Money, momentum and Mormons: these three factors gave Mitt Romney a convincing win in Saturday’s Nevada caucus.
Mr. Romney was long expected to roll to victory in a state where he captured 51 percent of the vote four years ago. The real contest was for second place, pitting Ron Paul against Newt Gingrich. As of early Sunday morning, the final vote count was not yet announced, though it was clear that overall turnout was down—the latest sign of a grassroots enthusiasm gap.
The one candidate who doesn’t have to worry about an enthusiasm gap is Ron Paul, who recently described his supporters with affection as an “irate, tireless minority.” Nevada was the first true test of Congressman Paul’s caucus strategy. It is, after all, a state with strong libertarian and libertine leanings. And the local Paul-ites started organizing here four years ago.
On Election Day, his Clark County headquarters in a mall storefront was a hotbed of activity, young people in suits and ties feverishly working the phones beneath an American flag and iconography of their aged hero. In the days before the vote, local polls had shown the Texas congressmen coming in a distant fourth place, but his supporters argued that these polls missed the largely young, cellphone dominant demographic, and they were vindicated at least by that standard; Rick Santorum was decidedly in last place.
The pattern for Ron Paul—the only candidate to have not yet won a primary or caucus—has been slow but steady: in each state he has increased the percentage of his 2008 vote, often doubling or tripling the amount. That’s not enough to win outright, but the caucus strategy depends on organized intensity, and it dovetails well with the proportional allocation of delegates that will dominate the next two months. His Nevada state director Carl Bunce told me that he believed they could deny Romney the 1,144 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination going into the Tampa convention. It is perhaps the one goal shared by the three non-Romneys.
Newt Gingrich’s super PAC sugar-daddy Sheldon Adelson is a casino mogul and Las Vegas resident. But the limits of Newt’s force of personality campaign were apparent here, even as he remained competitive due to media momentum two weeks after his South Carolina win. But in Nevada, there were few organized Gingrich events and even less organization on the ground. A scheduled meeting with the state’s popular Gov. Brian Sandoval was suddenly canceled by the Gingrich campaign, with no explanation given to the governor.
With little money left in the campaign coffers after the expensive 10-media-market contest in Florida, Newt is vowing to fight on to the Tampa convention, but it will be back to a guerilla campaign absent another cash infusion.
In contrast, the electoral momentum Mitt Romney took out of Florida is extending to other states, buoyed by his significant money and organizational advantage. He is the Chamber of Commerce candidate and the establishment is coalescing around him as the candidate most likely to beat Barack Obama. Beneath the “America’s Adult Disneyland” advertising, Las Vegas is a company town, first and last.
Nevada is also the first state in the nomination fight where Mormons make up a significant portion of the population. Latter Day Saints voters made up 26 percent of the total turnout—the same percentage as four years ago, when Romney won 95 percent of their votes and 51 percent of the total caucus support. The presence of a strong Mormon population in Colorado could help Romney there on Tuesday and especially in Arizona at the end of the month, a rare winner-take-all contest.
The cumulative effect of these three dynamics made Mitt Romney the unlikely king of Sin City on Saturday night, complete with a fired up crowd at campaign HQ, first serenaded by singer-songwriter Jon Kahn and a no apologies–inspired conservative campfire tune called “American Heart”—“I’m in love with her and I won’t apologize.”
When Romney took the podium the crowd went nuts, and he rewarded their enthusiasm with a hard-punching speech that took aim exclusively at President Obama. For all Romney’s reputation as the sober-minded, comparatively civil candidate, the scripted address featured plenty of red meat, call-and-response techniques and new one-liners like this: “This is a president who began his presidency by apologizing for America. He should now be apologizing to America.” And this: "Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy."
Romney seems to be trying to compensate for lingering conservative distrust with increasingly inflammatory anti-Obama rhetoric. It riffs off old narratives and packs a rhetorical punch rewarded by amped-up audiences, but much of it—in the infamous words of Sen. Jon Kyl’s staff—“is not intended to be a factual statement.” For better or worse, it is more talk radio than technocrat.
Beneath all the excited imposition of politics on the Sunset Strip there is an inconvenient truth that should trouble Republicans. Turnout was down overall, meaning that every state so far but South Carolina has seen a dip in voter participation—even with the GOP being the only game in town this election cycle. And while Romney’s win was strong, he did not exceed his 51 percent total from four years ago facing a far more competitive field. This is evidence of a significant enthusiasm gap at the grassroots that could spell trouble in the general election.
The road from here is a string of caucuses with proportional delegate allocation. It is a chance for the three non-Romneys to increase their delegate count and possibly get a win on the board. The fight for the far right between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum can be expected to get increasingly bitter, as Ron Paul concentrates on trying to drive up his percent of the vote and gain delegate support. But Mitt Romney’s combination of money, momentum, and organization is powerful, an electoral juggernaut that increases strength with every win.