Nevada Democrats and South Carolina Republicans will start resolving the most pressing political questions about the presidential race on Saturday when their parties hold the next round of what have become unexpectedly fierce nominating contests.
The Nevada Democratic caucuses are poised to reveal the breadth of support for Bernie Sanders among minority voters — or confirm that the Vermont senator’s popularity is largely limited to whites, as some Sanders advisers fear.
For Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote in the 2008 Nevada caucuses, a poor outcome would be an embarrassment that underscores her vulnerabilities as a candidate. A victory could be a reassuring sign that she remains popular among her base of minorities, women, union members, and middle-income Americans.
In South Carolina’s Republican primary, Donald Trump could prove that he has a credible path to his party’s nomination by demonstrating that Deep South conservatives will support a brash New Yorker who once held liberal views. Trump needs only to beat his five opponents to win the state, but if he takes far less than a majority of votes — 30 percent, say — then South Carolina will have sent a clear message to Republicans: The best way to stop Trump is to coalesce around one alternative candidate, or perhaps two, because Trump thrives when the vote is split among the crowded Republican field.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, both of Florida, will all face a reckoning if they cannot draw support from a sizable coalition of evangelicals, social conservatives, and establishment Republicans.
Nevada caucus precincts open at 11 a.m. (2 p.m. Eastern) and voting will start around noon, with initial results coming within the hour. The South Carolina polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern time.
Here are six key dynamics that could alter the presidential race by Saturday night:
A Big Test for Sanders
After a nine-month campaign, the moment has come for Sanders to show if his political message attracts the Hispanic and black voters who made up about 30 percent of Democratic caucusgoers in Nevada in 2008. Sanders advisers acknowledge that the senator cannot win the Democratic nomination unless he expands his predominantly white base of voters, and they worry he may not be gaining much ground among African-Americans so far.
Sanders has campaigned aggressively in Nevada, attacking Wall Street and promising a $15 minimum wage and a free public college education in remarks to racially diverse audiences. Clinton has also worked hard, courting Hispanic and black casino workers in Las Vegas in recent days.
A Sanders victory, coming after his big win in the New Hampshire primary last week, would give him momentum heading into the Democrats’ primary in South Carolina next Saturday — especially if black voters turn out for him in large numbers. African-Americans are expected to make up half of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina.
“If he gets a lot of support in Nevada from Hispanics but not African-Americans, that may be a great sign for him in Western states, but a great sign for Clinton in Southern states,” said Michael Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
A Fresh Start for Clinton
Clinton lost big in New Hampshire. She lost among women, working-class white voters, young people, liberals and moderates. Nevada, in turn, appears custom-made for a Clinton victory. She is popular with minority voters, more widely recognized than Sanders, and has a strong political organization that prevailed in Nevada eight years ago.
But the lead she held for months in Nevada polls has narrowed, and Clinton advisers say she could win by a lot or a little — or even lose to Sanders, which would be a big upset. Nevada will show if Clinton’s pragmatic message of building on President Barack Obama’s legacy is enough to rally voters to her side, and whether her political vulnerabilities were merely a New Hampshire phenomenon or could threaten her in South Carolina and beyond.
“If Clinton can win Nevada by five, six, seven points, she’ll do fine in South Carolina, and most Democrats will conclude that she will be the nominee,” said Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist on presidential campaigns. “But if she loses Nevada, South Carolina becomes her firewall and the stakes go way up. And if Sanders can make it a close race in South Carolina, then he shows he can keep picking up delegates and the campaign goes on for a very long time — even into June and the California primary.”
Still, even if Clinton loses the popular vote in Nevada, Clinton advisers believe that she and Sanders will closely split the 23 pledged delegates up for grabs in the state’s four congressional districts, based on the mathematical formula used by Nevada Democrats. She might even lose the vote but come out ahead in pledged delegates, as Obama did in 2008.
Clinton has focused on the concerns of African-Americans recently while her campaign has questioned Sanders’ commitment to fighting for black people. She has taken advantage of the fact that he is less well known among black voters than she is, even though he has been one of Congress’s most liberal members for a quarter-century.
