Saturday night was a big night for both the Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic caucus in Nevada and the South Carolina Republican primary are the moments when the primary season gets serious. New Hampshire and Iowa are small, unrepresentative states, but voters in these two states are bigger and cut across more diverse voting bases. And it was a very good night for both front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
In the South Carolina Republican primary, Trump was swiftly declared the winner, so far ahead that NBC felt comfortable declaring him the winner with less than 3% of precincts reporting. Trump's speech was predictably confident.
"Let's put this thing away and let's make America great again," he crowed, treating his nomination like an inevitability.
Trump isn't wrong to be confident. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia should have served as a reminder to Republican voters that this election is more than a loud-mouthed asshole contest, but has real stakes. As I argued earlier this week, Scalia's death should have been good for Cruz or even Rubio, both of whom could convincingly argue that they have the political experience and acumen to do something like nominate a proper conservative jurist to replace Scalia, whereas Trump, for all we know, would put his daughter Ivanka on the court.
Just as importantly, the Supreme Court is about to hear what may be the biggest abortion case since Roe v Wade, meaning that if ever South Carolina voters were going to put a priority on religious conservatism and the war on reproductive rights, this would be the time.
Certainly Cruz bet the farm that South Carolina voters were more interested in controlling the nation's vaginas than hearing grotesque stories celebrating fictional war crimes against Muslims. Cruz focused his South Carolina campaign on attacking Planned Parenthood and tried to paint Trump as pro-Planned Parenthood. It didn't help. Cruz didn't chip away at either Rubio or Trump's base of support in South Carolina. His inability to get an edge up suggests his campaign may not be long for this race, much to the relief of roughly every person who has actually met him. Instead, it's starting to look like Cruz is going the way of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee before him: A Bible-thumper who did well in Iowa, but can't get anyone in the larger states to care.
Establishment Republicans, such as this Rubio supporter, are clinging right now to the idea that South Carolina's too extreme to count as evidence that their candidate won't win.
President Gingrich is sitting in the Oval Office tonight thinking of a future Trump presidency after winning South Carolina. — Jacob Perry (@jacobperry) February 21, 2016
South Carolina did go for Newt Gingrich last election, suggesting their notoriously reactionary politics are getting even weirder and more out of touch with what mainstream Republican voters think, much less mainstream voters generally.
That said, it's not like Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz are really that different from Trump. If anything, but are more extreme. As Matt Yglesias at Vox points out, Trump may be willing to tell viciously bigoted stories about Muslims, but Rubio is far more eager than his orange-haired opponent to provoke unnecessary wars. And Cruz is just as much a right wing fantasist as Trump.
The only real difference between them is Trump is entertaining in his creepiness, whereas Cruz just makes you want to take a shower. Under the circumstances, it's hard to argue with Trump supporters. He's as awful as the competition, but he's funnier about it. When all other things are equal, you might as well be amused.
Trump still has unfavorable ratings that blow everyone else's out of the water. Which is why there's going to be continuing attention to both Cruz and Rubio's showing, as the hope lingers that Trump will still have some self-immolating event that takes him out of the race.
An ecstatic Rubio announced "we will win the nomination" to accept an extremely slim win over Cruz that landed him second place. He was helped in this assumption by Jeb Bush dropping out, finally, from the race. Instead of announcing his drop-out through his communications team, Bush, with very little fanfare, told his supporters at his primary rally that he was done. Now the assumption is that his base of support, which is about 5% of Republican voters, will mostly go to Rubio. It's not a lot, but with Cruz continually unable to really get a healthy lead over Rubio— much less Trump— that 5% will help Rubio make his case that he's ready to be there, should Trump's campaign finally implode.
Of course, that depends on the Trump campaign imploding. Which it hasn't done for the nine months that we've been hearing that it will, any day now. Rubio's own campaign was, until recently, betting that they'd get first in South Carolina and go on to win the nomination, a hope that's just gone up in smoke.
But hey, it's not like Rubio has anything else going on. I mean, he could return to D.C. and work as a senator, but he's already made it clear that he'd rather not. So he's probably sticking around, finishing behind Trump over and over, and pretending that means he's winning.
Across the continent, Bernie Sanders really needed to win the Nevada caucus. Despite some polls putting him ahead of Hillary Clinton nationally, both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics show Clinton maintaining the lead she's had for the entire primary race. A Nevada win, however, would have been a huge boost to Sanders, proving he could win over voters in racially diverse, larger states than Iowa and New Hampshire. It was also a testing ground for Sanders's performance in a union-heavy state, and the question of whether his focus on Wall Street and income inequality would win over these voters despite Clinton's heavy support from organized labor in the state.
Unfortunately for the Sanders campaign, he did not win, losing a tight race to Clinton.
"I want to be completely clear with you about what this result means: Nevada was supposed to be a state 'tailor made' for the Clinton campaign, and a place she once led by almost 40 points," Sanders wrote in a statement after the caucus was called. "But today, we sent a message that will stun the political and financial establishment of this country: our campaign can win anywhere."
But he didn't win Nevada, which undermines his point about being able to win "anywhere." This matters, because the next few rounds of the primary look like they're going to be punishing for the Sanders campaign. Clinton is ahead 24 points in South Carolina, who has their primary next weekend. She is leading by 28.5 points in the states that are voting on March 1, known as Super Tuesday. She's way ahead in states that have massive delegate counts, like Virginia, Texas, and Georgia. She's up over 40 points in the March 5 primary and 25 points on the March 8 primary. It's hard to imagine Sanders making up the difference in the next two weeks. Regardless of whether you support Clinton or Sanders, there was one result from Nevada entrance polling that should lift the hearts of liberals everywhere.
Clinton is running a more aggressively liberal campaign than she did in 2008. Part of this is no doubt due to pressure from the Sanders campaign. But it's also true that her campaign rollout, before Sanders announced, showed a candidate who was portraying herself in a more liberal light.
This polling data suggests why: The Democratic voting base is simply more liberal. In the long term, this shift in the base matters more than which candidate wins. Despite all the talk from the Sanders campaign about a political revolution, the truth is that political shifts don't come from on top, but ground up.
Seeing the ground shift to the left like this suggests that, when the Democrats have regained congressional majorities, they will be able to pass progressive legislation with more confidence that their voters have their backs.
As for the contest that matters the most — who pulled off the sickest burn on Twitter — the clear winner is Ken Jennings:
Oh so NOW Jeb Bush is willing to pull the plug when someone's on life support.
— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) February 21, 2016