in 10 caucus voters listed electability as their major concern and Romney beat Gingrich by 74-18. But he only won 5% of voters who saw choosing a nominee with the best conservative credentials as the number one issue as Ron Paul carried that group by 45-31 over Gingrich. However, the "True Blue" conservatives comprised only 17% of the electorate in Nevada. Much more numerous were the 48% of caucus goers who identified themselves as "very conservative." Here, the Mormon vote came into play as Romney beat Gingrich among this group by 2-1. This is by far his best showing among this important demographic and can be attributed to strong support by LDS members who largely self-identify as "very conservative."
It's hard to overstate the importance of the Mormon vote to Romney's victory in Nevada. Nowhere else save Utah will Mormons comprise such a large slice of the electorate and Romney's dominance among LDS members slightly skewed some of his entrance poll numbers. But 27% of caucus goers identified themselves as evangelical Christians and Romney carried them by 45-29 over Gingrich. Skewed or not, there were some impressive results for Romney coming out of Nevada -- results he can build on in the coming weeks as he tries to convince a skeptical party that he can not only defeat Barack Obama in the fall, but that he is conservative enough to represent the GOP at the top of the ticket.
Ron Paul scored with independents, secularists, and was even with Romney among voters under 30. Gingrich topped Romney in one significant category: those who self identify as "strong conservatives." Otherwise, it was a dismal night for the former speaker whose Nevada campaign was hobbled by a late start and poor organization.
Therein lies a tale of the mountain Gingrich has to climb in order to get back in the race. Politico reports that 2 days before the caucuses began, the Gingrich phone bank operation consisted of 3 volunteers in a hotel suite making calls. His personal appearances were few, and many announced campaign stops were canceled due to lack of advance work. He had little paid media in Nevada prior to the caucuses and he made the blunder of scheduling a joint appearance with Nevada's popular GOP Governor Brian Sandoval and then cancelling at the last minute.
This "seat of the pants" operation will likely be duplicated in Colorado and Minnesota, which will both hold their caucuses on Tuesday. Romney is far ahead in Colorado according to this PPP poll, leading Rick Santorum 40-26 with Gingrich in 3rd with 18% and Ron Paul with 12%. Pre-caucus polling is notoriously inaccurate but Romney has a strong organization in Colorado and appears a likely winner.
Minnesota, however, is different. Here, Santorum is actually ahead in a close race. The former Pennsylvania senator bests Romney by 29%-27% with Gingrich a close third at 22% and Paul not far behind with 19%. Given the difficulty in determining who will be attending the caucuses on Tuesday night, Minnesota could very well be a surprise as any one of the challengers could catch lightening in a bottle and temporarily derail Romney's march to the nomination.
Otherwise, later primaries in February do not bode well for the former speaker's chances. A Rasmussen poll released earlier this week shows Gingrich far behind Romney in Arizona 48%-24% while the news from Michigan is no better. The state where Romney was born and where his father served as governor back in the 1960s is giving their favorite son a comfortable 15% lead over Gingrich. Both Arizona and Michigan will hold their primaries on February 28 -- exactly one week before the Super Tuesday contests.
At his press conference on Saturday evening, Gingrich was still in a combative mood. He railed against Romney as a "George Soros-approved moderate," and accused Romney of running "the most dishonest, dirty campaign I've seen in American politics." Gone from the Gingrich campaign is any pretense that he is running a positive race. Gingrich said that he had no choice but to go negative due to the "level of ruthlessness and the level of dishonesty" by Romney.
Gingrich outlined a strategy that he says will allow him to catch up to Romney in the delegate count:
"Our commitment is to seek to find a series of victories which by the end of the Texas primary will leave us about at parity with Gov. Romney," Gingrich said. "And from that point forward, to see if we can actually win the nomination."
One thing is for sure; he can't keep losing primaries and caucuses by 2-1 margins and expect to stay close. He must have a breakthrough somewhere and the former speaker is pointing to Super Tuesday to give his campaign a needed boost and allow him to start clawing his way back into the race.
The March 6 gaggle of 10 primaries and caucuses will feature several states where Gingrich has a good chance to do well, including his home state of Georgia and the Bible Belt states of Tennessee and Oklahoma. If Gingrich plans on capturing any momentum going into the heavy part of the primary schedule where victories in some states are winner take all contests and will thus allow him to leap back into contention, he will need to beat Romney on Super Tuesday. Otherwise, his quest for the nomination will become even more of a long shot than it is today.
Perhaps just as importantly is what Gingrich is doing by leveling such harsh criticisms of Mitt Romney. Whether Gingrich will succeed in knocking Romney down a few pegs in order to get back in the race isn't as significant as the potential damage the former speaker is doing to the now likely GOP nominee in the run-up to the fall campaign. Perhaps the attacks will sharpen the ability of the Romney camp to respond to what promises to be vicious attacks by the Obama operation in the fall. Or they may hand the Democrats a playbook on how to run a successful negative campaign against their rival.
Either way, Gingrich will ignore the criticism and carry forward as long as he has a chance to win.
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