Sanders has continued to assail Clinton for taking six-figure speaking fees from Wall Street banks and firms. If Sanders wins Nevada and a good share of black voters, some allies of Clinton say her campaign surrogates — including former President Bill Clinton — could turn sharply negative against Sanders and try out a stronger message to galvanize black support for Clinton in South Carolina and the Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday, March 1. If Sanders loses Nevada, he may increase his own attacks in the days ahead because his path to the Democratic nomination will be narrower without a win in the caucuses.
Trump and Evangelical Voters
Trump is a thrice-married Democrat-turned-Republican who once supported abortion rights, a billionaire casino owner who, he says, has never asked God for forgiveness. Yet some national polls show him leading among evangelical voters. If Trump wins a healthy share of the religious vote in the South Carolina Republican primary, as he thinks he can, it would be a stunning triumph that shows he could compete vigorously across the South on Super Tuesday. Evangelical voters made up 65 percent of the voters in South Carolina’s Republican primary in 2012.
Solid evangelical support would also increase Trump’s chances of capturing most or all of South Carolina’s 50 delegates. The winner of the primary will receive 29 delegates; the other 21 will be allocated among the candidates who win in each of the state’s seven congressional districts.
Trump simply needs to get a plurality of the vote in every district to win all the delegates, a task made easier by having five other Republicans competing in the state. While some South Carolina polls have shown a tightening race, Trump said in a recent interview that he is confident of a strong victory, which political analysts believe could put the nomination within his grasp.
“If Trump proves the pollsters wrong and gets over 30 percent of the vote, I think he’s unstoppable. He’ll bulldoze his way through the South on Super Tuesday and start cleaning up winner-take-all states in mid-March,” said Brent F. Nelsen, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina. “But if he falters and loses to Cruz—or wins by 2 or 3 percent—this will be a tight race going forward.”
A Course for Cruz
Cruz’s path to the Republican nomination is through the South and America’s heartland. He won a narrow victory over Trump in the Iowa caucuses, but he has been trailing in South Carolina and trying to beat back Rubio, who is aiming for a second-place finish. If Cruz loses the primary and a good number of evangelical voters turn to Trump, he could leave with few if any delegates and shaky prospects in several Super Tuesday states where the electorate is similar to South Carolina.
Cruz needs to pick up sizable numbers of delegates in the South because his opportunities may be more limited in delegate-rich states in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast where many Republican voters are more moderate than he is.
“The signs are that Cruz’s organizational advantage among evangelicals is not likely to produce the same results in this primary as they did in the Iowa caucuses,” said Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman. “If this pattern carries beyond South Carolina, his base is too small to sustain an effective candidacy.”
Whither the Establishment Republicans?
Bush is running out of money and, it appears, out of time. After losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, he has been campaigning to win in South Carolina. If he does not finish well, he will face a chorus of supporters and other Republicans urging him to drop out of the race.
Another establishment Republican, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, has been campaigning there but appears prepared for a modest-to-poor result. He could also face pressure to drop out, but after his strong second-place finish in New Hampshire he has sounded determined about continuing to hunt for delegates in some of big primary states in March.
Rubio looks capable of stitching together portions of major Republican voting blocs: evangelicals, business people, supporters of the military and mainstream conservatives. He will also put the political power of South Carolina Republican leaders to the test, given that several prominent officials — Gov. Nikki R. Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, and Rep. Trey Gowdy — have endorsed him. With evangelical voters split among several candidates, Rubio is counting on voters who respect Gov. Haley and the others to support him in hopes of thwarting Trump and increasing Rubio’s chances in the other Southern contests to come.
“These are powerful endorsements that will likely influence the decisions of some voters in the state in favor of Rubio,” said Kenny J. Whitby, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. “The candidate with a strong showing will have the momentum going into the Super Tuesday contests in a couple of weeks.”
The Republicans and Democrats will switch places next week, with the Nevada Republican caucuses on Tuesday followed by the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday.